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More Evidence Emerges FDA Permitted Illegal Timber Export

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Top: The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) permitted West Water Group (Liberia) to export 797 logs in March. However, over half of the consignment was illegally harvested. The DayLight/Derick Snyder

By James Harding Giahyue and Derick Snyder

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part of a series on the Forestry Development Authority’s approval of illegal timber exports. 

  • In February, the FDA’s log-tracking computer LiberTrace red-flagged 413 logs in West Water’s consignment with multiple problems. Yet the Forestry Development Authority ignored the warnings and approved the shipment.
  • The FDA dismisses DayLight’s initial investigation of the illegal export as an “intentional misinterpretation” of the facts
  • But DayLight traced some of the illegal logs back to the stumps of the trees from which they were harvested, supporting LiberTrace’s findings
  • A relook at the LiberTrace analysis found several discrepancies, indicating a cover-up
  •  Last year, West Water did not have a valid harvesting certificate, FDA’s records reveal
  • The illegal approval reduced government taxes on the logs and encouraged unsustainable logging and impunity

GAYEPUEWHOE TOWN, Grand Bassa County – Last month, a DayLight investigation uncovered the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) approved the export of 797 logs (4,702.679 cubic meters) valued at an estimated US$1 million for a company.

The investigation was based on an analysis of the consignment generated by the FDA log-tracking computer system or LiberTrace. The report cited a screenshot of LiberTrace’s history of West Water Group (Liberia) Inc.’s logs. 

Details of the red-flagged logs appeared on the export permit and a National Port Authority document. That proved the FDA did not ensure West Water corrected the issues LiberTrace raised before sanctioning the export.  

West Water had harvested the logs in the District Three B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa County, where the Chinese-owned company has a 15-year logging contract with villagers. The logs were loaded on the MV Tropical Star, a cargo ship that left Liberia on March 16 and arrived in China on May 26, according to the vessel information provider Marine Traffic. Satellite images show cranes offloading the logs.

The second part of this series found that West Water owed the community forests in Bassa and another in Nimba over US$100,000, a violation of a payment regulation.

The FDA dismissed the investigation, calling it an  “intentional misinterpretation” of the facts, and an alleged smear campaign.

But additional evidence gathered from three visits to the forest and interviews with villagers knowledgeable about West Water’s operations corroborates the first investigation. Also, a relook at the LiberTrace analysis and other documents provided additional clues.

The DayLight traced several of the problematic logs to the stumps of trees from which they were harvested, using identification tags from the LiberTrace document. Once reporters matched the tag of red-flagged logs in the document to stumps, they measured the corresponding stumps with a tape rule, videotaping the process.  

For instance, reporters traced one tree tagged “AF402RXT” that was red-flagged for multiple problems, including its size. When the reporters measured it, the reporters found the diameter of the tree was 65 centimeters. That is 10 centimeters less than the figure on the export permit and 15 centimeters less than the FDA-approved size for that species, dahoma (Piptadeniastrum africanum).

‘We will be the loser’

Unlike the tree stumps, reporters faced no difficulty in finding other pieces of evidence of undersized logs. A sea of immature logs with West Water tags decorated the forest and the roads leading to it.

A stump of one of the logs LiberTrace red-flagged for being unauthorizedly felled, undersized and other things. The DayLight/Emmanuel Sherman

Villagers, including those knowledgeable about West Water’s operation, said undersized logs were a normal thing there.

“I saw many trees that did not reach the complete diameter and they harvested them,” said Isaac Doe, a villager and an ex-West Water worker.

“If they keep cutting the under-diameter trees, we will set up [a] roadblock and stop them,” said Isaac Jimmy, an elder of that region.

“We will be the loser when they continue felling young trees,” added James Kawee, one of the community forest leaders.

Evidence of undersized logs lay bare in the forest but hid in plain sight in the LiberTrace analysis. When reporters took a closer look at the document, they made a stunning discovery.

Of the 413 problematic logs, 217 were below their harvesting sizes, known in forestry as the diameter cut limit. A total of 266 had been harvested without the FDA’s approval, the sources of 46 logs were unknown, and 55 had no GPS coordinates for tracking purposes. Each log had multiple legality issues.

All of the problematic logs were harvested in two weeks between late January and mid-February, during the post-elections transition.

There were five rounds of harvesting. The first occurred on January 29 with a mammoth 251 logs. It was followed the next day with 11 and the day after 25. Harvesting resumed on February 12 with 106 logs and the following day with 10.

Some villagers said they witnessed West Water felled and transported the wood at night. Their accounts are consistent with LiberTrace, which shows some felling occurred between 8 pm and 9 pm.

“I want the government to implement their rules and regulations to stop them,” said John Flomo, an elder in Paygar Town, one of 14 towns and villages that own the forest.  

Reporters filmed West Water trucks transporting logs at night on a major route during their third visit to the forest. FDA’s regulation on timber traceability prohibits nightly transport of logs on public roads. West Water did not respond to queries for comments on this story.

Undersized logs adorned West Water’s contract area of the District Three B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Emmanuel Sherman

LiberTrace is a crucial component of timber traceability or the chain of custody system. Meant to prevent illegal wood from entering domestic and international markets, the system traces logs from their origins to their final destinations. The European Union and the United Kingdom funded LiberTrace.

But that was not all the evidence The DayLight gathered. The investigation found that West Water did not have a harvesting certificate when the felling took place. The one Merab shared with The DayLight was not signed by then Managing Director Mike Doryen or a deputy.

The invalid certificate ran from March to September last year and the valid one runs for the same period this year. Once more, this proves that all 413 logs West Water harvested in January and February this year were illegal, even by the FDA’s lowered standards.

A portion of the District Three B&C Community Forest in Wee District, Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/Philip Quwebin

That likely explains why LiberTrace red-flagged the dates all the 413 problematic logs were felled. It also appears to explain why the FDA’s legality verification department (LVD) provided a flawed breakdown of LiberTrace’s warnings.  

“Out of 797 logs, 50 percent are traceable with red label because of diameter…,” Gertrude Nyaley, the Deputy Managing Director for Operations, who was the technical manager of LVD at the time of the export, handwrote the document.

“Based on the above results, we recommend that West Water… export permit be issued.”

Nyaley reduced the magnitude of the issues LiberTrace highlighted. The computer had listed up to 13 legality issues with the logs, including unauthorized harvesting.

The LiberTrace screenshot of the logs’ history shows West Water requested the export several hours before conducting the last harvesting.

Christian Barh, an LVD staff, rejected the request on February 19, 2024, by 3:03 PM, citing “major traceability errors.”

From L-R: FDA Managing Director Rudolph Merab approved the illegal timber, based on Deputy Managing Director Gertrude Nyaley’s advice. The DayLight/Harry Browne

The next day, Barh accepted the request and passed it on to Theodore Nna, SGS’ forestry project manager. SGS is a Swiss verification firm that built and powers LiberTrace.  Nna okayed the request less than 48 hours later. Rudolph Merab would approve the illegal export in one of his first acts as the Managing Director of the FDA.  

Nna flouted SGS’ sustainability standards by endorsing the export. The standards ensure traders and users that the timber they trade or use comes from sustainably managed forests, according to SGS’ website. Nna did not respond to emailed queries for comment on this story.

Cover-up exposed

Merab claims the errors and warnings were usual, and that some of them were corrected. “After log yard verification and physical scaling, the log will be exported,” Merab told The DayLight in a letter. “It’s a normal occurrence and we are open to [verifying] such an occurrence with you the DayLight.” 

Those comments are not backed by facts. The export permit spec, which details the information on each log in the consignment, shows the issues were never fixed.

“[Merab’s] explanation is in line with the SOP but in contradiction of the action on the export permit approved,” one chain of custody expert, who prefers anonymity over fear of retribution, said.

“If and only if measures were taken to do the timber yard correction, this action could not reflect in the approved export permit.”  

The expert was referencing LVD’s standard operating procedures (SOPs), which require errors corrected at different levels, not only during export. For instance, the FDA’s felling SOP requires LVD to ensure a company corrects any errors LiberTrace catches upon felling.

Several documents the FDA provided contain inconsistencies, suggesting they were forged as part of an all-around cover-up.

One document is dated 2019 and 2024, listing Nyaley as head of LVD. Nyaley was the technical manager of the community forestry department that year, appointed to LVD in 2022. And West Water did not have a contract in Grand Bassa or anywhere in 2019, at least not a direct one.

Another document puts West Water’s export (3,275 logs) above its production (2,782). That is a difference of 493 logs.

Unlike for the initial investigation, Merab did not respond to The DayLight’s queries for comments on this story. He did not grant the newspaper’s access to West Water’s contract and harvesting maps, guaranteed under various legal provisions. The FDA had said it would not return future questions from DayLight regarding export permits.

A screenshot of LiberTrace’s history of the 797 logs shows the FDA some of the trees were still standing when West Water requested to export them. It took the FDA’s legality verification department less than 48 hours to approve the request after rejecting it over “major traceability errors.”

By approving the export, the FDA violated its laws.

Cutting trees without authorization and harvesting undersized logs constitute a fine per the FDA’s confiscated logs regulation. A violating company faces a fine of two times the value of the illegal logs and a public auctioning of the wood. That means West Water would have paid more revenue for the March export.

Jonathan Yiah, the lead forestry campaigner at the Sustainable Development Institute, criticized the FDA for not confiscating the logs and undermining LiberTrace’s credibility.  

“Focusing on enforcement,” Yiah said, “will demonstrate and ensure both revenue generation and sustainable management and harvesting of our forest resources.”

[Emmanuel Sherman and Philip Quwebin contributed to this report]

The story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

FDA Lets Loggers Ship US$3.5M Logs, Denying Villagers’ Share

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Top: West Water has a 15-year contract with District Three B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The company is indebted to the owners of the forest but was allowed to export timber. The DayLight/Derick Snyder

By Emmanuel Sherman and Gerald Koinyeneh    

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a series on the Forestry Development Authority’s approval of illegal timber exports. 

TONWEIN, Nimba and GAYEPUE TOWN, Grand Bassa – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) permitted a company to export several consignments of timber while the firm was indebted to communities where the logs were harvested, a violation of a forestry regulation.

From June last year to March 2024, West Water Group (Liberia) Inc. shipped seven loads, totaling 3,275 logs or 18,683.309 cubic meters, FDA’s records show.  The shipments are valued at an estimated US$3.5 million, based on the FDA-approved prices and details of logs in the consignments.         

Yet West Water owes Blinlon Community Forests and District Three B&C in Grand Bassa and Nimba Counties over US$100,000, according to the leaderships of both community forests. The debt—approximately three percent of the estimated value of the exports—includes fees for land rental, harvesting, scholarships, and health services.

“The money from those logs that were shipped has not come to the community,” Jeremiah Gayepue, the head of District Three B&C leadership, told The DayLight. “The people are suffering.” West Water did not respond to queries for comment.

The FDA’s approval of the exports violates the  Regulation of Forest Fees, requiring West Water to make all outstanding payments before shipment or harvesting.  

The exports came to the spotlight after a DayLight investigation found half of the logs in the March consignment had been illegally harvested. The FDA denies the report, saying the newspaper “misinterpreted” the export dataset.

‘[Get] them out’

In July 2020, West Water signed a contract with locals to operate the 39,409-hectare Blinlon Community forest in the Yarwin-Mehnsonnon District near the Nimba-River Cess border.    

The contract mandates West Water to pay the community yearly land rental, harvesting and scholarship fees.

However, as of last month, the company owed the community over US$32,000, based on an interview with Junior Jacobs, the head of Blinlon’s leadership. The DayLight could not update that information at press time due to the lack of mobile phone connectivity in that part of Nimba.

Things are worse in District Three B&C, where West Water harvested four of the seven consignments of logs it exported.

The new Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) Rudolph Merab approved one of the exports for West Water Group (Liberia) Inc., while the company owed community forests in Nimba and Grand Bassa Counties. The DayLight/Harry Browne

West Water signed a contract with the Grand Bassa villagers about a year after it sealed the Blinlon deal.  The new contract covers 24,862.5 hectares along Grand Bassa’s borders with Nimba and River Cess.

West Water owes District Three B&C nearly US$80,000, according to The DayLight’s calculation, based on interviews with the community forest’s leaders.  It has outstanding land rental, harvesting, scholarships and health services payments.

These outstanding payments and other issues have sparked two protests this year, the latest last month. Locals set up roadblocks and prevented West Water’s workers from going into the forest as the company has always been indebted to them.

“If the company is not meeting its obligation we will revoke their documents to get [them] out,” Alex Bonwin, a member of the community forest leadership, said.


Created in 2007, the Regulation on Forest Fees is one of several reform provisions to ensure forest resources “directly benefit local communities and the government.”

Jonathan Yiah, the lead forestry campaigner at the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), blames West Water’s persistent indebtedness to the communities on the failure of the FDA to enforce the regulation.

Jeremiah Gayepue, the chief officer of the District Three B&C Community Forest in Grand Bassa County. The DayLight/ Emmanuel Sherman

Yiah said the lack of enforcement of the regulation would lead to the termination or suspension of West Water’s contract. 

“If the current government of Joseph N. Boakai means business, then forestry laws must be enforced in totality so that both the government and the communities can benefit from our resources,” Yiah told The DayLight.  

Yiah is not the only person to have said this.

A World Bank report released last month calls on the Liberian government to prioritize forest communities by managing forestry resources sustainably for peace and prosperity. The report found that climate change will push 1.3 million people into poverty and reduce the size of Liberia’s economy by 15 percent by 2050 if nothing is done.

‘Very repressive’

The FDA dodged queries for comment on its failure to enforce the Regulation on Forest Fees. The agency disclosed that the company also owed the government US$59,319.50, which also breaches the regulation.  

“Yes, we confirm that West Water has tax liabilities,” Merab said in a letter to the newspaper. “However, [the Liberia Revenue Authority] is the lead determinant of tax obligation.”

Merab is a staunch opponent of forestry laws and regulations.

In an interview with the African Report in 2015 after Liberia signed a US$150 million deforestation deal with Norway, he claimed that logging’s legal regime had impoverished rural communities.

West Water’s camp in Tonwein, Nimba County. The DayLight/Gerald Koinyeneh

During his induction as Managing Director of the FDA, Merab aimed a dig at the crafters of the legal framework for creating laws “that cannot work.”  

He stated that in a recent interview with the Associated Press, adding he would work to scale back regulations.

“Sometimes regulations become too cumbersome and it stifles productivity,” he said in the interview. “Same thing with laws. Sometimes the law becomes very repressive.”

FDA Approves Export of Illegal Timber Valued Nearly US$1M


Top: In one of his first acts after being appointed Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority, Rudolph Merab signed an illegal export of 797 logs for West Water Group (Liberia) Inc.  The DayLight/Harry Browne

By James Harding Giahyue

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a series on the Forestry Development Authority’s approval of illegal timber exports.  

MONROVIA – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) approved the export of 797 logs, valued at an estimated US$923,441,  despite being aware that over half of the timber had been illegally harvested. The illegal shipment was one of the first acts of Managing Director Rudolph Merab—a serial logging offender—since he became the unlikely head of the forestry regulator.  

The export permit and a National Port Authority reconciliation report show that West Water Group (Liberia) Inc., which operates in Grand Bassa and Nimba Counties, owns the shipment.  Merab had approved the export barely two weeks after his appointment in February, according to the permit.

The 4,702.679 cubic meters of logs were loaded onto M/V Tropical Star, a ship flying under the Malaysian flag. The vessel departed the Port of Buchanan on March 16 bound for China. Marine Traffic, which provides information on the movement of ships,  reports that the ship is due in China on May 16Wenzhou Timber Group Co. Ltd, the Chinese state-owned firm that deals in timber and other trades, bought the consignment, according to the permit.  

But an analysis of the consignment FDA’s computer system generated by, obtained by The DayLight, identified 401 logs, or 50.3 percent of the consignment as illegal logs.  The LiberTrace system tracks logs from their origin to their final destination. Programmed automatically to flag noncompliance, it is a crucial part of forestry reform following years of corruption and mismanagement. SGS, a Swiss verification firm, created LiberTrace in 2014 and turned it over to the FDA five years later.

This pie chart analyzing West Water’s illegal timber export that was approved by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA)

A document from the FDA’s legality verification department (LVD) provides a peep into how Merab approved the export. It reveals Gertrude Nyaley, the Deputy Managing Director for Operations, who headed LVD at the time, endorsed the export.

“[Managing Director Merab], please approve [West Water’s export permit] as per the analysis and payment made,” Nyaley wrote to Merab.

Nyaley appeared to have skipped the red flags LiberTrace raised. “Out of the 797 logs, 50 percent are traceable with red label because of diameter [issues]. Two percent is also traceable relating to species. And 48 percent over tolerance,” Nyaley added.   

On the contrary, the analysis shows that the FDA had not authorized the harvest of some of the logs. Others were either immature, originated from different sources or had other issues, violating several forestry statutes.


The FDA had not approved the harvesting of 180 of the 401 problematic logs, according to the Liber Trace analysis. 

Of that 180, 160 logs were ekki wood (Lophira alata) that did not meet the legal diameter ekki wood is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a UN-recognized body that promotes sustainable use of natural resources. The DayLight manually verified the permit that details each of the logs exported. Some even measured 60 centimeters, 20 centimeters less than the required dimension, known in forestry as the diameter cut limit.

No penalties

Approving the West Water shipment shows Merab, an outspoken critic of forestry regulations, ignored various legal frameworks, and the violations LiberTrace flagged. The main function of LiberTrace is to keep illegal logs from the FDA’s chain of custody system, which covers everything from harvest to export. That, in turn, rids national and international markets of illegal timber and timber products.

Unauthorized harvesting, cutting smaller trees,  and false declaration of tree species all carry a fine or a penalty.  Unauthorized harvesting, for instance, carries a fine of twice the value of the species of logs unauthorizedly felled, under the Regulation on Confiscated Logs, Timber and Timber Products. Mr. Huiwen, West Water’s owner, did not respond to email and WhatsApp queries for comments.

The Forestry Development Authority authorized the export of 797 logs for a company called West Water barely two weeks after Rudolph Merab was appointed Managing Director of the FDA.
A screengrab of LiberTrace’s analysis of, yellow-highlighting problematic logs in West Water’s consignment

SGS, which comanages LiberTrace alongside the FDA, reviewed the permit but did not disapprove it. 

Theodore Aime Nna, SGS’ forestry project manager, did not return questions for comments on this story. Nna said he was “not currently around” and would be available in 18 days for an interview. Nna, who took a swipe at The DayLight in two immediate emails, did not reply to the newspaper even 21 days thereafter.  

‘Major traceability errors’

In his response to The DayLight’s queries on Wednesday, Merab said the red flags LiberTrace raised did not “automatically point to traceability or legality issues,” and were, in fact, “normal occurrences.”

A West Water camp in Nimba County. The DayLight/Gerald Koinyeneh

Merab said the 12 logs that were different from the one declared during inventory might have been mistaken. “The logs recorded in that specific export permit are consistent with the approved physical logs,” he said, without any evidence.

On undersized logs, Merab suggested that the logs LiberTrace red-flagged in this category were based on tree inventory data, not the ones that were felled or in West Water’s log yard.

This likely mix-up is commonplace in forestry. However, the details of the logs on the export permit do not support Merab’s explanation. The document repeats the very things LiberTrace identified as a warning or an error. If the log data had been verified as Merab claimed, the changes would have been reflected on the permit’s spec.

Merab offered another broad, textbook justification for the ekki logs LiberTrace picked up as immature.

“This happens because logs have a conic shape with a bottom diameter higher than the top diameter. In the case of a crosscut of that log, the diameter and the length will reduce mainly at the top part of the initial log. Again, these are normal occurrences,” he said.

What Merab referenced is called the diameter at breast height cutting limit or DCL in the Guidelines for Forestry Management Planning. But it only measures a standing tree’s trunk or the tree butt end, not the top end or a crosscut log. It is measured at the height of an adult’s breasts.

Furthermore, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) which writes the bible for the global wood trade describes ekki logs as cylindrical, not conical.   

Merab sidestepped the question regarding the FDA’s disapproval of the felling of a significant amount of West Water’s logs.  

A screenshot from LiberTrace detailing the history of the status of West Water’s 797 logs

But, remarkably, The DayLight obtained a LiberTrace screenshot detailing the history of the status of the export permit. It reveals that the FDA approved the export permit less than 48 hours after LiberTrace identified the “major traceability errors.” For an agency perennially plagued by financial, logistical and manpower constraints, that was too short a time to correct hundreds of legality issues surrounding the consignment.

A Serial Forestry Offender  

The West Water illegal export has added to Merab’s profile as a serial forestry offender.

His last known illegality was his participation in the infamous Private Use Permit Scandal in which his company Bopolu Development Corporation (BODECO) was illegally awarded 90,527 hectares of forest in Gbarpolu in the 2010s.

Before that, Merab traded “blood timber” alongside former President Charles Taylor, which fueled death and destruction in the Mano River basin between the 1990s and early 2000s, according to British NGO Global Witness.

The Regulation on Bidder Qualifications partially debars Merab and other wartime loggers from conducting forestry activities in Liberia, except if they meet special requirements. It, however, is unclear whether the regulation blocks Merab from heading the FDA.

[Gerald Koinyeneh of FrontPage Africa and our editor-at-large Emmanuel Sherman contributed to this report]

To get the estimated value of logs, The DayLight multiplied the total volume of each species of logs in the consignment by the FDA-approved price and summed up the products.

Boakai Picks Illegal and Anti-Regulation Logger For FDA


Top: Rudolph Merab, the new Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority. Picture credit: The Liberia Timber Association

By James Harding Giahyue

  • President Joseph Boakai over the weekend nominated Rudolph Merab as Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA). Merab is an illegal logger and a critic of regulations and conservation efforts
  • Merab and ex-President Charles Taylor were business partners. Militiamen and ex-combatants guarded Merab’s Liberia Wood Management Corporation (LWMC) in the early 2000s, according to Global Witness
  • Bopolu Development Corporation (BODECO), another company Merab is associated with, participated in the biggest postwar logging scandal  
  • Merab is an outspoken cynic of regulation and conservation, things the FDA was established to enforce and promote
  • Boakai has known Merab for over 50 years and served as chairman of the board of directors of one of Merab’s companies

MONROVIA – President Joseph Boakai has appointed Rudolph Merab—a wartime business partner of ex-President Charles Taylor, whose company participated in Liberia’s biggest postwar, logging scandal—as the Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA).  Merab is an outspoken cynic of conservation and postwar regulations, key pillars of forestry reform.  

Boakai, who was inaugurated last month with a promise to fight corruption and uphold the rule of law, appointed Merab on Saturday following a month of speculations.

It is unclear whether Merab meets the legal requirements to head the FDA due to his well-documented illegal logging activities during Liberia’s deadly civil wars between 1989 and 2003. His company, Liberia Wood Management Corporation (LWMC), was the subject of international reports and was an issue during ex-President Taylor’s war crimes trial.

FDA’s Regulation on Bidder Qualifications partially debars wartime businesspeople such as Merab, who held a forestry contract before 2006, from conducting logging activities.

The regulation requires wartime loggers to file a sworn statement with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), admit their illegal activities and cooperate with the FDA to recover funds the government lost due to their illegal activities. However, the regulation is silent on whether or not a wartime logger is eligible to head the agency.

Also, Merab, who has a degree in physics, does not meet the educational qualifications for the job. The FDA Act requires the head of the agency to be “professionally educated in forestry.”

Campaigners had called on Boakai to respect that clause in the FDA act as part of his expressed quest for respect for the rule of law.  

Rudolph Merab (standing behind President Joseph Boakai) and other alumni of the College of West Africa. Picture credit: Facebook/Ernest Bruce

“At this present state of Liberia’s forestry industry, it needs someone with the necessary skills, contact, and connections… to turn the forestry sector around… beyond mere logging,” communities affected by logging contracts said in a statement last week.

“The sector is at a critical juncture, as numerous initiatives have failed to meet expectations over the past six to 10 years,” the statement added.  

Boakai’s relationship with Merab goes way back. They met at the College of West Africa, with Boakai graduating in 1967 and Merab five years thereafter. Boakai later served as chairman of the board of directors of LWMC, sources, including Boakai’s campaign website, show.

Merab declined an interview with The DayLight.

Merab, the wartime logger

LWMC was founded in 1988 with Merab’s 10 percent share among a list of shareholders that included his late brother Edward Merab. It held a contract for Grand Cape Mount and Lofa. By the end of the Second Liberian Civil War (1997 – 2003), LWMC valued between US$500,000 and US$1 million and had about 300 workers, according to international investigators.

LWMC’s properties in then-Lower Lofa, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount Counties were protected by ex-combatants and armed militiamen, Global Witness reported. Within the first six months of 2000 alone, LWMC exported 12,810.062 cubic meters of logs, according to FDA records.

In 2001, Merab told an American publication that LWMC shipped small Liberian timber to the United States. Oriental Timber Corporation (OTC), the forerunner of Taylor’s timber and arms trafficking syndicate, exported to the United States.

Between 1999 and 2003, LWMC owed the government over US$1.3 million, according to a report by the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI).  The Taylor regime waived the amount, according to an email thread linked to the Ministry of Finance. Then Minister of Finance Nathaniel Barnes told a legislative inquiry that the regime had waived Merab’s arrears “to save 300 jobs.”

Rebels of the Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), which had launched an armed incursion against Taylor, attacked LWMC’s premises in Gbarpolu in the 2000s.

The rebel told United Nations personnel they wanted to discourage Merab from doing business with Taylor, according to a 2001 UN Security Council report. The UN would sanction Liberian timber adding to a string of arms embargoes against the country.

A review of the forestry sector in 2005 found, “At least 17 logging companies either supported militias in Liberia, participated in, or facilitated illegal arms trafficking, or aided or abetted civil instability.”

The review found that all forestry concessions, including LWMC’s, had been illegally awarded. This prompted President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to cancel all the existing forestry contracts in 2006. Her administration awarded new contracts, a precursor for the lifting of the UN sanctions that same year.

At his war crimes trial in 2010, prosecutors at the Special Court for Sierra Leone cross-examined Taylor on an accusation that he channeled money through Merab to rebels in Sierra Leone. Taylor denied the accusation but was eventually found guilty of running arms and smuggling diamonds with the Sierra Leonean rebels. He is serving a 50-year sentence for his role in that war, which killed some 70,000 in Sierra Leone.   

An estimated 250,000 people died in Liberia in wars that were fueled by a scramble for logs and other natural resources, the TRC said. Unlike Sierra Leone, Liberia has yet to address crimes committed during its wars.

Merab’s Postwar Illegal Deeds

Bopolu Development Corporation (BODECO), another company Merab owns, was involved in the Private Use Permit (PUP) Scandal of 2012 in which 2.5 million hectares of forestlands were illegally awarded to logging companies.

A government-backed inquiry found that BODECO was awarded 90,527 hectares in Bopolu District, Gbarpolu County, the fifth-highest area of the 66 illegal permits.

Locals in Henry Town, a popular mining community were among several whose hopes were dashed by BODECO in the PUP Scandal. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

BODECO did not have the financial and technical capacity to conduct logging in Liberia, the inquiry found. The permit was issued in BODECO’s name while the Korninga Chiefdom had submitted the application.

BODECO and the FDA also violated requirements of the permit. The permit is issued only for forests on private lands. However, investigators found that Bopolu was communal land, not private.

“Both FDA and BODECO knew or should have known that they were executing a contract with material falsehood…,” investigators said.

Following the inquiry, BODECO’s and the other 65 permits were revoked and a moratorium imposed on the forest contract remains in place. Moses Wogbeh, the FDA Managing Director who oversaw the scandal, was dismissed and prosecuted.

BODECO failed to provide a school, roads, harvesting and land rental fees, and  a clinic, leaving hundreds of logs to rot.

George Ballah Sumo, the Paramount Chief of Korninga Chiefdom blamed Merab and other BODECO executives for dashing the hopes of locals.

A cynic of regulations and conservation

Wartime logging and the PUP Scandal aside, Merab is an outspoken critic of forestry regulatory regime and conservation. Forestry has the most regulations in Liberia, while the conservation is one of the pillars of the sector’s reform agenda. 

BODECO left hundreds of logs it harvested with its illegal private use permit (PUP) Gbarpolu County to decay. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Merab’s appointment comes at a time of rising violations of forestry laws and regulations. Illegal logging, unsustainable harvesting practices and disregard for communities’ rights are commonplace. A recent review of the sector found 11 concessions illegal and the FDA complicit in the illegalities.  

In a 2015 interview with the African Report, Merab said sustainable logging had not been achieved due to “taxation and restrictive legal regime.”  

“Since the new logging restrictions, most of the rural economy has ceased, impoverishing the rural areas,” Merab said in the interview.

Merab also criticized a deal between Liberia and Norway in which Liberia received US$150 million to halt deforestation. Merab argued that the agreement hurt investors, businesspeople, and logging employees. He promised to campaign against it on grounds that loggers were not consulted, comparing it to the Sirleaf administration’s decision to cancel his and other logging contracts back in 2006.

“We Africans got to think outside the box,” Merab, the president of the Liberia Timber Association up to his appointment, told FrontPage Africa in 2017.  “The neo-colonial issue cannot continue to affect us,” he said. “You got to learn to stop letting people fool us.  They’re the ones exploiting us, especially Norway.”

[Additional reporting by Charles Gbayor and Esau J. Farr, Sr.]

This story is a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).