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'Fleecing the Forest' - The PUP Scandal and SDI's Investigation into Illegal Logging

(Part One)
Published : 4 February, 2016 | Updated : 26 July, 2016

Logging, and who benefits from it, has played a critical role in modern Liberia. It's been a source of income for the country and its people, but it's also been a source of conflict. For years, the benefits of logging flowed mostly to well-connected elites in Monrovia and the European logging companies that they partnered with. During Liberia's civil war, logging was a critical funding source for rebel groups, in particular Charles Taylor's. The case can be made that Taylor's departure and resignation was directly linked to the United Nations passing timber sanctions on the country, which starved his government of funds they were using to purchase arms.


For the government, logging is an invaluable means to acquire funds relatively quickly. Whereas top-heavy agriculture and mining investments can take years before revenues start to flow, logging can cycle quickly. Trees are felled, cut, and shipped in a matter of days, and payments theoretically follow shortly thereafter. For most of Liberia's history, these payments went straight to government accounts -- public and private -- and the communities that lived in the forests saw relatively minimal benefits. A modest road improvement here, a few jobs there, but nothing lasting that permanently bettered the lives of people who lived inside the forest.

In 2006 the government of Liberia passed the National Forestry Reform Law. Prior to this law, harvesting of timber on private land was either done through a process where the government issued permits, or it was considered illegal. Debate about how to allow private landowners to legally extract or to permit private companies to extract timber on their own land led to the creation of a special category of logging permits - called 'Private Use Permits,' or PUPs. 

The idea was that if someone had a valid deed for a plot of land in a wooded area, they could either extract the timber themselves or sign a deal with a logging company to extract and export the timber on their behalf. Under this type of permits, the government wouldn't really get much of the revenues, but after all it was private land, and the sense was that the contracts would be limited in size and hence the money that changed hands would be light.

What the drafters of the law couldn't predict was that this tiny provision in the law would pave the way for abuse of power at the highest levels of government, and eventually lead to one of the biggest scandals in post-war Liberia. Nor did SDI know that it would play a crucial role in exposing the scandal.

SDI's first clue that there was trouble with PUPs came in 2011, when during a routine mission to the field they noticed logs being harvested in an area that hadn't been officially allocated as a logging concession by the government. When they asked what legal basis the company had to be cutting down the trees, they were told that it was the site of a 'Private Use Permit.'

After staff members uncovered evidence of two additional PUPs, and concerned about whether the government understood what was happenening, they reached out to the Forestry Development Agency in Monrovia. In a letter to the FDA, they asked for clarity on the legal basis by which the PUPs had been allocated. Moses Wogbeh, the managing director of the FDA at the time, responded that procedures had been followed and there was nothing to be concerned about.

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Jonathan Yiah of SDI Initial Inquiry to FDA about PUPs
31st May, 2011

SDI spotted some suspicious logging activities in 2011 that prompted some investigation and questions to the FDA about the validity of these permits as more and more companies seemed to be popping out of the woodwork with logging permits.

 

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Source

Jonathan Yiah of SDI Initial Inquiry to FDA about PUPs

31st May, 2011

SDI spotted some suspicious logging activities in 2011 that prompted some investigation and questions to the FDA about the validity of these permits as more and more companies seemed to be popping out of the woodwork with logging permits.

 

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Source
FDA Responds to Jonathan Yiah's PUP Inquiries
8th June, 2011

SDI sent an inquiry to the FDA, on May 31, 2011, attempting to gather information on all Private Use Permits (PUPs) that had been issued to date.

Official response from the FDA to SDI (Jonathan Yiah):

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Source

FDA Responds to Jonathan Yiah's PUP Inquiries

8th June, 2011

SDI sent an inquiry to the FDA, on May 31, 2011, attempting to gather information on all Private Use Permits (PUPs) that had been issued to date.

Official response from the FDA to SDI (Jonathan Yiah):

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Attachment 01
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J. Yiah Follows up with FDA Regarding PUP
8th June, 2011
*Please check date. Might be 2011-08-08.

Jonathan Yiah of SDI follows up with the FDA after their response to his initial inquiries unearthed additional issues/questions around: * the pre-qualification for entities wishing to log under Private Use Permits (PUPs) * land management plan

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J. Yiah Follows up with FDA Regarding PUP

8th June, 2011
*Please check date. Might be 2011-08-08.

Jonathan Yiah of SDI follows up with the FDA after their response to his initial inquiries unearthed additional issues/questions around: * the pre-qualification for entities wishing to log under Private Use Permits (PUPs) * land management plan

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Unconvinced, and concerned about the enormous size of the three PUPs that the FDA admitted it had signed, SDI kept digging. Then, a break: an anonymous whistleblower from inside the FDA send a letter to SDI. The letter listed an additional 14 PUPs, and warned of "scandal on a scale that could bring shame to the [government], and worst, possibly lead to civil conflict." The same letter, SDI later learnt was sent to the President. Clearly, there was more to the story than Wogbeh was willing to admit.

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FDA Whistle Blower Report on PUPs
1st January, 2013

Attached is a whistle blower complaint about the PUP scandal involving the FDA’s management. Also a list of all PUPs assigned to Atlantic Resources.

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Source

FDA Whistle Blower Report on PUPs

1st January, 2013

Attached is a whistle blower complaint about the PUP scandal involving the FDA’s management. Also a list of all PUPs assigned to Atlantic Resources.

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Shocked at the allegations made by the whistleblower, SDI asked the FDA to clarify whether the information was accurate in a letter, sent in mid-October. The response would take months to come. In the meantime, other NGOs in Liberia and Europe took note of SDI's worries and also began asking around for information. Staff at SDI along with other local NGOs wrote directly to President Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf, explaining the situation and pointing out that the government received little to no benefits from PUPs, nor would communities if indeed the forests in question were on their land. The President forwarded the letter to the FDA's board and asked them to investigate.

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Jonathan Yiah Requests Information from FDA on Specific PUPs
19th October, 2011

Jonathan sends a letter to the FDA asking questions about particular questionable PUPs:

1. People of Tienpo DIstrict (Grand Kru County)
2. People of Jloh (Grand Kru County)
3. People of Thiene District (River Gee County)
4. Tartweh-Drapo Resources Management & Development Committee – TDRMDC – (Sinoe County)
5. People of Dobli (Bong County)
6. People of Karloway #1 & #2 (Maryland County)
7. People of Bolloh, Dorbor & Fentoe (Grand Kru County)
8. People of Zota (Bong County)
9. People of Whrohn, Gibi District (Margibi County)
10. People of Lorla Clan (Bong County)
11. People of Doe’s Chiefdom (Nimba County)
12. Monica Cooper (Bong County)
13. People of Zodua Section (Grand Cape Mount County)
14. People of Zulo Clan (Bong County)  
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Source

Jonathan Yiah Requests Information from FDA on Specific PUPs

19th October, 2011

Jonathan sends a letter to the FDA asking questions about particular questionable PUPs:

1. People of Tienpo DIstrict (Grand Kru County)
2. People of Jloh (Grand Kru County)
3. People of Thiene District (River Gee County)
4. Tartweh-Drapo Resources Management & Development Committee – TDRMDC – (Sinoe County)
5. People of Dobli (Bong County)
6. People of Karloway #1 & #2 (Maryland County)
7. People of Bolloh, Dorbor & Fentoe (Grand Kru County)
8. People of Zota (Bong County)
9. People of Whrohn, Gibi District (Margibi County)
10. People of Lorla Clan (Bong County)
11. People of Doe’s Chiefdom (Nimba County)
12. Monica Cooper (Bong County)
13. People of Zodua Section (Grand Cape Mount County)
14. People of Zulo Clan (Bong County)  
FDA Response Filed
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Finally Wogbeh and the FDA responded in early January 2012, admitting that the whistleblower was correct and that in total, 24 PUPs had been authorized by the FDA. But, they claimed that it would be too difficult to give SDI documents related to them, partially because their printer was broken. So, an SDI staff member drove to the FDA, printer in the back seat, and requested to photocopy the PUPs and related documents, including the deeds that the applications were based on and the 'Tribal Certificates' (a document confirming community consent for land to be alienated and deeded to a private individual) that had been submitted along with the PUP application.

(Cont'd in Part Two)