Last week Global Witness, the Save My Future Foundation, and Sustainable Development Institute released a report on how foreign companies in Liberia are using Private Use Permits to clear forests without abiding by laws meant to protect the environment and communities.
Private Use Permits are awful in practice. They require no competitive bidding and companies with these permits are not forced to comply with regulations meant to make logging sustainable. Further, the report documents forged deeds, including one that is dated 1924 and signed by President Edward Barclay, who was not yet president. In some cases community members are convinced their land has no deed, yet a Private Use Permit has been sold through a deed ostensibly held collectively by the community. The land is sold sometimes at less than 1% of what its value would have been through a competitive bidding process.
Many people are to blame, including Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth, who ordered a moratorium on Private Use Permits earlier this year, but then continued to issue them. Companies tied to Samling, a Malaysian logging firm with a horrible track record, now control 10% of Liberia’s land.
Sirleaf has responded, and has ordered an investigation into the permits. In fact one tangential takeaway from this report is that government officials have been fired for corruption related to logging. This is of course positive. But my suspicion is that Sirleaf is always the one to make this decision, a hunch based on many, many interviews on government accountability in Monrovia this summer. The power of the presidency in Liberia is stunning. Executive dominance is of course a problem in many African countries, but it is so extreme in Liberia. To give just one example from this report: “In Liberia, most [land] deeds must be signed by the President.”
This report, like all reports that involve Global Witness, is incredible. I am amazed at how researchers for this report wrote each sentence. Getting information in Liberia is so difficult, and yet they get so much of it. Short little sentences like, “Our investigation has identified 16 different companies holding Private Use Permits” mask what must be many interviews, much travel, and lots of digging.