Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first woman to win a presidential election in Africa when she gained Liberia’s leadership in 2005.
The Harvard-educated economist has been widely praised for rebuilding Liberia after a devastating civil war that claimed perhaps 250,000 lives. Liberia is one of five countries where Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative aims to improve public administration and service delivery.
Yet Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf’s government has given logging companies the right to deforest 10,079 square miles of Liberia, an area totalling 23.4 per cent of the entire country, according to Global Witness, a campaign group.
The regions set aside for clearance include 45.6 per cent of Liberia’s primary rainforest, the largest surviving ecosystem of its kind in West Africa. Deforestation rights have been granted in the form of 66 “Private Use Permits” (PUPs) which place minimal obligations on the companies involved, according to Global Witness.
The new licenses “contain no sustainability requirements,” said the campaign group, and would allow companies to clear “almost half of Liberia’s primary intact forests”. The PUPs “provide much less revenue to the government than other types of logging licenses” and “violate Liberia’s new laws designed to ensure that communities can control their forests”.
Local communities have agreed to allow their forests to be cut down in return for compensation. But Global Witness said the sums involved were “paltry”, noting that the international price for Liberian tropical hardwood is around $200 per cubic metre, while the payments to local people have ranged between $1.50 and $3 per cubic metre.
“Liberia is often lauded by the donor community as a country that got it right,” said Jonathan Gant from Global Witness. “In many respects this is accurate, but this legal crisis in the forest sector threatens to undo its fragile progress.”
Two companies—Atlantic Resources and Alpha Logging—have been the biggest beneficiaries of the permits. Both have “significant corporate ties” with Samling Global, a Malaysian logging company. In 2010, the Norwegian government’s pension fund disinvested from Samling after finding that the company had carried out illegal logging in the Sarawak area of Borneo.
Last month, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf “suspended” Moses Wogbeh, the head of Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority, who had signed the PUPs. A statement from her government said an “independent” investigation would examine the awarding of permits—and promised that no more would be handed out until this was complete.