By Richard Valdmanis
DAKAR, Sept 4 (Reuters) – Liberia‘s forestry department has given a quarter of the nation’s land to logging firms over the past two years in a flurry of shady deals now under investigation by the government, advocacy group Global Witness said on Tuesday.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, fending off accusations of graft and nepotism within her government, has suspended the head of the West African state’s Forestry Development Authority and launched a probe into the recent timber deals amid concerns of widespread fraud and mismanagement.
Global Witness said its research revealed that the scale of the deals marked a serious threat to the war-torn and impoverished country’s vast rainforests, as well as to the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on them.
“A quarter of Liberia’s total landmass has been granted to logging companies in just two years, following an explosion in the use of secretive and often illegal logging permits,” the group said in a statement.
“Unless this crisis is tackled immediately, the country’s forests could suffer widespread devastation, leaving the people who depend upon them stranded and undoing the country’s fragile progress since the resource-fuelled conflicts of 1989 to 2003.”
Corruption is seen as a big obstacle to development in Liberia, which remains one of the world’s least developed countries nearly a decade after the end of a 14-year civil war.
The government has been struggling to clarify land ownership issues across its vast forested zones, traditionally divided along ethnic lines.
Global Witness said about 26,000 square kilometers of land had been granted to timber companies through at least 66 so-called Private Use Permits – lightly regulated deals between timber companies and private land owners.
It said many of the deals made with individuals said to own the land were backed by land deeds held in the collective name of people of a district or clan who had little knowledge of the accords and would reap little benefit from the timber exported…Read more.