The organisations were concerned about a steep increase in the government’s allocation of ‘private-use’ logging permits. These permits were designed to allow land-owners to cut trees on their own property, but big logging companies saw them as an opportunity to clear large areas of forest.
Compared with other permits, private-use permits have fewer sustainability restrictions and require loggers to pay lower fees to the government. It was a loophole that many companies were keen to exploit. By 2012, Liberia had allocated these permits to 40 percent of its forested land, an area half the size of Switzerland.
Civil society organisations argued that many of these permits appeared to be based upon forged documents and had been granted in dubious circumstances, without the informed consent of the communities that own the land.
Push for accountability
At the time, Liberia was on the verge of ratifying a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU. Under the VPA, Liberia would commit to exporting only verified legal timber products.
Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) Liberia claimed that the private-use permits were a threat to the credibility of the VPA. The problem was substantial. The Liberian timber chain of custody system showed that nearly two-thirds of Liberia’s timber exports in 2012 came from such permits, and that after China, France was the leading importer of Liberian timber.
The VPA process gave Liberian civil society an opportunity to challenge the allocation of private-use permits and expose the issue internationally. In response, in 2012, Liberia placed a moratorium on the issuing of new permits and suspended the felling or export of logs under those it had already granted.
Liberia also investigated the alleged fraud. Several forestry officials are now standing trial for their roles in the affair. Never before in Liberia have forestry officials faced court proceedings for forest crimes. Nongovernmental organisations such as Social Entrepreneurs for Development, Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU) and Sustainable Development Institute all believe this would not have happened without the VPA negotiations.