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Illegal logging report gets Liberia's attention -- forestry chief suspended

Global Witness

The advocacy group Global Witness says this photo was taken last July and shows timber logged with "private use permits" in Liberia.

Even before a report came out Tuesday alleging that illicit deals gave a quarter of all of Liberia to foreign logging companies, Liberia’s president suspended her forestry chief and promised to investigate.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf tried to get ahead of the report, which alleges that the country's "private use permits" have been usurped over the last two years to allow commercial logging. 

"The private use permits have been considered in the past to assist communities in terms of job creation, in terms of support and benefit, but the truth is, we are finding out also, that it has been abused and it is unacceptable," Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown said in comments reported by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Moreover, the head of Liberia's Forestry Authority, Moses Wogbeh, is under investigation into an allegation that he violated a moratorium on land permits for commercial logging, presidential spokesman Jerolinmek Piah told The Associated Press on Monday.  

Wogbeh was suspended from his post over the weekend and Liberia said it would bar illegally-logged timber from being exported. 

The advocacy groups Global Witness, Save My Future Foundation and Sustainable Development Institute produced the report.

"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 groups said in a statement.

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 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.

The advocacy group added that some of the deals appeared to have been backed by forged documents. "When presented with a letter written in his name submitting his people's deed to the government, a Paramount Chief (clan chief) from the Dugbeh River Private Use Permit area in Sinoe County told us that the letter was forged," Global Witness said.

Land deeds in Liberia require a presidential signature.

In another deal, Global Witness said, the deed bore the signature of former President Edwin Barclay, but was dated six years before he came to power.

Johnson Sirleaf, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her work for women's rights, has been facing growing criticism for failing to root out government-level corruption as the country begins potentially lucrative iron ore exports and explores for oil offshore.

Last month she suspended her son from his position as Deputy Central Bank Governor as well as 45 other government officials for failing to declare their assets to anti-corruption authorities, a move observers said was intended to show she is serious about fighting graft.

The president has been criticized for nominating three sons to high level posts in her administration - the one at the central bank, one at the national oil company, and one at the head of the country's national security agency.

Logging has been a controversial issue in Liberia since the civil war, when rebels used proceeds from timber to purchase weapons, triggering a U.N. ban. The ban was lifted after Liberia's foreign partners, particularly the United States and the World Bank, helped it reform its forestry laws. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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