By Paul M. Kanneh
LIBERIA – A second Judicial Circuit Court in Grand Bassa County, on 13 January 2023 ordered Renaissance Group Incorporated (RGI) to designate a buyer for logs the company illegally harvested six kilometers outside of permitted concession area.
In its final ruling handed down on January 13, 2022, the Court, under the mandate of His Honor, Zuballah A. Kizeku said “In this direction, the FDA, as the government regulator of the forest sector, shall be ordered to determine or appraise the monetary value of the logs while the Petitioner (Renaissance Inc.) shall designate a buyer and sell the logs under the supervision of the FDA, all done under the umbrella, strong, and direct supervision of the Court”.
The Court said it based its ruling on Article 21 (h) of the 1986 constitution of Liberia which says “no person shall be subject of double jeopardy”. Under such law, a person is prevented from being prosecuted twice for the same crime.
It is recorded that the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) fined RGI US$105,000 after news of harvesting outside of concession areas by the company broke out in 2018. A report published in October 2021 by local civil society actors under the banner, Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (IFM-CM) put the losses of logging outside permit area at US US$2.5 million.
“This policy brief highlights evidence of approximately 14,000 cubic meters of ekki harvested in 2018/19, in the name of ‘road alignment’, under a permit that should have expired in 2012. Field investigations found signs that at least some of this was cut outside the permit boundary. Documents suggest at least 9,000 m3 were exported in 2019, a volume worth nearly US$2.5 million in the international market”, IFM-CM report said.
Although the Court ruling remains final, there are, concerns that such a blatant violation of the National Forestry Reform Law with a price tag of approximately US$2.5 million by a company should not be limited to “double jeopardy” even though the FDA was the one that created the fertile grounds for such illegal transactions by placing fines on a company that illegally harvested logs outside a permit area instead of out-rightly revoking the company’s license.
It also appears the company did not pay the community in the logging area their dues. Hence, an elder of the community, Samuel Gweh has expressed doubts over the company’s willingness to remit community shares of the proceeds from the illegally harvested logs, when allowed to sell the logs. Elder Gweh and scores of community members interviewed by the Liberia Forest Media Watch, on 15 January 2023 accused RGI of failing to implement promises made to the community.
“I want the government to be the one to sell the logs instead of the company because the company standing is not good, and it did not implement all the things it promised to do. But with government, we are certain that we will get some of our benefits, said elder Samuel Gweh.
If the logs are permitted to be exported under the current arrangement as mandate by the court, Liberia will be found to have breached the trade agreement (called the Voluntary Partnership Agreement) it agreed with the European Union in 2013 to ensure logs being exported are legally sourced. “Once the area of the concession doesn’t have forest resource license, that means the logs harvested are illegal and cannot and should not be permitted to enter the Chain of Custody, Jonathan W. Yiah of the Forest Governance Program at SDI said. A chain of custody is a detailed record that tracks all logs being harvested in Liberia.