Acting Justice Minister Benedict F. Sannoh told a Ministry of information organized press conference yesterday that the actions of FDA have jeopardized Liberia's conservation goals and the ability of Liberia to meet its obligation under international conservation and biodiversity programs.
“The failure of the FDA to issue the Regulations…is the most significant underlying cause for the reckless and illegal manner in which PUPs have operated over the past few years,” the Acting Justice Minister declared, adding, “as of date, FDA has issued 63 PUPs totaling 2.5 million hectares representing 23% of the land area of Liberia.”
President Sirleaf, following receipt of the report late last year, has taken a string of hard decisions including dissolving the FDA board and while the Managing Director of the entity Moses Wogbeh remains suspended since August.
PUPs, as part of Liberia's post war forest reform to conform to international standards, were intended for private land landowners who would want to convert their land to other uses.
To allow for this, Section 5.2(a) of the forestry law authorizes the FDA to issue PUPs, but only to Private Land Owners or persons duly authorized by the land owner in writing. Section 5.2(a) in very clear and unequivocal language, mandated that before any PUP is issued to any person, the FDA must establish standard qualifications by Regulation (the “Regulations.”), and that the applicant for PUP must be the Land owner or that has a written permission from the Land Owner to undertake commercial activity.
Sannoh said the mandate to FDA under Section 5.2(a) of the National Forestry Reform Law (2006) to issue Regulations was intended to provide clarity, consistency and objectivity in the interpretation and implementation of the provisions of the law, but the government's forest agency dismally failed in the exercise of this responsibility—thus the problem.
The ongoing scenario started in January 2012 when the NGO Coalition sent a letter to the Management of FDA raising concerns of the alarming rate and scale of PUPs, and the flaws in the issuance of Pups.
In response to the allegations, the FDA Board of Directors, effective as of February 2012, placed a moratorium on the issuance of new PUPs, and halted activities under all existing PUPS. Notwithstanding the moratorium, timber felling under PUPs still continued unabated.
President Sirleaf, therefore, on August 5, 2012, reaffirmed the FDA's Moratorium, and proceeded in September, 2012, to establish a Special Independent Investigation Body to investigate allegations related to the issuance of Private Use Permits by FDA.
The President has dissolved the board of the FDA and threatened dismissal, suspension and prosecution of any one criminally involved in the controversial PUP saga.
Speaking after a consultative meeting with the Ministries of Justice, Lands and Mines, Finance and the Land Commission, President Sirleaf asserted that she remains committed to protecting the people and ensuring that the country's natural resources are used to benefit the country and communities in which those resources are found.
“It is very clear, from this report, that while the introduction of PUPs was meant exclusively for private landowners, the process was abused by investors, government employees and community leaders. This cannot and will not be allowed to stand. Punitive and corrective actions will be taken to ensure that this situation is not repeated,” She is quoted as saying by an Executive mansion release.
In an effort to comprehensively address the legal, social, economic and administrative implications revealed by the report, the President further directed that the moratorium in effect on PUPs will continue, and any person or business in violation thereof will be prosecuted and penalized in accordance with the law.
The President said a Special Prosecution Team will be established at the Ministry of Justice for the exclusive purpose of prosecuting all violations of the law in relation to PUPs by government officials, PUP holders, community leaders, logging companies and others and that activities of ALL logging companies that are also engaged in PUP activities are hereby suspended until the moratorium is lifted.
“Appropriate administrative actions, including dismissals, will be taken against all government employees across every agency and ministry with connection to the forestry sector, that are named in the report to have taken some inappropriate or unauthorized action in relation to the granting of PUPs,” [and that] With immediate effect, the Board of Directors of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) is dissolved and will be reconstituted,” the President noted.
Among others, the President said a full audit of the FDA will be conducted as well as a full review of the legal and regulatory framework governing the management of community forest and private user permits to ensure that the intended reforms of the forestry sector, as embodied in the National Forestry Reform Law and the Community Rights Law, can be assured.
A National Inventory Team, the President said, will begin an inventory of logs across the country. Logs harvested in contravention of the moratorium or under PUPs will be subject to appropriate legal action to include confiscation and public auctions. Proceeds will be used to settle tax obligations to government and to benefit communities affected by PUP abuse.
Sannoh said the President's action is a clear demonstration of her commitment to comprehensively address the root causes of the PUP saga with the view not only to prevent its repetition and to have those responsible held accountable and brought to justice, but also to ensure that the use of the Liberia's forests are consistent with law and the national forestry reform strategy that the Government has adopted.
“It is not the desire of this government to ban all logging activities. However, the Government is committed to the proposition that no logging activity will be allowed in this country that is in violation of our national laws, and let there be no mistake, this Government will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, any and all persons and entities whose conduct as described in the report constitute a violation of the laws of this country,” he warned.