Under intense pressure from industry - including many familiar faces from the past - the Forest Development Authority (FDA) of Liberia has started to issue timber contracts . Yet key legislation on community rights - to ensure an equitable balance between community, conservation and commercial forestry - is still in draft . The rush to allow the operation of a timber trade with a poor track record of corruption and trampling on community rights raises the spectre of Liberia's forests once again undermining stability in this fragile country.
In the past Liberia's timber industry has fuelled conflict, widespread human rights abuses and destabilisation in West Africa. It is critical that those linked to the conflict are not able to operate in the forestry sector again. International organisations which have supported Liberia's post-war reforms in the forest sector commend the increased transparency, competition, and multi-stakeholder process adopted by the FDA in allocating the first six logging contracts. Now it is time to take stock, learn from the mistakes in the process to date, and treat these as a proving ground to demonstrate Liberia can make a clean break with the past. It is imperative the rule of law is followed, and seen to be followed.
However, the process to date has had its difficulties. Significant weaknesses were noted in the process of prequalification for those wishing to obtain logging permits , to which the Government of Liberia did not respond. And there is evidence the system for debarring those who have aided and abetted civil disturbances - is failing .
Above all, a proper implementation of the Community Rights Law is critically important. Before having clarified and codified who owns the forest, it is too early to allocate either concessions or conservation areas. The resumption of large-scale logging before this law is implemented will undermine the efforts of rural communities to develop and prosper, as they once again become dependent on the whim, and unequal negotiating power, of the timber industry. Liberia is well placed to learn from the experience of other countries in the region : in Ghana and Cameroon, for example, the longstanding failure to develop and implement an effective community role in the management of forest resources has exacerbated rural poverty, and at times led to conflict.
The Government of Liberia and the FDA have repeatedly stressed their absolute commitment not to return to the old way of doing business . We therefore call on the FDA to remain committed to treating the six initial contracts as a pilot, and withhold any further steps to allocate concessions until the Community Rights Law is properly implemented and issues raised by Liberian civil society in the prequalification process are fully addressed.