New Liberia Forest Boss Plans To Increase Exports, Denies Working With War Criminal Charles Taylor

(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)
(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

Liberia, West Africa’s most forested country, has a long history of illegal logging, which the country's regulator, the Forestry Development Authority, has repeatedly struggled to confront.

So it raised eyebrows when Rudolph Merab, whose companies were twice found to have engaged in illegal logging, was recently appointed to lead the FDA. One of Merab's companies was also mentioned in the trial of Charles Taylor, a former Liberia president who was convicted of war crimes during the civil war in neighboring country Sierra Leone.

In an interview with The Associated Press, for the first time Merab answered questions about his past and detailed his plans for managing Liberia's forests, promising to increase timber exports and cut regulations.

“Commercial logging has always helped the country,” said Merab, interviewed by phone in late April, adding that more sawmills were needed so freshly cut trees could be processed within Liberia before being exported.

Liberia, a country of more than 5 million people, is bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast, and has a long coastline along the Atlantic Ocean. Despite a recent past that includes civil war and chronic problems with illegal logging, much of its tropical forests remain lush and intact.

Merab implied that twice as many trees could be felled compared to Liberia’s previous peak without endangering its rainforests, which are home to West African chimpanzees and endangered forest elephants. The highest previous annual timber exports from Liberia were 1.4 million cubic meters (1.83 cubic yards), he said, whereas 3 million cubic meters (3.92 million cubic yards) would be sustainable. That would be the equivalent of about 1,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with wood.

Last year, the AP revealed $3 million of timber had been illegally logged under the FDA’s then managing director Mike Doryen. He presided over a shadow system for illegal log exports in which up to 70% of timber was exported off-the-books, a dossier compiled by the U.K. Foreign Office said. Doryen has denied wrongdoing.

The United Kingdom and European Union, both major donors to Liberian forest conservation, hoped a change in government would bring about a new era. Ex-president and former footballer George Weah, who appointed Doryen and refused to sack him despite sustained diplomatic pressure, was voted out of office last year. That meant a new boss of the FDA.

President Joseph Boakai's February appointment of Merab has been met with criticism by environmentalists. Requests to the president's office seeking comment on Merab's appointment were not answered.

“Fifteen years ago, there was real hope that a newly reformed Liberian forest sector could become a shining example of how to manage tropical forests legally and sustainably," said Sam Lawson, founding director of nonprofit Earthsight and a timber expert who trained new FDA staff when the organization was reformed in the 2000s. “This latest news is the nail in the coffin of those hopes.”

As president a trade group, the Liberia Timber Association, Merab strongly criticized a $150 million deal between Liberia and Norway that aimed to protect remaining forests. He argued it threatened the logging industry and said he would leave “no stone unturned” in challenging it.

A logger since the 1980s, one of Merab’s companies, Liberia Wood Management Corporation, came up in the trial of Taylor, convicted for aiding rebels during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Taylor's activities were part-funded through the sale of what was dubbed “blood timber.”

While being tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Taylor was accused by prosecutors of channeling support through LWMC to the rebels, something the former president denied. A 2001 U.N. report said LWMC was attacked by opposing rebels “to discourage them from doing business with Charles Taylor.”

Merab told the AP that he had “engaged” with the Taylor but gave no details. LWMC did business with the Republic of Liberia, not with Taylor, Merab said.

“I never engaged in arms trafficking. I was one of those who was affected by this,” said Merab. “We never participated in the war, we never supported any members of the war.”

Merab also took issue with determinations by previous governments that his companies had been involved in illegal logging. In 2005, a Liberia government review found LWMC’s sizable logging concessions were illegal. The company's contract didn’t comply with the rule of law or labor laws and had tax arrears of $1.4 million, the review found. The company’s concessions were subsequently canceled.

The findings were “completely incorrect,” said Merab. “From the time I started logging, I worked within the confines of the law.”

Merab said there was no court judgement finding illegality, but rather an executive order from then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made without proof. Merab said some taxes were owed but it was a smaller amount than alleged.

In 2012, a scandal hit another of Merab’s companies, Bodeco. A government investigation found its contract had “many inconsistencies” and was “void for illegality.” Bodeco had more than 90,000 hectares (347 square miles) worth of logging permits revoked.

The company “knew or should have known that they were executing a contract with material falsehoods,” the review found.

Merab said that Bodeco’s concessions were awarded by the government, which then backtracked, and due process was not followed in cancelling them.

“If the government of Liberia gives something,” he said, “and later on because they felt under pressure they said ‘No, (they) were illegal,’ who’s at fault?”

As forest chief, Merab said he would work to scale back regulations.

"Sometimes regulations become too cumbersome and it stifles productivity,” he said. “Same thing with laws. Sometimes the law becomes very repressive.”


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