An independent investigation into logging in Liberia’s rainforest found illegal operations “on a significant scale”, with multiple missteps or violations of the law by the government agency responsible for protecting these forests, according to a copy of the report obtained by the Associated Press.

The report was completed in 2020 but was never made public despite calls from activists to publish its findings, which included a recommendation to President George Weah to order a special investigation into what went wrong.

Four sources familiar with the report said Weah, who appointed the head of the forest agency, ignored repeated calls from ambassadors from the European Union, United States and United Kingdom to act on the report. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations without fear of reprisal.

In a phone interview with AP on Tuesday, Weah denied that he was repeatedly made aware of Liberia’s rainforest monitoring issues. But later in the interview he appeared to acknowledge receiving a letter of concern from the EU and UK ambassadors and said he had arranged a meeting on the matter.

“Whatever letter arrived, I arranged a meeting,” he said.

Liberia is West Africa’s most forested country, with rainforests covering around two-thirds of the tiny nation. It is home to endangered forest elephants, pygmy hippos and western chimpanzees. Since 2000, some 22% of the country’s forest cover has been lost to deforestation, largely due to pressure from logging and smallholdings.

After the discovery in 2018 of illegal logging of $3 million worth of tropical hardwoods in Grand Bassa County by a company called Renaissance Group Inc., Liberia’s Ministry of Justice commissioned a forensic investigation by international experts. The investigation focused on the role played by Liberia’s forestry agency, the Forestry Development Authority.

Investigators uncovered five illegalities by the FDA, which is partially funded by the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom. A “major failure” has been its management’s “persistent tendency” to make “unlawful decisions in assessing the seriousness of offences”, according to the report.

FDA Director General Mike Doryen was appointed by Weah, who was a former top professional football player before turning to politics. Under Doryen, the agency authorized the export of illegal timber, “apparently circumventing regulations”, investigators found. Extensions of the concession – the right to use the land – were “arbitrary” and “illegal”. In a “highly irregular” transaction, the payment was made to an unusual FDA bank account, according to the report.

When the alarm about the environmental destruction erupted, the FDA fined Renaissance just $5,000, “a small fraction” of what the company earned from the illegal activity. Although this amount was increased to $105,000 after criticism from a Swiss observer, the correct penalty under a 2006 law aimed at preserving Liberia’s forests would have been a fine of $1.85 million and possible jail time, investigators said. Even after Renaissance admitted illegal logging, Doryen approved more export permits, a “flagrant breach of duty”.

Doryen did not respond to requests for comment from the AP. But a written response from the FDA to the EU last November blamed the problems on “challenges of the past”, insisting that no rights to illegally mine had been granted. The FDA has taken corrective action on several incidents of illegal logging, she said, and two FDA technical officers have been fired for complacency.

The report urged the launch of a special presidential committee so that FDA management could “explain its actions.” 2022. Weah and his publicist, Smith Toby, declined to say if one had been created since then.

Four official sources familiar with the matter told the AP that Liberia had rejected diplomatic pressure for more than 18 months to resolve rainforest monitoring issues. In July 2021, the EU and UK ambassadors wrote a letter to the Liberian Minister for Presidential Affairs with demands such as the prosecution of offenders working for the company or the government and the banning of Renaissance. There was no response until March 2022 and these actions were not taken. The EU letter also called for the restoration of the rule of law in Liberia’s forestry sector.

The official sources said concerns were raised in person with Weah by an EU commissioner last February at an African Union summit, and again in September at a meeting in Monrovia attended by of several diplomats. In each case, Weah said he knew nothing about the investigation, the official sources said.

Weah told the AP that claims that he was repeatedly briefed on the concerns of donor countries were “absurd”.

When asked why Doryen was still running the FDA despite the report’s findings, he replied, “If someone has committed a violation, the law must take its course.”

In an interview, Laurent Delahousse, the EU ambassador to Liberia, declined to directly criticize Weah. But he said the EU wants assurances that illegal logging will end and that government bodies will operate to the highest ethical and legal standards.

“It’s a condition for us to be able to invest European taxpayers’ money in this sector,” Delahousse said.

Gemma Tillack, of the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network, said by email that such illegal logging and lax oversight were “all too common” and “unfortunately tolerated” by governments.

More investment is needed to tackle these harms, which lead to the destruction of precious rainforests, she said.

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