Back to Story List

'Fleecing the Forest' - The PUP Scandal and SDI's Investigation into Illegal Logging

(Part Two)
Published : February 4, 2022 | Updated: October 24, 2022

What SDI found when they reviewed the PUP documents indicated that a massive fraud had taken place. Deeds had been altered to appear as though they covered much larger plots of land, people who had applied for PUPs were not listed on the deeds, and in one case they included signatures of people who had died long before the date when the deed was supposedly issued.

By this point, there was strong cause to believe that the deeds that had been used to issue the PUPs were doctored. Almost certainly, there was culpability at the highest levels of the FDA and other agencies that had signed off on the PUPs. A brief circulated by SDI publicly announced its initial findings, and its partner organization in the UK -- Global Witness -- got involved with the investigation as well.

Primary Source
NGO Coalition's PUP Brief
January 12, 2022

January 12, 2012 – letter and brief from the NGO Coalition of Liberia to the European Union on the threats posed to the Voluntary Partnership Agreement between Liberia and the EU.

View full report
Primary Source

NGO Coalition's PUP Brief

January 12, 2022

January 12, 2012 – letter and brief from the NGO Coalition of Liberia to the European Union on the threats posed to the Voluntary Partnership Agreement between Liberia and the EU.

Primary Source
FDA Management Response to NGO Coalition Concerns on PUPs
January 31, 2022

Detailed response to concerns raised by the NGO coalition.

View full report
Primary Source

FDA Management Response to NGO Coalition Concerns on PUPs

January 31, 2022

Detailed response to concerns raised by the NGO coalition.

Page 09
Page 08
Page 07
Page 10
Page 08
Page 01
Page 02
Page 05
Page 06

At stake was both the scale of the PUPs as well as the process. By some estimates, as much as 25 percent of the country's land mass had been given away to logging companies in the form of PUPs. A provision that had meant to enable small land holders to make a little bit of cash from the forest had been twisted into a rubber stamp for loggers to export massive quantities of valuable timber while giving nearly nothing back to Liberia or its forest communities. The procedures that the NFRL indicated would have to be carried out before PUPs were issued hadn't been followed.

It was hard not to think that money had changed hands somewhere in the FDA for it to allow such a massive fraud to have been perpetrated. 

Meanwhile, SDI, its partner organization Save My Future (SAMFU), and Global Witness had started carrying out investigations in the field to gain a clearer picture of what was happening with the PUPs on the ground. In the late summer, the trio released a detailed report, 'Signing Their Lives Away,' that described what the three organizations had uncovered.

The report made instant headlines, inside Liberia and across the world. What had begun in 2011 as a curious inquiry into one PUP became international news. The government looked incompetent at best, and at worst, actively corrupt. President Sirleaf called a senior SDI staff member on the phone to set a meeting. In the meeting, she expressed concern and asked for advice on how to move forward. SDI and its partners insisted on an independent investigation, and offered to help write the terms of reference for the panel.

President Sirleaf, embarassed over the negative publicity and looking to bring the scandal to a speedy resolution, accepted SDI's offer of help. A few days later, SDI sent over its proposed guidelines for the investigation, with a 90-day window for it to be carried out. A few hours later, her office contacted SDI to inform the organization that she had accepted the guidelines, with one change: instead of 90 days, she wanted it done in 60.

Primary Source
President Sirleaf's Special Investigation Team for PUPs
August 31, 2022

August 31, 2012

The President of Liberia sets up a special investigation team to review all the policies around the issuance of Private Use Permits. 

View full report
Primary Source

President Sirleaf's Special Investigation Team for PUPs

August 31, 2022

August 31, 2012

The President of Liberia sets up a special investigation team to review all the policies around the issuance of Private Use Permits. 

While the investigating panel -- dubbed the 'Special Independent Investigating Board' -- conducted its work, President Sirleaf signed an order calling for a complete moratorium on the operations of all logging companies in any existing PUPs. For the loggers, the golden goose had suddenly stopped laying its eggs. In response, they appealed to the legislature, claiming that President Sirleaf had overstepped her authority. Court cases were filed.

In December, the SIIB released its report. Its findings were scathing. Moses Wogbeh -- who had been suspended by the President while the investigation was carried out -- was cited for insubordination and gross misconduct. The report recommended that he be prosecuted, and that all PUPs be canceled. Companies like Atlantic Resources were recommended for a permanent ban on logging activities in Liberia. Communities had not been "justly compensated" for their land. 

Primary Source
Moratorium shuts down PUP concessions
January 4, 2022

The government has shut down more than 60 illegal forestry concessions after evidence was raised showing their lack of paperwork. This report contains the Order and the press release. 

View full report
Primary Source

Moratorium shuts down PUP concessions

January 4, 2022

The government has shut down more than 60 illegal forestry concessions after evidence was raised showing their lack of paperwork. This report contains the Order and the press release. 

The report was a massive vindication of the work that SDI and its partners had carried out over the previous year. Ultimately, Moses Wogbeh was sent to prison and most of the PUPs were canceled, although Florence Chenoweth, the Minister of Agriculture who had also signed off on the PUPs, was not sanctioned or disciplined. In all, 2.5 million hectares had been given out in the PUPs - an amount of land equal to roughly 1/5 the land mass of England. The country and its communities had been defrauded and ripped off by senior members of the FDA, in collusion with logging companies.


The investigation and the subsequent actions that were taken by the government were a victory for SDI's advocacy work, and a testament to the quality of its research. Without SDI's early intervention and rigorous questioning, it would likely have taken much longer for the scale of the fraud to have been exposed. In that time, millions of dollars worth of timber would have left the country and Liberia would have been left with what it's gotten in exchange for its resources too many times in its history: next to nothing.

Primary Source
Logs from PUP18 after Moratorium
March 10, 2022
View full report
Primary Source

Logs from PUP18 after Moratorium

March 10, 2022