Logging COI composition highly questionable
The issues relating to illegal logging in Vanuatu was first reported by the Daily Post Editor Dan McGarry in its February 21st Issue in 2018. It highlighted that locals from Santo had reported witnessing 120 containers full of high-priced rosewood being exported to China within just a month.
On 6th of March 2018, then minister of Agriculture, Matai Seremaiah issued a Prohibition of the Export of Blue Water Slabs. This came in Order N0. 87 of 2018. Between the month of May and June 2018, Santo Conservationist Steven Quito sighted Chinese Traders loading rosewood logs into containers in Luganville Santo.
On 12th September 2018, C4J wrote to the Director of the Department of Forestry to explain what was happening as a direct infringement of the Prohibition Order issued by the then Minister of Agriculture Matai Seremaiah.
In early August 2018, C4J received information from VATHE Conservation Management Committee that illegal logging in Santo had spilled-over to the Conservation area.
C4J Investigators started monitoring and tracing Bluewater and Natora logs being harvested illegally inside VATTHE Conservation area and sold to Chinese traders in Luganville Santo and Port Vila. The logs had apparently been weighed, inspected and tallied by Forestry officers in Santo who knew quite well that the logs were harvested illegally at the VATTHE Conservation area. They also knew that these activities were unlawful according to the provisions of the Forestry Act and the Conservation Act.
On 12th of August 2018, the then Director of the Department of Environment Mr. Ridley Tari appointed two C4J investigators to investigate the illegal logging activities within VATTHE Conservation area.
Mr. Willie Pakoa, C4J’s senior investigator was appointed as lead investigator. An investigation report was then completed and filed with the office of the Public Prosecutor thereafter. Since then the report is still pending before the Public Prosecutor, which raises a lot of questions as to whether something will ever be done about the unlawful activities.
The VATTHE illegal logging investigation had recommended that C4J request the Minister of Justice to appoint a COI into illegal logging activities especially infringements under the Forestry Act. The C4J team led by its former Director, Russel Nari and Legal Officer Hamlison Bulu (current Vanuatu Ombudsman) first met the then Minister of Justice Don Ken during the month of December 2018, requesting an appointment of a Commission of Inquiry.
Around the month of July 2019, Steven Quinto and the C4J Senior Investigator met the former Minister of Justice Don Ken, and amongst other things, raised the issue of illegal logging. The Minister then requested if a full report of the allegations could be compiled and provided to him to be tabled before the Council of Ministers.
A report was prepared but this was not presented to until early May 2020, when the C4J team finally met the current, Minister Esmon Simon and presented the report to him.
On the 22nd day of January 2021, Minister Simon appointed the COI Team. It has taken C4J much time and resources to finally achieve this result. Two 2 years to be exact.
C4J was indeed delighted when its Senior Investigator was also appointed as a member of the COI into the alleged illegal Logging activities in Vanuatu. However, it is also very important that the integrity of the Commission of Inquiry must be protected so that it carries out its duty independently and impartially. We have come a long way and we still have a duty to ensure that the COI performs according to its SOP and according to the law.
After three weeks into the inquiry, members of the Commission raised a point of conflict of interest and that C4J as the complainant and its Senior Investigator as the author of the report could not sit in as a member of the Commission of Inquiry.
Mr Pakoa respectfully resigned after observing a few important points. One was that a former Director of the Department of Forestry was also appointed. Mr Livo Mele was appointed as the Secretary to the Commission.
However, his former position as a Director of the Department of Forestry and him being a good friend of the Chinese Traders and his friends in the Forestry Department in Santo could compromise his position and duty for the COI.
C4J deems that a conflict of interest is highly probable and that his appointment should therefore be immediately revoked to protect the integrity of the Commission of Inquiry.
On 15th of February 2021, C4J wrote to the Minister of Justice to revoke the appointment of Livo Mele as the secretary of the Commission of Inquiry into the alleged illegal logging activities in Vanuatu.
C4J Investigators have found that Livo Mele is a good friend of the Chinese Traders and a house was built by the Chinese who are involved in timber trading for Livo and his family. The house is built on Livo Mele’s custom land in South Santo.
If the COI Report is to be tabled before Parliament then its integrity must be protected.
C4J urges the Minister of Justice to revoke Mele livo’s appointment immediately to protect the integrity of the Commission of Inquiry. C4J will continue to monitor and may decide to take further actions.