New Dawn for Liberia's 'Blood Forests'


By Richard Black

October 12, 2006

"You've heard of blood diamonds? Well, some have called the forests of Liberia the 'blood forests'," says Jordan Ryan.

We are sitting in his air-conditioned office high up in the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) building in the capital Monrovia. Outside, the screeching of taxi brakes and the cries of street vendors are just audible, the sounds of a city rediscovering the joys of life and commerce after two decades of brutal conflict; a conflict, unusually, fuelled by the pillaging of forests.

Timber was a key resource for Liberia's armed factions, most notably that of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor. Wood flowed out; money and arms flowed in. "The United Nations and member states considered it, and the Security Council and the Sanctions Committee of the UN ultimately said 'we're going to put a halt to the export of timber from Liberia in order to put paid to this past practice," recounts Mr Ryan, who as deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general is charged with UN efforts to reform forestry in the country.

The blocking of timber exports in 2003 brought an end to logging, and to Taylor, who fled the country and now awaits trial in The Hague on war crimes charges. Guus van Kouwenhoven, a Dutch businessman and member of Taylor's inner circle who ran the notoriously rapacious Oriental Timber Company (OTC), is already in jail for breaking the UN arms embargo. But three years on, with the economy struggling to find mechanisms for development, timber is seen as a tool for revival; a potential starting-point for new growth which could take the country back to the relative prosperity it enjoyed before the madness began.

The key is to build a sustainable timber industry without permitting its exploitation by unscrupulous politicians and businessmen who find opportunity in chaos and corruption.

Business concessions

The importance of forestry to the past and future of Liberia was demonstrated when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, elected President at the end of 2005, made her first executive act the scrapping of all timber concessions issued under previous regimes. So many concessions had been corruptly awarded that they totalled more than the land area of Liberia.

President and parliament have just passed a new forestry law aimed at rebuilding the industry with firm foundations, eliminating corruption, sustaining ecology and spreading wealth among poor Liberians who were denied a stake by companies like OTC.

"Sustainable forestry applies to nearly every area," says John T Woods, managing director of the Forest Development Authority (FDA), the government agency with responsibility for protecting and exploiting forest resources. "If it's conservation, we're going to maintain and sustain our protected areas so there's a minimum population impact on those protected areas." "We have to continue to enjoy the flow of benefits from forest resources in such a way that we are not consuming more than the forest can replenish."

Under the new law, the forests which cover between 30% and 40% of the country will be allocated to three types of management regime. Some areas will be protected, others given to community forestry, and remainder made available for commercial concessions. Those concessions will be allocated by competitive tender. Companies will have to be financially open, submit environmental impact assessments (EIAs) with their bids, log in accordance with ecological criteria and refrain from using security guards as private armies.

People with a history of involvement in war, corruption and malpractice are barred. Community involvement should bring income to the rural poor and slow the culling of trees for agricultural land, which is currently costing Liberia about 2% of its remaining forest cover each year. The law has led to the lifting of UN sanctions; and John Woods believes the first concessions could be allocated within 18 months.

Causes for concern

Given Liberia's past, you could be forgiven for thinking it all sounds too good to be true. And perhaps it is. Expertise and resources for the FDA are a huge concern, and the UN and huge swarms of international NGOs are desperately trying to turn this once moribund body into a modern, expert and principled authority.

The taxation system needs to work properly so that officers can be paid at a level which puts them above bribery. The same process has to happen with the Environmental Protection Agency, which will assess companies' EIAs. Its head Ben Turtur Donnie admits corruption may be a lure. "The temptation is going to be there because there are some companies that just don't want to see change," he says. "The wages here are lower than the wages that would not attract bribes; but where does that lead you, accepting a bribe because a company doesn't want to do an environmental impact assessment? "At the end of the day, that company might even be in your own village, where now people are affected with diseases, your uncle is dead, your children are dying, because of some $3,000 in your bank account; so we have to think twice, and we will try our best not to be corrupt."

Another reason for concern is that many of the old players remain active and powerful in the capital Monrovia. Prince Johnson, a sometime ally of Charles Taylor who subsequently formed his own armed faction and executed President Samuel Doe in 1980, is now a senator; Edwin Snowe, Taylor's former son-in-law, is speaker in the new parliament, the third most powerful office in the country. And parliament has amended the new law to give itself the right to veto logging concessions - a clear opportunity for bribe collection.

Many of the businessmen who gleefully raped Liberia's forests in return for favours are still there, looking after their other interests and keeping an eye on logging opportunities. The judiciary and police are going through their own processes of reform, and may not be independent enough to enforce the law against power-brokers.

Poverty fuel

Underpinning it all is poverty, with few citizens apart from the super-rich in their fortified Monrovia mansions earning more than US$2 per day. It is the need for income now which sees villagers making charcoal and bringing it to sell for cooking fuel in the cities where gas and electricity are rare and expensive. It is poverty which fires the burgeoning bushmeat trade, which the new forest law also aims to tackle.

In one of Monrovia's markets I spoke with a lady selling cuts of monkey and duiker (called deer locally). Half a monkey would cost me just 200 Liberian dollars (US$3.50), she told me; yet the trade generates enough to provide hunters, middlemen and market stallholders with income.

"Because of the lack of employment opportunity, people have to hunt to get money to feed their family and send their children to school," says Joseph Fully from the Society for the Conservation of Nature in Liberia (SCNL). "Right now, almost everything is hunted, from elephants down to even the baby monkeys, hippos, antelopes, duikers, even chimpanzees." Conservationists speak of "silent forests" where the animal noise that should be there is conspicuously absent.

Governance the key

For every seller of "blood timber" there was a buyer. And because of Liberia's precarious situation, it is with future buyers that Art Blundell places responsibility. He chairs the "panel of experts" set up by the UN Sanctions Committee to monitor trade in war commodities such as diamonds, arms and timber. "The [UN] resolution is not just saying that Liberia has to stop logging, it's saying we have to stop buying; Liberia must do its part in supplying good wood, but we must do our part by only buying good wood," he says.

He is encouraged by the European Union's Forest Law, Enforcement, Governance and Trade (Flegt) plan, by which EU nations agree only to purchase timber proven to come from legal sources and to support good governance in producing countries. He is encouraged too by informal discussions with Chinese authorities suggesting that they too would be willing to restrict purchases to legal timber.

Lapses could see sanctions re-imposed on Liberia; but successful implementation of he designated new dawn for the country's timber industry would, says Dr Blundell, be an inspiration for the rest of the world.

"This country has been devastated by 20 years of war; and if they can get it right there's really no excuse for anybody else," he says. "If they can do it, it demonstrates that political will is really the crucial thing; and if you can have political will here, there's no reason we shouldn't be able to have it anywhere else."

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Liberia
More Information on Timber in Conflict
More Information on The Dark Side of Natural Resources

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