WASHINGTON — As Liberia descends into pitched battle over the capital of Monrovia, the world watches to see if the US will send thousands of troops to help bring peace to the war-torn West African nation. But as we wait, it's important to understand how consumers in the US and other nations have contributed to Liberia's troubles.
Liberian President Charles Taylor has been indicted by a UN court for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, where tens of thousands of civilians were killed in a war largely fought over so-called"blood diamonds."
Most Americans are unaware there's another lucrative "conflict commodity" - timber - that has provided Mr. Taylor with cash to buy guns and line the pockets of his family and friends. Some of that timber ends up in the US.
The lush rain forests of Liberia are some of the last pristine forests in the region. Here, international environmental experts say, endangered trees and animal species such as the forest elephant and the pygmy hippo are threatened by aggressive and illegal logging under Taylor's control. Timber has been one of the country's largest taxable exports and a quick source of cash for government officials.
Taylor took control of the timber industry after he was elected president in 1997 and put his brother in charge of managing all timber concessions. It wasn't long before reports surfaced linking the Liberian timber trade to illegal gunrunning.
"Many of those we could identify as being arms traffickers were also involved in the timber business," Johan Peleman, a UN arms trafficking investigator, said in an interview I helped conduct last year for the PBS series FRONTLINE/World.
In December 200l, I traveled with a film crew to the Liberian capital of Monrovia in an attempt to interview Taylor and to report on violations of a decade-long UN arms embargo. There we spoke to Rudolph Merab, a logger and recent president of the Liberian Timber Association, who said his company shipped small amounts of Liberian wood directly to the US, mostly for use as railroad ties and furniture. Later, my colleagues at the Center for Investigative Reporting and I tracked at least one shipment of Mr. Merab's timber to an Alabama importer whose website says it sells African timber that is "environmentally safe."
But we also discovered that a more notorious company in Liberia was exporting plywood, veneer, and sawn timber into the US ports of Philadelphia and Norfolk, Va. That exporter is the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), a firm linked by the UN and other organizations to illegal arms trafficking and to associates of Taylor.
Liberian timber also comes to the US indirectly. The human rights group Global Witness has linked Oriental Timber to a network of Malaysian and Hong Kong investors who are big players in China's skyrocketing wood importing and manufacturing business. China, Liberia's biggest timber customer, also is now the largest exporter of furniture to the US. Global Witness also linked OTC investors to a huge Chinese wood-processing firm, Global Timber Corporation, which told them they ship wood products to the US. Industry experts also told me some tropical wood from places like Liberia probably makes it into a variety of Chinese products shipped to the US.
The same holds true for European wood processors that buy Liberian wood and export it to North America. Greenpeace has documented shipments of Liberian OTC wood to companies based in Greece, Denmark, and the Netherlands, where they ship finished wood products to the US. In one case, Greenpeace obtained internal documents that show that 15 percent of two species of wood used in US flooring products come from Liberia.
No one really knows how much Liberian timber ends up in processed wood imports to the US. Government sources admit that it's hard to verify sources of wood products and furniture imports because there is no chain of custody to trace accurately the origin of the wood.
As one senior US Forest Service official told me, there are three kinds of international timber trade data: "Incomplete, incorrect, and bogus."
Earlier this month, a temporary UN timber export ban took effect against Liberia in an effort to curtail Taylor's illegal arms trafficking activities. And, last week, the US Agency for International Development released a three-volume report on the link between the timber trade and regional violence around the world, citing Liberia as "one of the most flagrant examples of conflict timber."
While the Bush administration also has called for an international effort to combat illegal logging in Africa and other environmental hot spots, there continues to be no US law prohibiting the import of "conflict timber" from countries like Liberia.
Consumers deserve a certified system that tells them exactly where wood products come from so they can choose whether to support a regime like Charles Taylor's. Lives and fragile rain forests depend on it.
• William Kistner is a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting and coproduced "Gunrunners" for the PBS series FRONTLINE/World.