Liberia sees green in reform of 'blood timber'
The UN may permanently lift trade sanctions on timber this week.
A lucrative industry long steeped in corruption and used to fuel a brutal civil war, timber may now hold the key to rebuilding the devastated West African nation of Liberia.Skip to next paragraph
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Ten months after the country elected Africa's first female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia is poised for rebirth. And reopening the timber business, which could emerge permanently from under UN sanctions this week, is crucial to boosting its broken economy.
Timber is projected to bring in some $100 million annually, of which Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf's government would get between $7 million and $8 million.
The government estimates that the industry could eventually account for 25 percent of GDP – and create 5,000-7,000 jobs in a country with more than 80 percent unemployment.
The pressure to move quickly is considerable. Violent crime has spiked recently, fueled by large numbers of young, jobless, and restless ex-fighters. The government wants to boost its coffers for much-needed schools, roads and sewers, legal development, and security.
But Liberian and international advocates warn that hasty efforts to reform the industry – which farms teak, mahogany, and walnut, among other varieties – could have disastrous results, shortchanging the land and property rights of forest communities and prompting further unrest.
"We understand the [economic] pressure, but we have to do the right thing," says Alfred Brownell, a Liberian lawyer and cofounder of the Green Advocates rights group. If forest communities feel they are cheated by future logging arrangements, he warns, the country could slide back into conflict, leading Liberia "back to the [former dictator Charles] Taylor's days ... back to Square 1."
Joseph Sesay, a Liberian civil affairs officer for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), says he is keenly aware of the need to ensure local residents benefit enough as loggers operate in their areas. But, he adds, Liberia can't afford to wait. "It's a very tough balancing game," he says.
Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf has moved swiftly to get the timber industry into position. She cancelled all timber concessions shortly after her inauguration this year – a move designed to target corruption and bring loggers under the government's eye. In June, she asked the UN to lift sanctions it slapped on Liberian timber in 2003 in response to Mr. Taylor's takeover of the industry using militias stocked with child soldiers. That helped cut off a key source for Taylor's brutal 14-year war against rebels – and, in turn, end the war. Taylor is now in The Hague awaiting trial on war crimes.
The UN provisionally lifted its sanctions early this summer. If it permanently lifts the bans, the government could choose to revoke its own ban shortly thereafter.
Still, rights advocates warn that the country needs to do more to avoid falling prey to timber-funded militias.
"Ex-generals will have a ready [export] market" in neighboring countries, says Silas Siakor, director of the Liberian group Sustainable Development Institute, and an internationally recognized activist (see story, below). He says the government doesn't have the capacity to regulate the industry, and that the ban on exports should remain in place for now.
Last month, the government passed a timber-reform law – a move that will factor strongly in the UN's ultimate decision. But while the law takes stronger measures against corruption and in favor of conservation, critics say it focuses on commercial rights to the exclusion of other concerns.
"There is a school of thought that feels community rights are left out," says Mr. Sesay. But, he says, if the government waited to put every interest group's specific clauses in the bill, it would never have passed. "It's like a Christmas tree. Everyone wants to hang his ornament.
"The law cannot be comprehensive about everything, but can serve as a prelude," he adds, explaining that how the community and government agree to share the resources is an issue with too many complexities to be detailed in the law at this stage.
John Woods, the head of the Liberian government's Forestry Development Authority, says that there is a firm commitment from the government to work with civil-society critics to ensure community rights are more adequately implemented in the near future. "The journey of 1,000 miles starts with one step," he says.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups point out that despite the UN sanctions, illegal logging – mostly small-scale pit sawing by individuals – continues to deplete the forests.