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.
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.
Brownell, whose group monitors illegal logging, says the practice is extensive and "extremely organized." A drive through parts of the southeast reveals long stretches of road lined with freshly felled trees, piles of plank wood, and large timber trucks.
Reports of such small-scale illegal logging have been downplayed by UNMIL, which insists that none of the timber is being exported. "Pit sawing is widespread. You can't stop it. UNMIL doesn't have the personnel." And, he adds, timber from pit sawing "is the only resource for reconstruction."
The Sustainable Development Initiatives group says it has recent evidence, however, of at least one larger-scale illegal logging company moving heavy machinery across Liberia's eastern border from neighboring Ivory Coast, and operating within Liberia.
During an ad hoc monitoring mission headed by the government and UNMIL in an area of concern – which journalists and civil-society advocates joined – they found no evidence of large-scale illegal logging by timber companies. Mr. Siakor's group, however, says these monitoring trips happen too infrequently to adequately address the situation.
The "government hasn't fully come to terms with the fact that they have serious responsibilities," Siakor says.
Beyond the potential for profits, timber reform is expected to set a standard for how the nation can avoid further conflict and lift itself out of dire poverty.
"Timber will serve as a model for extractive industry reform," including the nation's diamond, rubber, and iron ore mining industries, says Sesay. Liberia is still under UN sanctions on its diamond trade. But on timber, he says, "indications so far are positive."
Small in stature, soft-spoken, a guy who wears jeans and sneakers to the office – Silas Siakor seems an unlikely hero for his war-torn country.
He'd never use that word to describe himself. But the modest thirtysomething will concede that his efforts to document the plunder of Liberia's vast tropical forests have played an important role not only in helping to end 14 years of war, but also in rebuilding the devastated West African nation in ways that may ensure that the fragile peace will not slip.
Evidence of former leader Charles Taylor's abuse of so-called "blood timber" – collected at great personal risk by a small team headed by Mr. Siakor – was key in prompting UN sanctions on Liberian timber exports in 2003. Those sanctions, in turn, helped end the war. Since then, Siakor has continued to monitor the industry and press for its reform.
Siakor began documenting abuses of Liberia's timber in the late 1990s by using monitors around the country and informers working for corrupt timber companies. "What drives us," he says, "is trying to secure better use of Liberia's natural resources for local people. It's not about the greenery – it's about making people's lives better."
But, he adds, "you can't separate the two."
Collecting the data was risky business, Siakor explains calmly, as he tells of vigorous debates within his small group about whether to go public with the information, for fear of their lives.
Soon after they published a damaging report in 2002, he immediately faced pressure and threats from Mr. Taylor's government. In 2003, Siakor decided to leave his family in Liberia while laying low in neighboring countries until 2004.
Today, Siakor says, his efforts were worth the risk. "If we hadn't acted, no other group would have," he argues. "Up to now, people have been scared."
Last spring, Siakor won one of six prestigious Goldman Environmental Prizes – the world's largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists – for his efforts, and he says it's only now that he has gained international credibility and recognition that he realizes just how hard it is to make lasting changes to government policy from the outside.
"Sometimes I think: 'Is this really worth it?' " he muses. "But then I think of what it would be like if groups like us weren't around, and it motivates me."
Siakor says that he tries to keep colleagues inspired by telling them to take stock of the "little things," the small gains they have made and are making day by day.
"Change will only continue if ordinary people remain actively engaged," he says. "Without that, it will be business as usual."
One of eight children, Siakor says that his father, a hospital worker and strict Baptist preacher, used to tell him to "leave the people thing alone," meaning "don't get involved in the government's business."
But, now, he says, "the paradigm is changing," and people are more willing to play an active role in how they are ruled. "War made people realize that bad governance affects us all."