Global Policy Forum

Liberia Aims to Clean Up Timber Industry


By Zoom Dosso

Agence France Presse
April 24, 2006

Liberian authorities, struggling to resuscitate the country's war-battered economy, are working hard to clean up the tainted timber trade, hoping the United Nations will lift a 2003 embargo on this mainstay resource. In February, only three weeks into office, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf cancelled all logging contracts and permits agreed on before her term and had the government draw up new regulations to govern the sector.

"All those who are interested in the Liberian timber will have to reapply and sign new concessions with the government," she said.

Liberia's logging sector is one of the main sources of the country's foreign exchange earnings, alongside rubber and diamonds. It is back in the news with a war crimes trial due to start in The Hague Monday against Dutch timber trader Guus Kouwenhoven, for allegedly aiding ex-president Charles Taylor sustain the war in neighboring Sierra Leone through arms trafficking, in violation of a UN ban.

According to the country's Forestry Development Authority (FDA), which governs the sector, logging operators must henceforth keep all financial transactions transparent and will be subjected to systematic scrutiny by the central bank. Strict adherence to environmental protection regulations will also be part of the new licensing conditions.

The new contracts will make it obligatory for companies to fund community development projects such as roads, hospital and schools in the localities where they operate. These new terms are designed to meet conditions laid down by the United Nations before it will lift sanctions against Liberia's timber exports.

An embargo slapped on the trade in 2003 was renewed last December after the Security Council ruled that the situation in the country still constituted "a threat to peace" in the region. Like the so-called "blood diamonds", timber proceeds during the period between 1990 and 2000 went to fuel the bloody conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

"Taylor's regime used the timber as a means of arming the government in view of causing trouble in the region," said Information Minister Johnny McClain. FDA head John Woods said "all of the companies that were operating in Liberia under Taylor's regime were not paying taxes and had no respect for the timber laws of our country.

"Some of the companies were bringing in arms and ammunitions in place of the taxes while others were directly feeding the pocket of Mr Taylor," said Woods.

Taylor is currently detained at a UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity concerning that country's 14-year civil war. Kouwenhoven, who was arrested in the Dutch port of Rotterdam in March 2005, headed several timber companies in Liberia where he was known as Taylor's confidant and ally until the ex-president fled in 2003. Militias employed by Kouwenhoven's logging firms were alleged to have massacred countless numbers of civilians in Liberia.

Today, with a struggling economy characterized by an unemployment rate hovering around 80 percent, Liberia sees an end to sanctions on timber as the spark needed to return the glow to Africa's oldest republic. Before the embargo, Woods said the "government used to generate $20-million yearly from the timber."

He stressed that the revival of the logging industry had the potential to create some 7 000 jobs in this west African nation.

Ellen Loj, chief of the UN sanctions committee, visited Liberia last week to assess conditions, before the UN Security Council is next set to review the embargo in June. She conceded only that the "government is working hard to meet the benchmarks set for the lifting of the sanctions." A UN representative in FDA, Joseph Sesay, was optimistic however that sanctions would be removed. "The new government has done a great job to improve the timber sector," he said.

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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