Global Policy Forum

The Logs of War


By Alice Blondel *

Monde Diplomatique
January 2004

We think of gold, diamonds and oil as the coveted precious resources traded illegally to generate revenue for corrupt governments and to buy weapons. But wrongfully logged timber funded the Khmer Rouge and many contemporary African conflicts.

Timber fuels some of the world's most brutal wars, sustains the illegal arms trade and those mercenaries and militias who have tortured, detained, sexually exploited, intimidated and enforced the displacement of populations. Poorly enforced arms laws and trade laws and an almost unregulated shipping industry open to abuses bind together timber, weapons smuggling and war, and keep the business open to criminals. Timber, as an easily exploitable, valuable commodity, has become a resource of choice for warring factions, criminal networks and arms- dealers, providing finances and logistics. Host governments or rebel groups sometimes allocate timber concessions to reward supporters. This has gone relatively unchecked and timber fuels conflicts in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burma and Liberia.

Sierra Leone's civil war, which by 2001 had reduced average local life expectancy to 25.9 years, was partly financed by elements of the Liberian timber industry (1). In April 2003 the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by a United Nations special court, admitted to using timber funds to buy weapons in contravention of a UN arms embargo (2). Investigations revealed that the Liberian government also armed and supported rebels in western Ivory Coast, using a Liberian timber company's warehouse to store weapons and its bushcamp to house rebel fighters. Even in countries at peace, such as Cameroon, illegal logging has led to corruption and loss of revenue to the state (3).

Elsewhere in Africa a few people coordinate the supply of arms in return for natural resources, including diamonds and timber. Leonid Minin, a Ukrainian-born international arms dealer, was awarded a logging concession in Liberia and brokered arms deals with connections that he brought with him, according to the UN (4). In 2000 he arranged the import of 10,500 AK47 rifles, 8m rounds of ammunition, RPG-26 rocket launchers and sniper rifles. The shipments were transported via Ivory Coast and sent by the Aviatrend Company based in Moscow.

There are two problems: conflict timber and illegal timber. Conflict timber is defined by the NGO Global Witness as "traded in a way that drives violent armed conflict and threatens national or regional security". Illegal timber has been logged in contravention of national or international laws. In both cases, funds are siphoned from national budgets, mostly unnoticed by the international community. Due to lack of transparency, legislation needs to be targeted against the strong ties between conflict timber and the arms trade, and against the shipping industry.

The timber trade is often abused by unscrupulous logging companies, governments and rebel groups to facilitate weapons imports and fuel conflict. It is estimated that 40-50% of world trade in small arms is illegal, but the figure is probably much higher as a significant number of legally traded arms end up in the illegal arena (5). Without proper controls, this trade will remain attractive and lucrative, and international agreements that have made unregulated cross-border trade easier will continue to be exploited. In 2002 only six countries had specific measures in place.

Arms are transported by air and, increasingly, imported by sea. As the world is discovering after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the shipping industry, especially when operating under flags of convenience, provides a dangerously secretive environment with minimal regulation. Goods are shipped inside containers, while exporters create the cargo-manifests and individual containers are rarely screened. So shippers seldom know exactly what is being transported. Many ships can hold 5-7,000 containers and it is alarmingly easy to smuggle weapons in them.

The term conflict timber was first coined in 2001 by a UN panel of experts investigating the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC. Since 1998 timber there has helped fund a conflict that has killed 3.3-4.7 million people - the greatest loss of life since the second world war (6). The volume of wood removed by rebel factions, companies and government-armed forces of neighbouring countries is significant, so great that in neighbouring Uganda the market price halved. The panel found that the conflict was self- perpetuating, as each party had financial interests in its continuation. It uncovered extensive networks established and maintained by Uganda, Rwanda and Zimbabwe, and listed some 50 Congolese and foreign nationals who should be sanctioned and another 85 companies judged in violation of OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises (7).

Cross-border timber sales in the 1990s provided the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia with a monthly $10-20m during the dry season to fund its fighting. The trade not only sustained the Khmer Rouge's activities, but control of timber resources became a cause for conflict. In 1991 the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, said: "Our state does not have sufficient capital to expand its strength or enlarge the army. Resources [in liberated and semi- liberated zones] must be utilised as assets" (8).

In Burma, ruled by a brutal, corrupt regime, the government relies heavily on its forests, its second most valuable export, accounting for approximately $280m in 2001. This figure does not take into account significant quantities of timber clandestinely exported by sea (9).

While all governments have the sovereign right to use natural resources within their borders, they must follow their own laws and international regulations, extracting resources sustainably and for the benefit of all. Often, where timber has been used to fund conflict, governments, rebel groups or individuals have used war to loot natural resources, financing political goals or personal fortunes. Funds are taken from an already impoverished population and given to a small elite.

Each logging company's circumstances are different, where they assist government forces and government-supported rebels, and their engagement varies in degree: some may have been directly complicit, while others might have been coerced. But either way the results for local people - abuses, corruption and destabilisation - are the same. In Liberia, according to the UN, offenders have included Minin, of the Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprise (ETTE); Gus Kouwenhoven, of the Oriental Timber Company (OTC); and arms dealers Victor Bout and Sanjivan Ruprah (10). All four are on the UN travel ban list for providing financial and military support to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone's civil war.

Companies that import conflict timber have claimed that if there is a problem it is within the supplier country; traders continued to buy from companies known to have been involved in arms imports. Several importing companies have launched extensive public relations campaigns: they proclaim their concern for human rights and the environment and give their buyers a false sense that their products have no link with environmental destruction and human calamity. This sells timber but hides the truth.

The UN expert panel report on Sierra Leone in 2000 outlined the role of elements of the Liberian timber industry in sustaining the RUF; subsequent reports on Liberia have mentioned the role of some logging companies in arms purchases and imports (11). Global Witness and other NGOs have for years provided information to importers about the abuses and unsustainable practices of many in the Liberian logging industry.

However, despite claims to import only from responsible, sustainable providers, many importers continued to purchase from Liberia; the Danish company DLH-Nordisk, which had halted imports from Liberian companies ILC and MGC, purchased Liberian products up to February 2003. It seems that only the recent UN ban on all Liberian timber products will stop importers.

While companies along the chain of custody deny responsibility, the effects of the conflict timber industry on civilians are immediate. The people that governments, logging companies and importers claim to be concerned about rarely see the revenue improve their lives; the industry worsens conditions by facilitating arms imports, and there are human rights abuses committed by government and logging company militias, long-term destruction of forests and an infrastructure of violence and plunder. People who live in or near logging concessions have their way of life destroyed and lose access to forests. Because of deforestation and because they are often forcibly removed from their land, locals' non-timber resources such as medicines and vegetables become scarce. Changes to local ecologies often lead to floods and droughts. The argument that the timber industry betters lives is wrong and and usually only made by those who have a vested interest in the trade.

The effects of conflict timber are long-term, since it destroys what could be a sustainable source of revenue for impoverished people; much of the revenue in the short term goes directly to an elite. The uncontrolled exploitation of the resource funds further conflict; the conflict creates a demand for timber, which worsens the conflict, and which then creates further demand for timber.

The criminalisation of the timber trade has not been checked much by the international community. Shipping laws have not changed significantly and lack of transparency continues. The inter national community has also not taken proper action over trade laws, especially those covering the arms trade and conflict commodities, so trade in conflict timber appeals to corrupt governments, rebels, international criminal networks, small arms traders and unscrupulous companies.

There have been some positive developments. In May 2003 the UN Security Council imposed a ban on all Liberian timber which came into effect on 7 July 2003. The latest expert panel report on Liberia is highly critical of the logging industry, including the lack of benefits for local populations and the potential for exploitation by armed outsiders. Reports by the UN expert panel on the DRC forced companies mentioned to rethink business policies, while many assets were frozen and several people in government positions were suspended. In Cambodia, Global Witness was introduced as an independent forest monitor to decrease the level of corruption and illegality of the timber trade.

However, a lot of the expert panel's recommendations for the DRC were not heeded by the international community. In the case of Cambodia, the independent monitor has been dismissed despite doing the job properly, while the international donor community has sat back and watched a small hope for transparency there dwindle.

The progress from the imposition of timber sanctions on Liberia is possibly threatened by a proposed wood-for-food programme, which would allow logging to resume to pay for humanitarian supplies, in contradiction of the most recent expert panel report that not only recommended that a moratorium on all extractive industries "should remain in place until such time as peace and stability are restored and good governance is established" but that "the Security Council must accept its responsibility for the negative impact of the timber sanctions and ensure that emergency relief aid is provided" (12). Moves to lift timber sanctions ignore the links between the Liberian logging industry and the arms trade, the abuses of company militia members, and the fact that both government and rebel groups have access to, and would profit from, logging concessions. It would be almost impossible to regulate the trade in a country so torn by conflict. Such a programme could further push Liberia's people towards catas trophe by enriching warring parties, mortgaging an important economic resource, and benefiting only a small elite.

The international community, trade organisations and importers must take greater responsibility in fighting the trade instead of dismissing it so readily. Not taking action licences some of world's worst violence and human rights abuses. This inaction is unacceptable, as citizens and consumers of importing states, as well as their trading partners, have a right to expect that the goods they buy are not a cause of conflict.

* Alice Blondel is a campaign manager for Global Witness, London


(1) United Nations Human Development Index, 2000; Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Sierra Leone, 2000 (S/2000/1195); "The Usual Suspects: Liberia's weapons and mercenaries in Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone" (.pdf 1,9 Mb) , Global Witness, March 2003.
(2) "Liberia denies Ivorian rebel links", BBC News, 3 April 2003.
(3) "The Logs of War: the timber trade and armed conflict", Global Witness, November 2002.
(4) UN Expert Panel on Liberia report (S/2001/1015); "Gunrunners", PBS Frontline series, 2002.
(5) United Nations Small Arms brochure, 2001.
(6) "Mortality in the DR Congo: Results from a nationwide survey", International Rescue Committee, April 2003. (As founded on Relief Web )
(7) Final report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2002 (S/2002/1146).
(8) "The Logs of War", op cit.
(9) Ibid.
(10) UN expert panel report on Sierra Leone (S/2000/1195).
(11) UN expert panel on Sierra Leone report (S/2000/1195); UN expert panel on Liberia reports (S/2001/1015), (S/2001/1115).
(12) UN expert panel on Liberia report (S/2003/779).

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on the Dark Side of Natural Resources
More Information on Timber and Conflicts

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.