River Cess County in rural Liberia feels a million miles from the technocratic world of EU policy-makers in Brussels. Unbroken tropical forest stretches endlessly into the horizon. The air is heavy and humid, the heat is stifling. The people are desperately poor.
By a remote scattering of thatched huts, reached after a long drive along rutted dirt roads, a local community representative, Matthew T Walley, is speaking about a relatively obscure, acronym-heavy EU forest policy as if his future depends on it.
“It’s difficult to get change in this country,” he says, waving his hands in the air for emphasis. “There’s a lot of obstacles. People are still fighting. Investors and people in high places (are) suppressing opportunities, so that forest benefits are not filtering down to the common man.”
Yet that could all change if the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between the EU and Liberia succeeds, Walley says. This VPA - which was ratified in December by the Liberian government - is one of 13 the EU has either signed or is negotiating with wood-producing countries across the world under its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan.
“Given time and opportunity, we think the VPA can work,” says Walley.
And if it does? “There’s a bright future for forestry in this country.”
Behind the acronyms – at first glance as impenetrable as Liberia’s dense interior – the agreement between Liberia and the EU has clearly defined objectives. That no Liberian timber sold on the global market comes from illegal logging. And that the forests covering vast swathes of this small West African country aren’t razed and plundered to enrich a corrupt minority, but managed for the benefit of those who inhabit and survive off them.
If these goals can be attained, it would mark an historic break with Liberia’s past, in which its abundant natural wealth has fuelled wars and land grabs, bringing misery to the majority and making Liberia a case study in what development experts call the “resource curse”.
It is a history that makes grim reading.
The seeds of future conflict over Liberia’s natural assets were sown as far back as 1822, when Captain Robert Stockton, an agent of the American Colonisation Society (ACS), pointed a gun at the head of a local tribal chief and seized land on which to settle freed American slaves.
The ACS consisted of Quakers, slave owners and abolitionists, whose motives ranged from creating a homeland in Africa for former slaves as reparations, to staving off a “negro” rebellion in the US. By 1847, when Liberia became Africa’s first republic, Americo-Liberians - as the ex-slaves were known - numbered 6,000 and held sway over the indigenous population, denying them citizenship and land ownership rights.
Liberia’s treasures were soon attracting distant suitors: foreign companies eager for its minerals, timber and rubber. A striking example of the kind of deals that could be made was the 99-year lease signed in 1926 between the Liberian government and Ohio’s Firestone Tire and Rubber Company for 1 million acres of land - which became the world’s largest rubber plantation. The annual fee was just 6 cents per acre, and Firestone and a few elite Liberians grew fat on the profits. The majority, meanwhile, remained downtrodden.
Since then, the struggle for control over Liberia’s natural riches has helped drive the violent coups, dictatorships and two civil wars – in which around 250,000 people died – that have blighted the nation since 1980.
During President Charles Taylor’s reign, for example, a U.N. study found that 86 per cent of Liberia’s timber trade was controlled by arms dealers, and revenue from logging helped Taylor keep his grip on power until May 2003, when the U.N. imposed an embargo on Liberian timber. Three months later he fled to Nigeria, and today languishes in a UK jail serving 50 years for war crimes.
The sanctions that severed Taylor’s vital funding source, hastening his fall and the end of Liberia’s last war, were enforced only after a small band of brave Liberians gathered compelling evidence of the links between Taylor’s militia, foreign timber companies and the horrors being wreaked on the lives of rural Liberians.
Some of these researchers later formed the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), an environmental and human rights NGO that has continued to doggedly uncover the problems that have plagued the Liberian forestry industry - even after the U.N. ban on the country’s timber exports was lifted in 2006.
In 2012, SDI, along with another Liberian NGO, Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU), revealed that a staggering 40 percent of Liberia’s forests had been given to logging companies through secretive and often illegal contracts called Private Use Permits (PUPs). These enabled the companies to circumvent local sustainability laws and strip forests bare, while paying little compensation to the Liberian government or the forests’ inhabitants.
Taylor’s successor, former World Bank economist President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, subsequently suspended all PUP contracts and dissolved the board of directors of the Forestry Development Agency (FDA), the industry’s regulatory body.
The FDA’s Monrovia headquarters was badly disfigured during the war and is still being repaired: a fitting metaphor, perhaps, for Liberia’s timber industry itself, which, as the SDI’s quietly-spoken co-ordinator Jonathan Yiah agrees, stands at a crossroads.
“We’ve succeeded to a large extent in ensuring that we have a good law to address some of the problems of community rights and sharing the benefits (of logging) with local people,” Yiah says. “But they are still not getting the money they are supposed to. We’ve seen a lot of irregularities.”
Liberia’s VPA with the EU – which sets out a legal framework to ensure that timber supply chains are monitored, that forests are managed sustainably and that local communities have a say in the decisions affecting their lives – could rectify this. The EU and UK have allotted 17.7 million euros for the VPA’s implementation – one measure of the hope invested in it. Yiah also remains optimistic, but with the sceptical eye of one who understands the many challenges ahead.
“If we remain engaged it (the VPA) could go the right way, but once that engagement slackens, things can go wrong in a short time, as our experience has shown,” he says.
Mark Olden is a journalist and press adviser to the social and environmental justice NGO FERN.