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Conflict Timber, Sustainable Management, and the Rule of Law: Forest Sector Reform in Liberia

Over the past two decades, Liberia's forests have helped subsidize two civil wars and the dictatorial regime of Charles Taylor. Today, the forests may offer the country's best chance at revitalization.

Date & Time

Jun. 8, 2006
3:00pm – 5:00pm

Conflict Timber, Sustainable Management, and the Rule of Law: Forest Sector Reform in Liberia

Over the past two decades, Liberia's forests have helped subsidize two civil wars and the dictatorial regime of Charles Taylor. Today, the forests may offer the country's best chance at revitalization. After the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Liberian timber in 2003, the Liberian government had a rare opportunity to reform forestry practices, and pave the way for restoring the rule of law. Part of the U.S. Congress' $200 million Liberian reconstruction package, the Liberian Forest Initiative (LFI)—a partnership of international organizations, NGOs, bilateral donors, and members of Liberian government and civil society—promotes and assists reforms in the forestry sector. Members of LFI addressed recent progress made in Liberia, and discussed the potential for achieving future goals under the new leadership of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at a June 8, 2006, meeting co-sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Africa Program.

Devastated by civil war and Taylor's authoritarian regime, Liberia lacks a solid foundation upon which to build democratic society. "There really isn't a sense of rule of law surrounding your daily activities," said Robert Simpson, Liberia program coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. "The infrastructure you expect from basic society is totally missing." In part, Liberia's current situation can be attributed to its wealth of trees. Afflicted with the "resource curse," Liberia has suffered from too much of a good thing. Rather than advancing the economy and spurring development, Liberia's forest sector subsidized conflict and turmoil. Between the civil wars of the 1980s and Charles Taylor's presidency, Liberia's dependence on the forestry sector increased five-fold. And by declaring the timber sector a "strategic commodity," Taylor effectively nationalized Liberia's forests to fund his corrupt regime. "The timber sector became a safe haven for thugs, terrorists, and criminals," said Peter O'Donohue, forest program officer in the U.S. Department of State. "Resources from timber passed directly into the hands of Charles Taylor and his cronies, and went on to financially fuel armed conflicts."

In May 2003, the UN Security Council imposed timber sanctions on Liberia, effectively forcing Taylor into exile into Nigeria. While these sanctions helped end a brutal regime, they also dried up Liberia's most profitable industry, which had previously employed more than 7,000 people, generated upwards of $20 million of annual revenue—roughly 25 percent of its GDP. But Liberia's forests are not just vital to the economy, but to biodiversity too. Nearly 50 percent of the remaining Guinean Forests of West Africa—named one of 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world by Conservation International—is in Liberia. With both economic and ecological value, Liberia's forests remain critical to the country's survival. LFI was created to assist reforms in the forest sector, promote transparent management of forest resources, and ensure that these resources are used to benefit all Liberians. "We want to get complete control of the forest area, get Liberia up and running again, and create the enabling conditions for lifting UN sanctions," said Scott Bode, natural resource adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

LFI initially focused on integrating what it calls the "three Cs" of forestry: commercial forestry, community forestry, and conservation. Two reviews—one by the Liberian Forest Development Authority, the other by civil society organizations—evaluated forest concessions. The results were disheartening: between 1985 and 2003, 26 million acres of forest were allocated to concessionaires—even though less than 10 million acres exist. Further, both reviews found that concessionaires often had no legal documentation proving that a contract had ever been made. "I can't emphasize enough how totally noncompliant we found the concession procedures to be," said K.W. James Rochow, World Bank legal adviser for Forestry Concession Review. In the commercial sector, the reviews showed a dire need for a basic legal infrastructure, including a competitive bidding process, improved revenue collection, and an effective system for collecting fees and taxes. "Without these," Simpson said, "you have no opportunity to reestablish rule of law."

Conservation in Liberia's forests was almost nonexistent prior to the concession review. Years of conflict flooded the forests with roughly 5,000 illegal miners, loggers, and hunters. Poaching and the bushmeat trade flourished under Taylor, threatening the loss of endemic species. The concession reviews recommended securing and expanding protected areas, but doing this required removing squatters from the parks. "The problem was to relocate the workers peacefully," said Glenn T. Prickett, senior vice president of Conservation International. Yet he noted that so far about 1,000 people have been resettled, all while respecting human rights, conservation goals, and governance goals.

The third "C," community forestry, will be the hardest to implement, according to several panel members. However, the communities provided significant input in the concession review. "[Community members] provided thoughts on what they wanted improved. There was a lot of civil society input that was incorporated into review," said Simpson. Ultimately, though, the success of communities will be determined by how effectively logging revenue flows down to the local level. Citing Cambodia as a prime example, one audience member noted that community forestry often fails because of unsustainable logging practices and lack of law enforcement, both of which can undercut local livelihoods dependent on forestry. To avoid these pitfalls, another audience member recommended better community education, as well as microcredit interventions, which would allow communities to shift away from logging as their primary source of income.

Under the leadership of President Johnson-Sirleaf, forest sector reform continues to head in the right direction. Following her victory at the polls in January, Johnson-Sirleaf signed Executive Order #1, adopting the recommendation to cancel all timber concessions. After being extradited from Nigeria in March, former President Charles Taylor now awaits trial in The Hague for war crimes. And, on June 20, 2006, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to lift Liberia's timber sanctions. In less than six months, Liberia has elected democratic leadership and met the conditions for lifting sanctions. Rochow blamed the absence of Liberians at the event on this swift progress: "This is a critical time for Liberia because of forest sector reform and the actions of the Johnson-Sirleaf administration. Their time would be better spent in Liberia."

Drafted by Alison Williams.


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Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.–Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our blog Africa Up Close, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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