Fuelling the Fire
Ron Giling / Lineair / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com
YOU probably haven’t heard of ‘conflict timber’, but it was the fuel for war in Liberia. Former President Charles Taylor, now in exile, used the logging industry to prolong regional violence, traffic arms and boost his personal wealth. Sections of the timber industry played an integral role in helping rebel movements seize power throughout the region, supporting criminal, mercenary and arms-smuggling networks.
Logging concessions were often given out as political patronage. The companies would be permitted to extract Liberia’s wood, as long as they followed the Taylor regime’s orders. For some this involved shipping illegal weapons in vessels that would then transport timber out, principally to European and Asian markets. The regime would skim money off the top while the Liberian people not only saw none of the proceeds, but were the victims of widespread abuses committed by logging-company militia members.1
In eastern Liberia logging interests2 helped sustain the brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighbouring Sierra Leone.3 In southeastern Liberia, on numerous occasions local residents reported seeing Liberian Government security forces removing weapons from the warehouse of the logging company Maryland Wood Processing Industries (MWPI) and loading them on to company trucks which Government security forces then drove away. Rebel fighters from eastern Côte d’Ivoire, as well as pro-Liberian Government forces, also made use of MWPI facilities at the company’s River Gbeh bush camp, located near the Ivorian border with Liberia.4 All the time the rebel groups and the timber industry were actively encouraged, assisted and co-ordinated by the Liberian Government.
The result is a region that is one of the most violent and unstable in the world. Today, peace has been declared in Liberia, but there has been virtually no time for the industry to reform. Timber sanctions were imposed from July 2003, yet pressure is on from those who profit from this highly lucrative industry to restart logging operations. Meanwhile, there is virtually no medical care, clean water or sanitation in the country.
Liberia has recently seen the installation of an interim government, the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces, the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), as well as donor pledges of $520 million to rebuild the country. However, if the UN and the Liberian Government are unable to exert control over the country’s resources before the logging trade resumes, the region could be plunged back into chaos.
In short, if a natural resource, such as timber or diamonds, plays a key role in prolonging conflict then its industry must be completely reformed in order to secure the country’s recovery. Without this, the industry’s ties to criminal networks, illicit arms and mercenary activity will endure, threatening long-term peace and recovery.
- Global Witness, ‘Against the People, for the Resources: the need for stronger enforcement of UN timber sanctions and prevention of plunder’, Annex 1, September 2003.
- The UN Expert Panel (S/2003/779) lists 49 timber companies operating in Liberia.
- UN Expert Panel Report on Sierra Leone (S/2000/1195).
- Global Witness research and investigations, 2003. See also ‘The Usual Suspects: Liberia’s weapons and mercenaries in Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone’, Global Witness, March 2003.