Liberia's newly-elected but cash-strapped government has begun to find ways that the U.N. sanctions can be lifted to allow the country to exploit its immense timber resources for the benefit of its war-ravaged people.
The move follows the passing of Executive Order Number One, canceling all logging concessions effective from Feb. 2, in compliance with conditions set under the U.N.'s Security Council Resolution 1521 (passed in 2003) for the lifting of sanctions on timber exports.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's order also directs the Liberian Forestry Development Authority (FDA) to take steps to enhance its capacity to manage the country's forests effectively and control small-scale logging activities after 14 years of civil war that saw warlords and their supporters plunder its immense timber wealth.
John T. Woods, the FDA managing director, told IPS that with the cancellation of logging concessions, the Liberian government has met all the conditions for a review of the industry's concession agreements.
Liberia's ancient forests are among the 25 threatened biodiversity "hotspots" globally. Before the war, a rainforest belt that stretched into parts of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo covered the entire country.
Now, while the FDA is yet to take an inventory of what remains of the forests, Global Witness -- which campaigns to expose the link between natural resource plunder and human rights abuse -- estimates that Oriental Timber Corporation (OTC), which had the largest concession, harvested up to 10,000 hectares of virgin forest every month.
The U.N. Security Council had renewed sanctions on Liberian timber last December, for the third year, because of the industry's support for the exiled ex-president Charles Taylor who was given asylum in Nigeria.
Taylor has since been taken into custody by the tribunal in Sierra Leone that is trying Liberian war crimes. This tribunal recently asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to host the former president's trial.
Liberia, a West African nation of about 3.5 million people, has vast resources of rubber, timber, gold and iron ore. But under Taylor, an uncontrolled industry provided financial and logistical support to the illegal arms trade, prevented revenue from reaching ordinary citizens, and fuelled conflict in Liberia's neighbouring countries.
Before the war, the forests generated up to 60 percent of foreign exchange earnings. Years of conflict have left hospitals, schools, electrical grids and offices completely vandalised. "We want the U.N. to lift the sanctions on timber, so that we can revive our broken infrastructure," said Joseph Browne, a civil servant.
The cash-starved government is now establishing civil authority across the country where insecurity mounted with marauding armed gangs terrorising the civilian population and pillaging the towns and villages.
Despite the presence of a 15,000-strong U.N. force to ensure security, the government has not yet gained absolute control over Liberia's forest territory and border regions. Recently, government troops and U.N. peacekeepers flushed out ex-combatants and illegal miners from Sapo, Liberia's only national park in the southeast.
Liberia's logging activities were controlled by a small group of companies that were known to employ indiscriminate clear-felling practices, with no concern for their environmental or social impact.
Among the most destructive were OTC and the Royal Timber Corporation, both run by a close friend of the ex-president, Dutch national Gus Kouwenhoven, who was recently arrested in the Netherlands for war crimes in Liberia. Others included the Mohammad Group of Companies, Maryland Wood Processing Industries and Woodland Logging Company, all headed by Taylor's associates.
While the FDA's Woods did not reveal what they intended to do with companies and individuals with links to the illegal arms trade, he said, "Our goal now is to carry out forestry reform programmes in the area of land use planning, the transparent allocation of concessions and the administration of forest utilisation contracts."
The government says the reform exercises, which began in February, will be completed by year-end, and before the start of the next logging season.
A forestry reform monitoring committee is presently formulating rules and regulations regarding forest exploration and will sensitise local and international communities in villages and on websites about the government's determination to apply good governance in the management of forest resources.
Reactions to the cancellation of logging concessions have been mixed. Eric Paasewe, president of the National Loggers Association, who spoke out against OTC, told IPS: "The government has cancelled with no regard to due process of law."
He said he had had to abandon his UPA Import/Export Corporation, a multi-million dollar logging business, to looters and flee the country in 2003 because of mounting insecurity after he refused to pay heavy levies that were demanded from him by the Taylor administration.
Human rights activist Joseph Randolph of the Association of Human Rights Campaigners, who has welcomed the decision, said: "It paves the way for the proper management of resources and prevents their use from contributing to conflict again in the region by unpatriotic, war-mongering Liberians."
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