Liberia's Politics, Plunder and the Environment

In April this year, as in every year, the United Nations celebrated "Earth Day." The significance of this day is to highlight the importance of our environment and the preservation of our EARTH. Without concerted and sincere efforts to preserve what is left of our planet, mankind is lost, doomed and helpless against the forces of nature. Undoubtedly, Africa, already at the bottom of the global economic ladder, will wither faster than we now imagine. This phenomenon can already be seen in the dramatic turns of temperatures around the world resulting in a tragedy called Global Warming.

In its special edition featuring this year's Earth Day, Time magazine states that, "Perhaps the enormousness of the problem obscures it; the prospect of cleaning waters and preserving forest appears so vast as to be out of the reach of individuals. Most people are not engaged in agricultural or timber interests, to which nearly 60% of the world's rainforests have been lost."

Such dire depiction and prophesy on the state of the environment are critical to many of the problems affecting developing countries. Already saddled with political problems and economic decay, many third world governments, which have become "failed or rogue states," have neglected the environmental crisis that is unfolding - while they lack the capacity to address the basic needs of their people.

This brings into question the unconscionable and unscrupulous logging practices now undertaken by some states that do not benefit their people, but to profit a few callous and corrupt individuals and their foreign collaborators.

As we reported earlier this year in the case of the Oriental Timber Company, a dubious Malaysian entity now putting the finishing touches to the destruction of Liberia's rain forests, such policies are bound to have long term socioeconomic effects. Peasants, without land, will flock to now over-populated cities in search of non-available jobs. Food supplies, already dwindling at unimaginable rates, will dry up. Where traditional villages once stood, there replacement will be barren and wasteland. And when the Malaysians and their protector Charles Taylor are long gone, Liberians will remain to face the results of the ongoing plunder. On the other hand, Taylor may be living in his Italian and French villas a la Mobutu.

In the absence of concrete socioeconomic policies to alleviate poverty, rogue states such as Liberia are bent on accelerating the unprecedented war on the environment initiated in 1990. Prior to this selfish and destructive war, Liberia had a reasonable policy of reforestation. Moreover, revenues, at least some of it, went into public coffers. Logging companies provided reliable employment, schools and medical facilities in areas of operation. Now, logging companies, used in many cases as conduits for crimes such as money laundering and arms trafficking, are lords unto themselves, protected against the people by former armed rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).

According to reports, the Malaysian gave President Taylor $5million up front, freeing them from taxes and other responsibilities such as replanting and other environmental obligations. They have brought in their own workers in a country with an unemployment rate of 85 percent. They have leveled villages and protesting peasants have suffered the wrath of the President notorious "security forces", all rebels who carried out unimagined reign of terror in the country for over 7 years that ended in the Taylor presidency. Government functionaries who have opposed the Malaysians have been sacked, with the President urging all to "leave his pepper bush alone." In a rare case within an autocracy, the country's Minister of Agriculture, recently underscored the danger of this massive deforestation in a country that relies on the forest for survival. The Minister, Roland Massaquoi who also chairs the country's environmental commission, warned that "it is evident that most of the country's natural rainforests has been depleted without reforestation... if Liberians are not careful about the effective utilization of the forest reserves, the nation would face drought in the next 15 years."

While Mr. Massaquoi did not pinpoint the role of the Oriental Timber Corporation (OTC) and other logging concerns that have been involved in massive pillaging of the Liberian forest reserves, it was courageous to even acknowledged the growing public concerns being raised. But if "Above all else, the people" are foremost the country's concern, the real test would be for the GOL to act with urgency to bring this and other environmental scourges under control.

It is now abundantly emerging that foreign companies bent on looting Liberia's natural resources were the main sponsors of Mr. Taylor's war. One of these shady companies, Mano River Resources, admitted operating in Liberia in 1995 or before when the country was out of limits to normal business. This company has launched a callous and deceitful public relations scheme to cover-up its intentions in Liberia, intentions which include the cementing of a ruthless dictator needed to protect their attacks on the environment in the name of investment.

The US Department of State, in its report on Human Rights Practices for 1998, also revealed what is already common knowledge to every Liberian - that Government officials and former rebel commanders are exploiting natural resources for their own benefits, a continuation of a looting spree that characterized Taylor's 7 year quest for power.

And yet, even after such a devastating period that saw Liberia's forest under intense attack, the former warlord is demanding payment, 26 million dollars, for weapons and drugs bought to wage the war. Such is the vision of a man who has become the darling of liberal Americans, such as former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey, Rev. Jesse Jackson, to name a few. While these politicians pay lip service to propriety at home, they have seen it appropriate to encourage terror and plunder in Africa, particularly in Liberia. Thus our "democracy for which 250,000 people were butchered with the accompanying collapsed economy, has intensified an avalanche of plunder under laughable but callous slogans like Taylor's "Above all else, the people".

One of the main responsibilities of any government is to provide certain basic needs for its citizens; those needs include, but are not limited to health, education, safe drinking water, housing and jobs, among many other things. Or at a minimum, a government must be able to create the enabling environment to give its citizens the opportunity to fend for itself. These basic needs form the core foundations and underpinnings of what spurs the growth of a society. To the contrary, however, the National Patriotic Party (NPP) government of President Taylor sees it differently. It does not see these needs as basic, but rather a "luxury" to a functioning society. Its inattention to these needs has created a looming environmental crisis that threatens the well being for the Liberian people.

There is no other way to overstate the current environmental crisis, but more specifically, the quality of freshwater crisis, facing Liberia today. Water belongs to the earth and all species, and "above all else," it is a human right that no one should be allowed to expropriate for political gains or for profit.

Instead, the NPP-led government, noted for engrossing itself around deceptive populist rhetoric such as its much celebrated campaign slogan: "Above all else, the people," record of governance that has become a paradox; lacking any real agenda. Mr. Taylor finds it convenient to use populist slogans as a substitute for concrete, substantive and workable programs for solving the needs of the Liberian people. While on the one hand, the NPP government says one thing, and does the opposite. And in recent times, it has come to be known for doing everything to undermine the very existence of the Liberian people.

Furthermore, while it engages in political gamesmanship, there is a deepening crisis of the environment and the lack of basic social services, which has reached a boiling point. First, it was electricity, now it is the lack of safe drinking water. A clean, safe, quality freshwater crisis exists! Water being the essence of life, is the essential ingredient needed for human survival and development is now scarce in Liberia. The current water crisis that has bedeviled the country should enrage the social conscience of every Liberian.

Like electricity, which the NPP government has dubbed a 'luxury', it may not be too farfetched to consider water a 'human rights' issue rather than a 'human need'. The real danger is that if the GOL allows water services to be privatized, it may not be within the affordable capacity of most Liberians.

But ironically, the Taylor government, after coming to power in 1997 and promising "Above all else, the people" everything - from building a "shining city on the hill" to "computer in every classroom" - has failed after three years to deliver on such basic needs as water and electricity.

The fact of the matter is, as the crisis intensifies on a daily basis, this plays into the proverbial statement, "chicken coming home to roost." Put simply, "the fish begins to rot from the head." There is a growing concern and uneasiness about how to resolve the water problem and fear that no one including the ruling elite could be - would be - insulated from its adverse effects and consequences.

The water crisis, which has engulfed the Taylor government, started in May this year when the major water supply system in Central Monrovia experienced a breakdown. As a principal source of water supply to over a million residents based in Monrovia, this has raised concerns about potential health hazards and other environmental consequences. Further aggravating the lack of water supply, is the subsequent breakdown of the sewer system. It has been reported that the sewer system "has practically exploded into rivulets of human waste flowing down in several sections of the streets in the city center." According to PANA news reports, "compounding the sewerage problem is the lack of running water in the city center [Monrovia], and a breakdown of the city's only sewer treatment plant built in 1970 under a joint Liberian- U.S. government project, giving to lapses in routine maintenance."

The collapse of the water and sewer system has led to increases in water-borne diseases including cholera. Several deaths, resulting from cholera, have been reported by the Ministry of Health at various clinics across the city. The stench and pollution in the air is bound to contribute to other diseases such as typhoid and the destruction of the lungs. With the intervention of the European Union (EU), the intractable nature of the problem makes it even more difficult to resolve.

For example, even if one accepts the rationale or argument made by the GOL that these infrastructures have aged, and they pre-existed before the coming to power of the current regime, one may look at this government policy priorities as being empty lip services and inattention to the importance of ensuring the delivery of adequate and efficient social services to the people, that it hasn't exacerbated the problem which has contributed to the crisis. How else does one explain a government allocating a million plus dollars to military restructuring or security personnel, spending more than a million dollars on Liberia's participation in a "Miss World queen contest," but considers electricity a "luxury" and now water as unimportant? Meanwhile, the ruling elite drink "imported water" from Europe and the United States. Moreover, how else does one explain the luxury living and life-styles of the political ruling elite who fancy the riding of Rolls-Royce and Mercedez-benz on tattered roads and bridges that are on the verge of collapsing?

However, this is not the only environmental crisis Liberia faces. Not underestimating the dangers of the water crisis, the growing erosion from the Atlantic ocean that is encroaching on most of Monrovia and the coastal areas such as Sinoe, Grand Bassa, Rivercess and Cape Mount, etc. The lack of adequate means of disposing off solid waste, the pollution of the rivers and streams, the destruction of our agricultural lands and soil degradation, the aging infrastructures such as our roads, bridges and public facilities, all of these are of critical importance. Also, there is an even grater danger to the environment, which is the excessive and unregulated timber logging taking place with government's blessing. "There are more than three dozen logging companies operating in Liberia, most of which are said to be poorly regulated and monitored. Logging concessions have accounted for the largest number of investors in Liberia since Taylor came to power in 1997."

The unbridled and excessive timber logging that is taking place in Liberia with such "military efficiency" has been well-documented in an investigative report published by this magazine in its January - March 2000 edition. The forest, which tempers climate and captures and stores water - slowing the build-up of carbon dioxide in the air - is rapidly shrinking due to unregulated logging. Some of Liberia's prime reserves such as the Krahn-Bassa National Forest, the Sapo Forest and the Lofa Forest are now being bulldozed in search of raw pursuit of profit.

This is why we call on the international environmentalists and foreign governments serious about the preservation of the environment to focus on Liberia before it is too late.

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