Saddam's Oil & Taylor's Timber

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective

April 21, 2001

This May brings to an end the UN Security Council deadline for Charles Taylor to comply with its preconditions or face sanctions. Whether the Council will reward a man it describes as "the single most destabilizing force in West Africa," and thus vindicate him for his regional destabilization plots, is left to conjecture in this world of political wheeling and dealing.

On the one hand, more than any single actor in this tragedy, Taylor has focused world attention on Sierra Leone's mayhem and has exposed his criminal links with the country's ruthless rebels, making the likelihood of a redeeming solution just possible.

On the other, another fact has been made clearer, and that is the sanctity of the national interest of key countries that dominate the world's power structures, determining the fate of poor and powerless mankind.

But signals are that the British, and astonishingly the French, are determined to push for sanctions, particularly when there are reports of RUF re-igniting their atrocities as they sing "peace". Following visits to Guinea and Sierra Leone, Britain's Development Minister Clare Short repeated what is now a known factor for regional peace, which is that Taylor is at the heart of the collapsing region's "instability". The French, accused of pro-Taylor moves, seem to have had enough of it. French Cooperation Minister Charles Josselin told journalists in Freetown that, "The relations between Charles Taylor and the RUF is no secret We must recognise that Taylor has shown no sign of complying as yet. On May 7 the sanctions will go into effect and he will be responsible."

However, in the Council's wisdom, Liberia's timber, which it says has fuelled regional chaos since it is battered for arms, will not be touched by the sanctions even if imposed. This decision to callously sweep under the carpet the disappearance of one of the vital and few remaining rainforests in West Africa plundered indiscriminately to facilitate the region's destruction and finance internal repression, is a regrettable one. It is evident that logic and peacebuilding were not the factors considered in sanctioning the plundering of the rainforest, but appeasement of the French and the Chinese in their campaign to further exacerbate Liberia's already worsened economic and environmental degradation. But the long-term effects of this terrible example of self-interest will come to hunt the global community after Taylor and his thieving foreign partners are gone from the face of this earth, leaving behind misery unimagined.

It is this self-interest that laid the pillars of West Africa's destruction because world leaders and global actors discounted decency and human rights considerations in enthroning some of the worst abusers as leaders in Liberia. If Liberia had enjoyed the world's attention as Sierra Leone has, and thanks to British determination, criminals wiping out the rainforest would have not been sold as "enlightened," and "colorful politicians", accolades on Taylor attributed to key Democrats in American political establishment. The children of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia itself would have been spared the inhumanities they have been subjected to by a few gangland figures spreading despair for personal wealth.

But as sanctions' judgment day draws nearer, victimized neighbors - Guinea and Sierra Leone - are demanding the imposition of the comprehensive sanctions package, and this includes timber and rubber. Guinean Foreign Minister Camara Adja Mahawa Bangoura, told diplomats in Conakry: "I am calling on your respective countries not only to support Resolution 1343, but also to see to its entire implementation, (and) "the extension of these sanctions to Liberian timber and rubber, which are also equally important sources of funding."

Such demands, whatever their justified national interests implications, are valid. Over two thirds of Liberia's population rely on the forest for survival, although Taylor has declared the forest his "presidential pepperbush", meaning his personal and coveted property. Since agriculture, under normal political conditions, forms the pillars of the economy, the current onslaught on the forest will lead to mass migration into the already depressed and poor urban areas with no opportunities for jobs in a growing society. Food production will suffer terribly, enhancing the now spreading reliance on expensive imports the population cannot afford. The horrors of life for many forest dwellers after Taylor's destructive projects are unimagined.

Yet, the UN Security Council, bowing to the greed and insensitivity of France and China, has decided to endorse the plunder of this tropical state to satisfy its members despite conscientious American and British objections. Their argument is that imposing sanctions on Liberia's timber will affect the people, an age-old argument opportunistically used by those who back any form of terror and plunder in the name of the people. Nevertheless, and to the contrary, Liberians across the spectrum, including church and university students, have made it clear that they wish the world could stop using their name to protect the criminal logging companies creating Hell where there is already Hell. They have indicated that the timber the world is protecting has become an instrument of their poverty and repression. They see no benefits from the depletion of their ancestral holdings, only destruction and misery coming out of the vanishing forests. Thus "the poor people" who would "suffer" prefer to "suffer" in saving their forest for a more humane future.

Although the French and the Chinese are determined to entrench their looting of the Liberian forest, it is never too late for world opinion to stop them. Timely and corrective actions are needed to save not only Liberia, but West Africa as a whole, since the disappearance of the Liberian forest will affect the ecology of neighbouring countries. It is here that fair treatment is required, using several precedents, particularly the UN policy on Iraqi oil.

Just as in the case of Iraq, the UN Security Council can save the rainforest by doing to Taylor what it has done to Saddam Hussein. Since it is not in the position to provide troops for protecting the rainforest, the UN could decree that funds earned through its depletion go into its escrow account, on condition that the money be released only for developmental purposes such as health, education, housing, road constructions, payment of salaries, etc. In this case, the UN could end the current batter spree of guns for timber that is destroying the region with long term and uglier implications. A ghastly alternative to the lack of action is continued expenditures on UN peacekeeping since criminals' depletion of national resources is linked to social unrest that sends societies asunder and breeds mass poverty and endless refugees. With the UN now spending US$1.5m a day on peacekeeping in Sierra Leone alone, policies aimed at arresting the regional chaos could prove more appropriate for the now expanding industry of "Conflict Resolution".

The fact of the matter is that Liberia, like most African countries, is an agrarian society. For centuries, its people have lived off the land, holding it sacred and protecting it for common interests. This is one of the fundamental reasons why land was a collective, communal property until the arrival of the free slaves who usurped it as personal property. But the ongoing onslaught on the forest is one of the least acknowledged crimes committed since Taylor launched his destructive and self-serving war in 1989. The forests fed his war machine and they are now feeding his lavish lifestyle, regional terror, while fostering the destruction of the people who live within it.

Since 1990, towns and villages have disappeared. Forests that once fed and protected rural communities have withered to cheaply decorate European living rooms and other establishments. France and China have become the main competitors in reducing Liberia to a desert. The Oriental Timber Company, which has brought in its own workers despite the over 85% unemployment rate in Liberia, has adopted a gold rush policy against the tropical rainforest. Increasingly, peasants are left helpless, afraid to protest for fear of AK-47s imported from Ukraine and elsewhere through the sale of their heritage - the forests.

Ivan Watson of the Voice of America, after a recent visit to areas deforested by Taylor and his foreign sponsors, noted: "There is no jungle remaining around Gbesee Town. But there is a four-lane wide unpaved highway called the OTC road. 'Dozens of trucks from the Oriental Timber Company, or OTC, barrel down the road every day, carrying logs to be loaded on ships waiting at Liberia's ports,' says Jonathon Osarade, born in Gbesee town. He says the road has provided better transportation to his remote community, but he said no one from Gbesee has been able to find work at the logging camp. He says Malaysians and Indonesians drive the OTC trucks. With soldiers and heavily armed police patrolling the logging port of Greenville, few residents dare voice any criticism. Timber company owner Oscar Cooper denies charges that his men are cracking down on public dissent. He says his company employs hundreds of Liberians. "What is the substitute?" he asks. "What would you lend the companies that you say are destroying the forests? Have you come up with a program that would provide jobs for the people, that would say, 'industry, let's do conservation logging?"

"Conservationists say there has been a dramatic increase in uncontrolled logging in this forest. Reg Hoyt, of the Philadelphia Zoo, says that since the end of Liberia's civil war in 1997, the export of forest timber has become the government's key source of revenue. "It almost, in my view, has resulted in a gold-rush-like mentality for the forests of Liberia," he says, "and my guess is that, with the size of the concessions and the size of some of the companies working here, we could see a loss of the vast majority of the pristine forests that remain right now within the next 10 years." It is one of the last pockets of untouched rain forest in West Africa. This lush Liberian jungle was home to the pygmy hippopotamus, more than 1,000 rare forest elephants, and over 200 species of trees. But now, that habitat is rapidly disappearing."

Determined to legally transform the forests and all other national resources into his personal property, something unimagined in what used to be Liberia's traditional culture, the thieving tyrant has sent a legislation to his cronies in the rubberstamp Legislature demanding that national treasures become his. Resources designated to his whims and ownership include:

"All Natural Forest Resources particularly forest products such as, Logs and Timbers and other unique and rare species of vegetation and trees common and indigenous to Liberia.

"All mineral resources particularly, GOLD, DIAMOND, HYDROCARBON and any other finite Natural Resources Deposits such as, Natural Gas, precious minerals; metals and stones, now discovered or to be discovered in the future, which have economic and commercial value; and may be marketable domestically and internationally. All unique and rare Sculptures, Arts and Artifact, Handiwork and Hand Crafts of historical cultural, social, spiritual and economic value to the Republic of Liberia. All food and agriculture products, such a rice, coffee, cocoa, rubber and sugar, marine life as well as rare and unique species of wildlife and fishery such as fish, animal and birds indigenous to Liberia."

The stampede against the forests to satisfy the insatiable greed of the tyrant is so widespread that one of his sponsored newspapers recently reported that:

"Judging from the destructive rate at which the Royal Timber Company (RTC) is reportedly extracting logs, indications are that Liberia will have no forest reserves within the next ten (10) years", a Liberian environmentalist (who) begged for anonymity has lamented.

"RTC, a foreign logging firm owned by Mr. Gus Kouwenhoven, a businessman of Dutch origin, is said to be extracting maximum selective logs from the Gbapolu forests. He observed that the bridge constructed by the RTC was purportedly in the name of development as the road on which the Royal Timber Corporation is only using the bridge it constructed for intensive logging operations."

What is evident here is that we are dealing with a group of individuals devoid of any moral scruples and therefore hold nothing sacred in the quest for personal wealth. Liberians, by themselves are powerless in halting the destruction of their forest. The disappearance of a loyal minister (J. Milton Teahjay) who questioned the timber plunder, along with the stationing armed security men to protect foreign timber companies, indicate how determined Taylor is in wiping out the forest to satisfying his high tastes and to finance his regional political projects of destruction. If the UN is fair, it will do unto Liberians what it has done for the Iraqis.

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