Timber, Maritime Program and Democracy in Liberia

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective

October 2, 2001

For its first public debut, the Liberian Democratic Initiative (LDI), scored a master stroke by bringing on stage a set of great panelists who one after another discussed issues ranging from the environment to the political climate in Liberia today.

The meeting took place this past Friday, at the Rayburn Building, at the United States Congress and brought together Liberians from the Washington, DC area as well as people as far as from London, England. Global Witness, the environmental NGO concern delegated one of its members to present Global Witness' reading of the current situation in Liberian.

Two former officials of the Forestry Development Administration, Mr. John Woods and Dr. Charles Woefle spoke of the program, why and how it was established, its priorities and the policies put in place by past administrations to protect and nurture the Liberian forest, which, according to Dr. Woefle, is still the single largest body of rainforest in the world, before adding that at the rate things are going in Monrovia, in ten years, there would be no forest left. While Mr. Woods spoke mostly about the technical aspect of the forestry program, Dr. Woefle emphasized the negative effects the current trend would have on the climate and social life of Liberia. Both speakers stressed the need for control and reforestation.

Speaking on behalf of Global Witness, Ms. Alice Blondel underlined the destructive effects the careless de-forestation and destruction of the rainforest going on in Liberia on the environment. She pointed out that there was a linkage between timber exploitation in Liberia and the on-going war in Sierra Leone. She said that after the sanctions regime was imposed, eyewitnesses saw arms being unloading at the port of Buchanan and carried by a helicopter belonging to Mr. Taylor's ATU. Her organization, in conjunction with the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) published and distributed a report titled Taylor-Made and dealing with many aspects of the timber industry in Liberia.

Mr. Milton Teajay, a former deputy minister of information and media consultant to President Charles Taylor, noted that there was no difference between the ATU, the militia working in the timber area and those sent to fight on the front, be it in Sierra Leone or Lofa. Mr. Teajay, who escaped from Liberia in very strange conditions after many thought he had been arrested and killed, spoke of "economic vampires" who are sucking the blood of Liberia, with the complicity of the country's political leadership. An example he gave was that of a total control by timber companies of entire areas in Southeastern Liberia where villagers are restricted from hunting or venturing in many areas of their lands. "People no longer have the right to go hunting on their own land, there are places where nobody returns from, the local head of the Taylor timber company is the most powerful person in the region. He can put anyone in jail at anytime. He responds to nobody but the President himself!." Milton Teahjay, once an ardent apologist of Mr. Taylor - who criticized Taylor's pepperbush (the timber industry) after he fell out of favor, touched also on the lack of accountability in government today. "There is no difference between private and public accounts." He added, "People received their per diem in the living room, either at the Minister's house or the President's. There is no paperwork and nobody seems to be accountable to [anybody]." He finally raised alarms about the old tribal divide in Liberia, saying, "the Americo-Liberian oligarchy has returned and controlled everything, using natives against each other to achieve their goals."

The ITF delegate, Mr. Howard Stuart presented a very grim view of the Liberian Maritime program, which he termed "flag of convenience system." He explained that under this program, countries used their sovereignty to allow companies to use their flag, providing these companies with nationalities. "The problem, in the case of Liberia, is that there is no real control of who gets that flag. Companies using the Liberian flag do not have any presence in Liberia and seem to be accountable to no-one as long as they pay their taxes to the government of Liberia." He called for a review and restructuring of the program that would at least ensure that corporations using the Liberian flag had a presence and an address in Liberia and can be found when they need to be tracked down.

During the question-and answer period, two representatives of the Liberian Government attempted to convince an overly pessimistic audience that things were not as bad as they sounded. Mr. George Aku, of the Maritime Program took issue with Mr. Stuart and said that the issue of the day was the environment and not the maritime program. Mr. Aaron Kollie, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Liberia in Washington said that it was not in the best interest of Liberians to call for the imposition of sanctions on Liberian timber, which at this time constitutes the only source of revenue for the government. "A few months ago, people talked about blood diamonds, now they are talking about blood timber, without any proof..." Some members of the audience called for a freeze of all monies deriving from the Maritime Program until the advent of democracy. Mr. Kollie pleaded with panelists and audience alike that instead of calling for the strangulation of the government, they should come up with proposals that could lead to a change in behavior back home. "I am sure the government will take positive advises into account," Mr. Kollie said.

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