Liberia + 1 more

Lucrative timber trade fuels Liberian war misery

While the spotlight is on U.N. sanctions against Liberian President Charles Taylor, aid organisations working in the country are struggling with a growing humanitarian crisis caused by the spread of rebel fighting. Thalia Griffiths considers how the international community can best help Liberia find lasting peace and development.

Aid organisations are warning that the situation could worsen in Liberia, where rebels struck just 100 km from the capital at the beginning of September. The attack, on a logging station at Gbopolu, suggests that the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) are doing better than expected.

The rebel movement is made up of former fighters from the 1989-96 civil war, many of whom became refugees in Guinea and Ivory Coast after the end of the war. Until now, their rebellion had been largely confined to Upper Lofa, on the unstable borders with Guinea and Sierra Leone.

There is no suggestion that the rebels will be able to topple Taylor, who led the largest faction in the civil war before winning elections in 1997. However, the insecurity makes it harder for people in rural areas to resume their normal lives and plant vital food crops, and food stores are at risk from rebel raids.

Aid organisations are complaining that the southward spread of fighting is making it difficult for them to keep supplying aid to camps for internally displaced persons who have fled the fighting.

More than 35,000 internally displaced people have been registered within Liberia since March 2001, while the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered another 12,000 Liberians in eastern Sierra Leone and more than 4,500 in Ivory Coast.

A statement issued at the end of August by 17 international NGOs active in Liberia called on the international community to recognise the need for continued support to NGOs in their emergency, reconstruction, and development activities.

The "downturn in humanitarian aid for development and reconstruction in Liberia is having a serious and negative impact on the most vulnerable elements of the country's population," the NGOs said.

DIAMOND EXPORTS BANNED

The government blames U.N. sanctions for its inability to provide basic services, although the sanctions are limited to a ban on travel for senior government and business figures and a ban on the export of diamonds aimed at stopping Taylor selling gems mined illegally by Sierra Leonean rebels to buy weapons.

In one grim indicator of the seriousness of the crisis, Sierra Leone last week identified a site for a new Liberian refugee camp capable of hosting 10,000 people at Jimmy Bargbo, in the southeastern Bo district. Liberian refugees are currently housed in other temporary settlements in Bo district, which they share with returning Sierra Leonean refugees. The UNHCR said the new site would permit the Liberians to be housed together.

Another worry is the number of Sierra Leonean rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who are crossing the border to support Taylor against the LURD instead of demobilising.

There are fears that they may remain along the border carrying out periodic raids on vulnerable villages as in the early years of the RUF rebellion, returning the area to the levels of insecurity of the early 1990s.

Rebel spokesman Joe Wylie said that LURD forces had targeted the logging company at Gbopolu because "logging is next to the diamond trade" in generating funds for Taylor, who is the main backer of rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

The Strategic Commodities Act, passed into law last year, places Liberia's timber, diamonds and other natural resources directly under Taylor's control.

"It is logging which keeps the Charles Taylor war machinery going. So we have to discourage them from doing business with Mr Taylor," Wylie told the BBC.

ROLE OF TIMBER INDUSTRY

A report by a panel of experts presented to the Security Council in December 2000 highlighted the role of the Liberian timber industry in the regional conflict, but the Security Council rejected a proposal to include the timber trade in the sanctions introduced in May because of objections from France and China, which between them imported 71 percent of Liberia's timber exports in 2000. Britain, Italy, Denmark and Germany also purchase significant quantities of Liberian logs.

A report by the NGO Global Witness published on September 6 documents the role of Liberia's logging industry in funding Taylor's security forces and arms imports.

With diamond income cut off by sanctions, the timber industry, which generated income estimated at $100 million last year, is all the more important to Taylor.

Patrick Alley of Global Witness told AlertNet that if logging continued at the current rate, Liberia's forests could be cleared completely within five years.

"These profits did not benefit the state but they provide the resources essential to Charles Taylor's war machine. Unless this income is curtailed, regional security will be impossible. Timber-related jobs in Liberia are few, seasonal and insecure, other than those provided to expatriates. Sanctions will damage a warlord elite and a greedy industry far more than most Liberians, already living in abject poverty in a land with virtually no infrastructure," the report said.

Global Witness is calling for an embargo on Liberian timber and on Taylor's other main source of revenue, the Liberian Shipping Register. The International Transport Workers Federation has launched a campaign to highlight the use of funds from the Liberian flag of convenience, which is used by major companies such as Royal Caribbean International and Germany's Hamburg Sud. A U.N. panel of experts has launched an investigation into how the Register's revenues are used.

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Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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