Liberian Logs Fuel War: In Liberia, the Plunder of the Rainforest Has Taken on a New, Sinister Twist-It's Paying for Bloody Warfare, Facilitating Arms Trafficking and Propping Up One of Africa's Most Corrupt Regimes. Meanwhile the International Timber Industry Continues to Profit from These `Logs of War'. (Liberian Logging)

Article excerpt

THE PLEADING EYES OF A DYING YOUTH, HIS face charred from being burnt inside a plastic bag; prisoners forced to walk barefoot over broken bottles; drug-addicted child soldiers eating the hearts of their victims. These are just some of the harrowing images of the last decade of conflict in West Africa.

It was hoped that such brutality would be consigned to history in May 2001, when the UN took steps to end the trade in `conflict diamonds', starving the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of its revenue flow and so helping to bring peace to Sierra Leone. Yet in Liberia conflict rumbles on, the government's Armed Terrorist Unit (ATU) continues to terrorise its people, and arms traders still find that business is booming. It seems that a different natural resource is funding the bloodshed. `Conflict timber' is the new currency of chaos in West Africa today.

In recent months Liberia has been devastated by escalating hostilities between the government and the rebel group Liberians United for the Return of Democracy (LURD). Forced conscription, looting, torture and rape have become daily, government backed realities. In February 2002 an alleged dissident collaborator told Amnesty International how his scrotum was hammered flat by a member of the ATU; and how a 14-year-old girl was held for six days by ATU members, "during which time all seven repeatedly gang-raped her".

Horrific as they are, such stories are far from exceptional, mere details on a canvas of suffering endured by the Liberian people, suffering that many believe is being paid for by the Liberian timber industry.

The evidence for this is compelling, so much so that, in December 2000 and October 2001, two separate UN panels of experts recommended a UN embargo on Liberian round log exports. Despite the backing of many member states, including the UK, these attempts to clean up the trade have been blocked by the world's largest importers of Liberian timber, France and China. Yet these UN reports and work by British pressure group Global Witness--which has been nominated for a Nobel peace prize for its contribution to the `conflict diamond' issue--reveals an industry steeped in corruption, operated by much of the same network of crooked businessmen, mafiosos and arms dealers that ran the illicit diamond trade.

At the top sits Liberia's president Charles Taylor. With the lucrative trade in conflict diamonds under increasing scrutiny, Taylor invoked constitutional changes that gave him more control over the country's forests. These represent some of the last prime rainforest on Earth, home to thousands of animal and plant species, including the endangered pygmy hippopotamus, forest elephant and Liberian mongoose. But with forestry revenue going directly to the Taylor-controlled executive mansion, a handful of corporations have been allowed to ravage the forests, free of even the most cursory environmental and humanitarian controls.

Prime among these has been the oriental Timber Company (OTC). Run by Gus Van Kouwenhoven, a Dutch businessman already notorious for his alleged involvement in arms smuggling and drugs running, OTC was granted a concession of unprecedented size, some 16,000 square kilometres--roughly 42 per cent of Liberia's productive forest. Despite public promises to the contrary, it has been logged with unprecedented haste and disdain for both the environment and the Liberian people. As a villager in an OTC concession told Global Witness in July 2001, "The ground is now wasted, and there is nothing left for the villagers in the bush. Our roots have gone."

OTC and other logging companies have become militarised operations, employing ex-combatants as armed militiamen. These ostensibly act as security, preventing rival companies logging their concessions, but there have been countless reports of forest dwellers and local authorities being intimidated into cooperation. …