Thursday, April 24, 2008

If a tree falls in Liberia, who will profit?

Three companies in Liberia are getting ready to begin logging, creating jobs and funding basic services, the government and other development agencies say.

The United Nations Security Council banned Liberia from exporting timber in 2003, after learning warlords were diverting profits to purchase weapons, expanding fighting in that country and Sierra Leone. At that point, timber sales made up 20 percent of the country’s GDP, increasing significantly from 6 percent more than a decade before.

A World Bank forestry export working in Liberia told IRIN that logging will begin bringing in nearly $2 for the Liberian government this year, but that amount will jump to $26 million by the end of 2010. As part of the reform agreed to by the government to have the timber ban lifted, an international group of development agencies, the World Bank and USAID will monitor logging and profits to avoid illegal logging and the siphoning of revenue.

A group of internal and West African environmental organizations argue that the international group nor the Liberian government has not been stringent enough in properly vet those groups and individuals applying for logging licenses. One particular problem they see is loopholes in the rules against awarding contracts to “those who have aided and abetted civil disturbances.”

As former Liberian-based human rights campaigner Shelby Grossman points out in her blog, the groups are most likely speaking about Maryland Wood Processing Industries, owned by Abbas Fawas, a Lebanese man that allegedly worked closely with Charles Taylor. There’s a whole host of ugly stuff about Abbas on the internet; absent from the trial against Charles Taylor, his name does appear in testimony at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Most importantly, it is unknown whether Abbas has applied for a permit to continue logging.

It should be remembered that the Liberian president recently tabled a law that would make it illegal for foreigners to own business in 26 sectors, a move supported by most of the local business community. The bill came about over fears of Lebanese power within Liberian economy.

In their press release, the environmental groups also claim that the country -- like other West African nations -- has not passed a proper community rights law that will codify who exactly will profit from the extraction of resources, a noted method to insure rural development.

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