Nearly two-thirds of West Africa’s remaining rainforests are in the small but troubled nation of Liberia. That is a small miracle. A decade ago, Liberia’s forests were being stripped bare by warlords to fund a vicious 14-year civil war that left 150,000 dead. In 2003, the United Nations belatedly imposed an embargo on Liberian “logs of war.” Revenues crashed and, coincidentally or not, the war swiftly came to an end.
Now the elected government of Harvard-trained President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has signed a deal with the European Union to place timber sales on a permanently legal footing. The deal, agreed to this month, makes use of a unique national timber-tracking system that requires every legally harvestable tree and every cut log to carry a barcode that will enable it to be tracked from its origin to its final destination.
But will it tame the illegal loggers? Can Liberia, a poverty-stricken country that relies heavily on the sale of its natural resources, police even such a seemingly foolproof system? If so, could Liberia, as environment groups such as Conservation International suggest, be on the verge of creating a green economic model for the rest of the continent? Or will putting the country’s natural resources back on sale plunge Liberia back into conflict?
The European Union is Liberia’s largest market for timber. Starting in early 2013, the EU will require all companies importing timber to demonstrate that it has been legally harvested. The deal with Liberia will allow the new timber concession holders put in place by Sirleaf to comply with these new regulations.