Liberia to Choose between Logging and future Climate Revenue
Trucks loaded with undressed timber are on the move again around Buchanan in Grand Bassa county, south-east Liberia.
The dust recalls the not-so-distant time when the timber trade was synonymous with war.
Liberia's rainforests are being primed as a lucrative and legal industry. Electronic tags allow consumers to trace the end-product right back to the stump. Photograph: Glenna Gordon/AFP/Getty Images
For 14 years, from 1989 to 2003, destruction of the forest paid for one of Africa's worst conflicts, subsequently filling the coffers of President Charles Taylor, now on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity.
At the end of April the first ship loaded with azobe and niangon, two highly prized species of timber, left the port of Buchanan, the United Nations having lifted the embargo it imposed in 2003-6 to deprive the armed militia of their main source of revenue.
Logging in Liberia is gradually gathering speed, but the country is still on its knees. The pitiful state of much of its infrastructure is probably the forest's best friend, making parts of it inaccessible. Work is starting from scratch as all the pre-2006 concessions having been scrapped.
Only a few companies have been allowed to launch forestry operations and new, stricter regulations apply. Trees felled for export must all bear a barcode to track their progress as far as the port of departure.
In a country still patrolled by 10,000 UN peacekeepers, timber is as closely watched as the diamond and iron ore mines. Last year the government registered only $2m in forestry income, according to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative established in 2007. In Taylor's time the trade was worth tens of millions of dollars.
How long can this respite last? "Look at what happened in Ghana and Ivory Coast. The forest vanished in 20 years. There is no reason why that shouldn't happen in Liberia," said Jessica Donovan of Conservation International (CI).
Liberia has almost half of the last forest in west Africa, which once reached from Guinea to Togo and is home to most of the surviving wildlife too. But pressure on the forest is growing. Driven by rising population, villagers are extending their clearings to grow more crops and collect firewood. "If the government fails to take the right decisions it will soon be too late," said Donovan. CI is calling for a two-year ban on new logging concessions.
Until recently conservationists had few arguments to persuade developing countries to protect their timber resources. Now efforts to limit climate change and tropical forests' part in CO2 capture have changed the picture. "We can say: 'Protecting nature will not cost you any money. It may even earn some'," Donovan added.
This is based on the hope that industrialised countries will soon compensate countries for not cutting down their forests, either by allocating part of development aid to combating deforestation or by setting up a market for forestry carbon credits, open to western firms.
No one can foresee the outcome of the climate negotiations but the prospect of this reward, titled Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (Redd), has raised such hopes that none of the rainforest nations can afford to miss out.
In Liberia, CI is lobbying the government directly, with access to expert advice and funds. "Redd is our priority. It represents the future for building a development model less predatory on natural resources," said Donovan.
To neutralise the main forces driving deforestation, CI recommends slowing down forestry and boosting the creation of natural parks, which would become forest-carbon concessions. Farming should move on from slash-and-burn to more intensive techniques. Each tonne of sequestered carbon is worth an average of $5, so such policies could earn the exchequer an estimated $40m a year, about a tenth of current income.
Some weeks ago the CI report was submitted to Christopher Neyor, the Liberian president's energy adviser. He is still undecided: "Until now our economy has always been linked to exploitation of the forest. I'm not saying it's the right strategy, but when your concern is surviving from one day to the next, you do not see climate change as a priority."
Time is short and Liberia cannot afford to wait. Conservationists need to show on the ground that Redd is not just idle talk. Otherwise the chainsaws will have the last word.
This article originally appeared in Le Monde