Harvesting Trees Sustainably in Liberia

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High-tech timber Inspecting logs in Buchanan, Liberia, to verify their origin before they are exported

Liberia, a country that for much of its recent history has been engaged in bloody wars, was once the last place on earth you'd expect to find a showcase for sustainable logging. As recently as 2003, before the country's timber industry was slapped with U.N. sanctions, revenues from the sale of lumber were being used to fund a brutal uprising in Sierra Leone next door. Timber companies maintained private militias, accused by human-rights groups of rape and torture. Logging vessels arrived at port laden with weapons.

And yet today the country is on the path to becoming a model for sustainable timber. Ever since the U.N. sanctions were lifted after democratic elections in 2006, Liberia has been working on a painstaking reboot of the industry. With help from the U.S. and the European Union, the country is seeking to position itself as a guilt-free source of timber. "Liberia is different from other countries because of its history," says Catherine Ray, a spokesperson for the E.U.'s commissioner for development. "They really want to avoid going back to where they were 20 years ago," when the timber industry was rife with corruption and violence.

At the center of Liberia's effort, which involves some of the most robust logging legislation in Africa, lies a high-tech tracking system. Each tree that has been cleared for cutting is assigned a bar code that follows the wood as it's chopped, skidded and hauled to port, allowing the authorities to trace each piece of exported lumber back to the stump where it grew. "We can flush out illegal timber in the supply chain," says Martín de la Serna, vice president of sales and marketing at Helveta, the company managing the system.

The stakes are huge. In 2013 the E.U. is expected to implement a ban on illegal timber. Liberia's transformation could give it a leg up on its competitors in providing the continent's customers with timber they can feel good about. It's a system that's worked for diamonds (whose buyers have learned to purchase gems that are certified as conflict free). But in an industry as lucrative and decentralized as logging, regulations and technology are only as good as the government that implements them. Bar codes are useful, but not if — as sometimes happens in Liberia — the laws are ignored or worked around by the bureaucrats charged with enforcing them. "The huge challenge that's presented by commercial forestry is that there's pressure on virtually everybody to cheat," says Frank Hawkins, vice president for Africa and Madagascar at Conservation International, an environmental group that is working with the country's forest communities.

Thankfully, help is on the way. In May, after two years of negotiations, the Liberian government signed an agreement with the E.U.: in exchange for guaranteeing that each piece of timber the country produces was harvested according to ethical and environmental guidelines, Liberia will be granted a certificate that will keep the door open to European markets after the ban on illegal timber goes into effect.

And that's good news for Liberians, says Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, head of the Sustainable Development Institute, a local watchdog organization. If the industry is going to keep clean, it will require constant pressure from above and below. Other countries — including Ghana, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo — have signed similar agreements, but Liberia was unique in that the government chose to expressly include representatives from the communities where logging takes place. Meetings were held in villages, representatives were called to the capital, and the terms of the agreement were translated into simple language to make it easier to understand.

Before the country descended into chaos in the late 1990s, commercial logging accounted for as much as 20% of GDP. Last year the forestry sector provided the government with $8 million, 2% of its revenue, and that is expected to increase to $55 million in the next two years. As long as the country's efforts at sustainability are seen as an ongoing project rather than a feather well lodged in the country's cap, market pressure will help keep the industry in line. "There will be a recognition that you can't allow this to go horribly wrong," says Siakor. After all, for Liberia, that's a road it knows well and doesn't want to travel again.