By Barcoding Trees, Liberia Looks to Save its Rainforests

A decade after a brutal civil war, the West African nation of Liberia has partnered with the European Union on a novel system for protecting its remaining forests — marking every harvestable tree so it can be traced to its final destination. But given Liberia’s history of conflict and corruption, will it work?

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?

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Liberia Equatorial Palm Oil

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An employee of the Swiss-based company SGS tags a tree trunk near Buchanan, Liberia.

To try to answer these questions, I recently traveled to Liberia to visit the country’s overgrown rubber and palm oil plantations, its logging forests, and its dilapidated port facilities.

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.

This is critical for a country desperate to boost timber exports. But it is also a potential threat to Liberia’s forests, which cover more than 4 million hectares, 45 percent of the country. They are home to the world’s only known viable population of pygmy hippos, as well as such indigenous wildlife as the Liberian mongoose, the Diana monkey, and the small antelope known as Jentink’s duiker, which is the rarest duiker in the world.

Can something as simple as barcoding enable Liberia to resume its timber trade while still protecting its forests? The system’s inventors at the British company Helveta call it “the world’s most advanced nationwide verification system for wood products.” Initially funded by USAID, the scheme has covered all the country’s commercial logged forests for the past two years.

Every tree in a forest with a logging concession must be tagged with a unique barcode. When that tree is cut, the action is recorded and new tags are attached to each log. Every log that turns up at a port has to be traceable back to a stump in a forest. It’s as simple and as foolproof as checking out at the supermarket, says Ivan Muir, the local boss of SGS, the Swiss specialists in forest certification systems who are in charge of making it happen. Muir also issues export permits for the timber — which mostly gets turned into furniture and paneling — and monitors royalty payments to the government.

Under the system, every log that turns up at a port must be traceable back to a stump in the forest.

The two main problems with the system, he says, are foresters misreading the barcodes, causing confusion on the database, and ignorance about how fast the trees grow. “We don’t know what the true sustainable harvesting rates are and how much logging we should allow,” he admits. And it remains to be seen whether the system will prove robust enough to defeat would-be forest plunderers in a country which recently discovered that a third of U.S. food aid disappeared after being routinely allocated to towns that did not exist.

But perhaps traceability is not the real issue. Maybe it’s politics — the politics of who owns the country’s natural resources. Many in Liberia say that such technocratic initiatives are bound to fail because the country is suffering from an extreme form of the phenomenon known as the “resource curse,” where natural riches bring strife and poverty rather than wealth and stability.

In any case, after 14 years of chaos and civil war, Liberia is open for business again. International investors are returning, in pursuit of the resources that are the nation’s only real source of wealth.

The world’s largest rubber plantation, close to the main airport outside the capital of Monrovia, is back in operation. The 400,000-hectare Firestone concession dates back to the 1920s, but was virtually abandoned to squatters, militias, and charcoal burners during the civil war. Now the government has extended Firestone’s franchise until 2041, and the company has 7,000 employees back on the payroll. As I saw during a tour last November, they and their families are living in refurbished company housing, serviced by company schools, clinics, and a hospital.

The Firestone plantation is a huge enclave largely cut off from the rest of Liberia. The links to the United States, while increasingly anachronistic, are strong. Workers are transported in old yellow U.S. school buses. Most agreements with locals are signed only when the American managing director shows up. When I visited the company PR man, he had the Book of Mormon on his desk.

Meanwhile, a Dutch-based company called Buchanan Renewables is turning millions of rubber trees that no longer yield resin into wood chips for sale to European power stations. The roads around the rubber plantations are covered with chips that have fallen off the trucks that head every 10 minutes or so for Buchanan port. The company’s local manager, Irishman Liam Hickey, reckons there are 250,000 hectares of defunct rubber trees in Liberia — enough to keep his chippers busy for decades.

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Liberia Equatorial Palm Oil

Photo courtesy of Fred Pearce
A new palm oil nursery on a Liberian plantation owned by UK-based Equatorial Palm Oil.

Hickey promises that some of the chips will soon be burned to provide “green power” for Monrovia, a ramshackle city that currently gets by on a few hours of electricity a day. “Light up Liberia,” Buchanan Renewable’s billboards say. But two years after the power project was announced, there is no sign of construction at the power station site, let alone light. Hickey says he hopes to break ground on the project in September. But critics say this is another example of Liberia’s natural resources being shipped out at the earliest opportunity, rather than conserved for the country’s benefit.

In June, the world’s largest steel company, ArcelorMittal, will begin making its first shipments to Buchanan port from a reopened upcountry iron ore mine. And palm oil will soon be shipped from old plantations being revived by new British and Malaysian owners. Last week, Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby announced plans to invest $3.1 billion over 15 years in its Liberian palm oil operations, with production expected to begin by 2015.

It may look like a renewed hemorrhaging of the country’s resources, but some environmentalists believe the rebirth of Liberia gives them a chance. With its pioneering timber barcodes at the fore, they say, Liberia could become the poster child for a new green economy in Africa. Most optimistic is Conservation International (CI). “Liberia has an opportunity to show the world how it is done,” says Frank Hawkins, who heads CI’s African operation. “They start from a fresh place.”

But Hawkins admits that the perils of the resource curse remain. There are “people with very large check books” able and willing to bribe government officials so they can ransack the country, he notes. “The short-term temptations are so large, and the people involved are so unscrupulous.”

Under President Charles Taylor, now on trial for war crimes, timber and terror went together.

In 2010, the NGO Global Witness revealed that the Liberian government had leased a fifth of its forests to a British company, Carbon Harvesting Corporation. The company didn’t want to harvest the trees. It wanted to profit by selling carbon credits earned under the proposed UN system for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). Since there is no immediate risk to the forests concerned, this seemed a dubious proposition. But the real scandal, according to Global Witness, was that if nobody bought the credits, the contract would leave the Liberian government liable for up to $2.2 billion a year in compensation. That amounted to more than the country’s entire GDP.

Last June, the City of London Police arrested Carbon Harvesting’s director, Mike Foster, on suspicion of bribery, and a Liberian official in Monrovia was dismissed. But no case has yet come to court in Britain.

With a presidential election set for this October, many fear politics could destabilize the country in the same way as happened in neighboring Ivory Coast late last year, when a disputed election led to armed conflict. In Liberia, the grievances that caused the long civil war remain, and are rooted in control over the country’s natural wealth.

To understand this requires a little history. The nation of Liberia is unique in Africa. It is the creation not of European colonialists but of American philanthropists who, in the mid-19th century, purchased this thinly inhabited coast of West Africa to provide an independent state for freed slaves.

The freed slaves, who formed their own nation in 1847, initially had little to do with the forest-dwelling native people, who retreated to the interior. For more than a century, the descendents of these ex-slaves, who still comprise less than 3 percent of the Liberian population, ran the country with U.S. financial support, while leasing much of the interior to foreign concessioners for timber, minerals, and plantations.

This hegemony collapsed in 1980 when Samuel Doe, a native army sergeant from the Krahn tribe in the interior, seized power. He was the country’s first indigenous president. His rule proved precarious, especially after the end of the cold war led to the U.S. reducing its financial backing for the country. Doe was deposed by Libyan-trained warlord Charles Taylor.

Under Taylor, timber and terror went together. Taylor’s brother ran the Forestry Development Authority, while his cronies formed timber companies that employed Taylor’s child-warrior militias to protect their concessions. Unlikely loggers included a notorious Ukrainian arms trafficker named Leonid Minin. Another, the Oriental Timber Company, was granted logging rights to a quarter of Liberia’s forests and reputedly bought arms for Taylor rather than paying taxes on the timber.

After the UN timber embargo helped restore peace in 2003, the hope has been that timber sales could now become a means for stability, prosperity, and even sustainability. But in order for that to happen, the politics will have to be right. And the common perception among indigenous Liberians I met is that the country and its natural resources have been taken over again by the hated Americo-Liberian elite. Many Liberians fled to Monrovia during the civil war, but say the subsequent sale of the countryside means there is no reason to go home.

Alfred Brownell, the bullish boss of Green Advocates, an environmental-law NGO in Liberia, told me in the semi-darkness of a power outage in central Monrovia that the government had returned to business-as-usual. “We estimate that $16 billion investment has come into Liberia from abroad in the past five years, and it has all been linked to exploiting natural resources,” he said. “The government is giving out large areas of land and throwing the people a few crumbs. Ministers are drunk with the idea that multinational investment will bring economic recovery. But it won’t. The multinationals just take our resources.”

Firestone, he pointed out, had been growing rubber in the country for eight decades and had never manufactured so much as a rubber band there. Looked at that way, those barcodes on the trees can be seen as a symbol of repression, not environmentalism. “I think things will explode again,” Brownell said.

Many indigenous Liberians hope their next president will be George Weah, a former soccer star and member of the Kru tribe, who they believe was the rightful winner of the 2005 election. But nobody knows what his policies would be. President Sirleaf, meanwhile, has her billboards up across Monrovia. “Liberia will rise again,” they say. The message is disturbingly double-edged.