How Deforestation Could Further Destabilize Liberia

Adjoining Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, the Republic of Liberia flares-out into the mangrove-lined shoes of the Atlantic. Traversing this region are the Upper Guinea Forests, which flank the West African coastline as far east as Nigeria and Cameroon, a region of great biodiversity, which faces some environmental uncertainties. Populated by large bird and mammal diversities, with over 20 indigenous primates, these forests also support human societies. The trees that form this ecosystem also include ebony, two mahogany species, and several other valuable hardwoods, which are prized by timber merchants. 

Roughly 40% of the Upper Guinea Forests span across Liberia, which have been listed by the World Wildlife Fund as a Global Ecoregion. However, new reports from Global Witness suggest that uncontrolled logging in the region is rife, and roughly half of the remaining Liberian forest is being felled via illegal permits. This could have major implications for the biodiversity; but such uncontrolled forestry could further impact future socio-political and economic stability, too.

Years of Insurgence  

Following World War II, Liberia began modernizing and became a founding member of the United Nations and Organisation of African Unity. However, in 1980 Samuel Doe, of regional Khan ethnicity, launched a rebellion that overthrew the government, forming the People’s Redemption Council, which led to corruption and political instability. In 1985, Thomas Quiwonkpa organized a failed counter-coup, which resulted in Doe’s army executing members of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups. 

Directed by Charles Taylor, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia launched an insurgence in 1989 with the support of neighbouring African nations; this initiated the First Liberian Civil War, and the subsequent year, Doe was captured and executed, following which the rebel groups turned on themselves until a peace agreement was reached in 1995, and Taylor’s election as president in 1997. In 1999, other rebel groups launched attacks against Taylor, igniting in the Second Liberian Civil War, which continued until 2003. Around 250,000 people died in the conflicts, a million more individuals were displaced, and the national economy collapsed. 

Timber sales were used to fund the purchase of weapons during the wars, which along with encroaching slash and burn agriculture, large people movements, high population growth, rising unemployment, and increased competition for land, has led to growing rates of deforestation.  Additionally, new clandestine and frequently illegal logging contracts, issued to major logging companies, could seriously threaten the remaining Liberian forests.

Legislation Loopholes

Almost half of Liberia’s remaining virgin rainforest is prone to logging due to unregulated private contracts, or Private Use Permits (PUPs), despite logging laws implemented in 2006, when the current President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was elected. The United States and European Union have further supported recent forestry regulations to prevent the export of illegally felled logs to Europe, and encourage sustainable forest management. Even so, a report from Global Witness discovered that secret and often illegal permits are being issued that ignore national forestry laws, to which Johnson Sirleaf, who has been acclaimed for alleviating logging corruption, has ordered an investigation. 

Despite the Liberian government’s 2012 moratorium on PUPs, which were only established for small-scale farmers, they continue to be issued to other logging firms, allowing for regulation avoidance. Currently, according to officials, 66 companies have PUPs, including Samling, Malaysia’s infamous logging firm, which is also known to be illegally logging in Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and Guyana.

Broken Promises

For communities who live in the Liberian forests, the prospect of controlled loggers was, initially, warmly welcomed. It was assumed that when the logging companies agreed to sign the PUPs, they would also deliver financial support to remote regions, build roads, and develop infrastructure. Yet these promises have yet to materialise; indeed, many logging companies deny responsibility for such development or say there were confusions over what was originally agreed. Accordingly, forest communities are not benefiting from the logging and are losing their surrounding environment, whilst the Liberian government is not receiving taxes, either. 

According to sources, Moses Wogbeh, the Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority, who signs each PUP, states that the law is being followed and that no PUPs have been granted since this year’s moratorium. Even so, suspicions grew and Wogbeh was suspended last week, with a full investigation now proceeding. Concerns are that illegal PUPs have been issued to logging firms, which are now spreading further into the undergrowth and advancing the rates of deforestation.  

Lessons from the Past

History reveals that environmental destruction, combined with political instability and high levels of population growth, can lead to societal collapses. According to the United Nations, Liberia has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world, which when combined with a stressed environment, a struggling economy, and fragmented socio-political demographics – products of decades of civil war – could result in further conflicts. The entrenched Hutu and Tutsi racial divisions formed the catalyst for the wars and genocides in Rwanda, Burundi and the DR Congo, which are thought to originate from high population growth rates, unsustainable farming, environmental degradation, increased competition for fertile land, and ultimately national and regional conflicts. 

Thus, similar trends could follow in Liberia, exacerbating the already troubled region, especially if the current rates of deforestation, population growth, rising unemployment, economic insecurities, and reduced areas of fertile land, due to badly managed forests, continue. 

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Jonathan Booth

BSc in Marine Biology, MSc in Sustainable Engineering and PGCE/MEd in Secondary Science. Travelled and worked across East Asia, Oceania, the Middle East and Africa.

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