BRUSSELS (CN) - Last December, when Saskia Ozinga - a U.K.-based environmental justice campaigner - traveled to the heavily forested Rivercess region of Liberia, she was surprised to witness local community leaders discussing a European regulation to end illegal logging there. The impressive level of community involvement in Liberia reflects the potential for future success of the initiative, she thinks.
Liberia this month signed a voluntary partnership agreement with the European Union, which guarantees Liberian timber unrestricted access to European markets, in exchange for a license system certifying it has been legally logged. In Liberia, where rampant illegal logging funded the country's prolonged civil war and decimated forests there in the 1990s, the million-dollar question is: will such a system work? This is especially pressing considering that Liberia hosts nearly half of all remaining rainforest in Western Africa.
The European Union is banking on the effectiveness of its regulatory scheme, as Liberia is the sixth country to have signed such an agreement - after four other African nations and Indonesia. These voluntary partnerships are the central plank in an EU plan to stem illegal logging in the developing world, set to take full effect by 2014.
European Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs stated he was "pleased to see that yet another country joins our common fight against illegal logging." The agreement "will contribute to sustainable development and poverty alleviation in Liberia on the one hand, and will benefit the European consumers because they can be sure that Liberian wood is legal."
Up to 20 percent of illegally harvested wood from around the world makes its way into EU markets every year, the commission says.
The agreements focus on establishing a licensing system that would certify wood has been harvested in accord with national law. Reshaped national laws underpin the agreement.
In Liberia, a forestry reform law would set aside a third of forests for conservation, allow a third to continue to be harvested for tribal subsistence, and sanction the auctioning off of another third as concessions for commercial logging. A community rights law clarifies land title and ownership, another core requirement to stem illegal logging.
Since the partnership agreement requires these laws to be clear and consistent, it should lead to better implementation of them, Ozinga says. She's the campaign coordinator for Fern, a Dutch organization that protects forests and the rights of forest people.
A dark timber history
All was not well for Liberian logging in years past. During the civil war from 1989 to 2003, export logging increased under a corrupt administration intent on maintaining its grip. During this time, millions of dollars of logging revenues simply went unaccounted for.
The Oriental Timber Company, based in Malaysia and headed by Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven, was among the biggest loggers in Liberia during that time. Kouwenhoven continues to face charges for arms dealing and war crimes connected to the logging trade in Liberia.
In 2003, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on timber and diamond exports from the African nation. The sanctions were lifted three years later after the UN determined Liberia had made progress reforming its industry.
The European Union in 2005 established a forest law enforcement, governance and trade plan. Non-governmental organizations, including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and Fern, signed a joint statement that year expressing a number of concerns with the legislation.
A 2008 regulation implemented the plan, while the individual voluntary partnership agreements attended to the legal contexts of each individual country. In different ways, the separate agreements largely addressed concerns of the groups, Ozinga says. For example, all six agreements apply to both exports and domestic markets, while checks are also intended to assure that the licensing system won't be based on corrupt existing systems.
Signing agreements with a handful of countries is not enough, says Sebastien Risso, EU forest policy director with Greenpeace. This doesn't cover indirect trade, Risso told the Courthouse News Service. "The signature of a partnership is only a first step," Risso claims, adding that voluntary partnership agreements "can only work if supported by additional legislation."
The Liberian-based Sustainable Development Institute published a report last year slamming the Liberian government for a perceived lack of political will to reform the forestry sector. The national forestry development authority, the institute said, lacks the capacity to enforce current laws, while large-scale logging projects promoted by the World Bank would do little to alleviate poverty. The report went so far as to say that the voluntary partnership agreement could be used to "greenwash" illegal logs.
The Sustainable Development Institute report was a "shot across the bow," Ozinga says. "It was hard-hitting, but well received," she continues. The EU-Liberia agreement was actively supported by non-governmental organizations, the logging industry and civil society, she says.
The process of establishing the voluntary partnership agreement "could and should become a model for how to ensure natural resources management will bring benefits to a country and its peoples," says Silas Siakor, director of the institute and 2006 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
"Other sectors like mining and palm oil should follow a similar model," Siakor asserts.
There's a lot of basic work that still needs to be done, Ozinga emphasizes.
But in this process, "the voice of civil society has been heard here in a way not done before," Ozinga says. And that bodes well for its future.
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