Lifting of UN timber ban gives hope for economic revival

The UN Security Council has lifted a ban on Liberian timber exports and the government has promised to harness earnings from the multi-million dollar trade for reconstruction and development of the war-wearied country.

Liberia's logging industry, focused on the southeast and northwest regions, has been off-limits since the UN banned its member states from buying Liberian logs in 2003. The Security Council said the government of former Liberian president Charles Taylor was using the US $15 million industry to fuel war in the region.

But Liberia now has an elected peace-time government, headed by Africa's first female President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

The resolution lifting the sanctions, passed unanimously on Tuesday, said the 15-member Council recognised her new government's “commitment to transparent management of the country's forestry resources for the benefit of Liberians, and its reforms in the timber sector."

However, the resolution warned that its decision would be reviewed in 90 days, and "urged speedy adoption" of forestry legislation.

In February, just one month after she took office, Sirleaf nullified 70 forest concession agreements, the majority of which were signed by Charles Taylor. Information Minister Gabriel Williams told IRIN that new agreements will guard against "the criminality that once robbed the country's resources."

He added that, "the government expects to generate substantial revenues to be able to be meet our reconstruction needs".

The managing director of the Liberian government-run Forestry Development Authority, John Woods, estimated in April that the forestry sector could generate up to US $20 million for the government, and put 7,000 people back into work.

Though the lifting of the ban was widely welcomed in Liberia, Natalie Ashworth of Global Witness, an organisation in the UK that monitors natural resources in conflict zones and campaigned for the timber ban to be slapped on in 2003, said the move came too soon.

"Reforms are definitely moving in the right direction. But it would be unrealistic to say that just six months after the new government came in everything could be in place," she said.

But Mike McGovern at the conflict prevention NGO International Crisis Group, said that even if systems were not 100 percent secure, the anticipated revenue would be welcome.

"It is a question of how high you set the bar? you have to think about the need for revenue streams that will benefit ordinary Liberians. If you have got 20 percent leakage and 80 percent going to the right places, then that is probably good enough," he said.

Last week, the UN Security Council partially lifted a 16-year ban on arms sales to Liberia, to allow the security forces to carry guns.

A separate ban on trading Liberian diamonds, dubbed blood diamonds since the UN found in 2001 that Taylor's government was exchanging the precious stones for arms, has been extended until the end of the year, pending Liberia’s meeting the conditions to join the Kimberly Process, an international diamond tracking system.

ak/nr/ss