SEATTLE — Across the world, forest communities–despite living in areas rich in natural resources such as timber–remain some of their country’s poorest citizens; with profits made off timber going directly into the pockets of local elites and international investors.
Such is the case in Liberia–a country that has a forested area the size of Denmark–where logging practices have for decades benefited only a select local and foreign elite.
Exemplary of the much-discussed ‘paradox of plenty’ that occurs in many resource-rich, but economically poor countries (especially in Africa), logging practices in Liberia have occurred to the detriment of local populations and the country’s fragile ecosystem.
During the country’s 14-year civil war between, for instance, the sale of Liberian timber on the international market helped to fund warring factions, including that of former president Charles Taylor. Since the civil war ended in 2003, illegal logging then became an increasingly common practice as a way to make quick cash.
In more recent years, researchers have also connected the outbreak of Ebola with logging practices, which brings people into closer contact with the root of the virus.
The country’s forested area, which is home to a huge part of West Africa’s remaining rainforest and constitutes 43 percent of the Upper Guinean forest, has also seen its borders significantly diminished over the years.
The ‘paradox of plenty’ experienced in Liberia was highlighted when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office in 2006 and promised to enforce better forest management by cracking down on corruption in the forest sector.
President Sirleaf’s efforts, however, were largely unsuccessful, as many large logging companies continued to ignore laws and avoid taxes intended to protect small land-holders living within forested areas.
In 2014, Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel further shed light on the issue with a report entitled Grain, Fish, Money, which focused on the paradox of plenty within forest sectors–including Liberia’s.
Mr. Annan’s Africa Progress Panel has long advocated for better management and re-distribution of Africa’s natural resources so that these resources can be used to benefit local communities and help lift them out of poverty.
This summer, it seems that Mr. Annan and his Africa Progress Panel’s calls for better forest management within Africa has finally been answered, with a historic $150m forest protection deal made between Liberia and Norway.
The deal pledges that the Norwegian government will give $150m in development aid up to the year 2020 if Liberia maintains its current forest boundaries.
In order to achieve this, the deal encourages the Liberian government to put local forest communities in charge of conserving their own forests–thereby helping to shift Liberia’s forest beneficiaries from foreign and local elites, to the populations who actually live within the forest.
As Liberia continues to reel from the outbreak (and recent re-occurrence) of Ebola, the country’s deal with Norway offers a hopeful way out of what many consider to be an inescapable cycle of poverty.
Bolstered by funds from the Norwegian government, the deal will enable Liberia to develop new and long-term forest development plans and help bolster income gains among local, poor forest communities.
The infusion of Norwegian cash into the country will also enable Liberia to avoid the environmental degradation that inevitably occurs as a result of large-scale logging.
According to experts, the Liberia-Norway deal, could also serve as an inspiring model for other resource-rich, but economically poor, African countries– who continue to strip their forests for the short-term benefit of fast cash.
Using development aid as a means of leveraging environmental agendas could thus serve as a novel way out of the ‘paradox of plenty’: by ensuring that developing countries rich in natural resources, and the local communities who depend upon them for their livelihoods, can actually reap some benefit from them.
Local environmental activists within Liberia have also lauded the deal and the efforts made by the Norwegian government to protect threatened forests abroad.
“This partnership holds promise not only for the forest and climate; but for forest communities that have been marginalized for generations,” said Silas Siakor, a Liberian environmental campaigner and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize Laureate.
With Norway’s first installment to the Liberian government now due, the country is now officially on its way to becoming the first nation in African history to completely stop cutting its trees in exchange for development aid.
Environmental activists and other interested parties, however, hope that while Liberia is the first country to champion this unique partnership in Africa, it will not be the last.
– Ana Powell
Sources: BBC, The Guardian