Liberia’s forests fall within one of the world’s threatened biodiversity “hotspots.”
But as Worldfocus contributing blogger Myles Estey describes, for many Liberians looking to earn a living by logging, environmental preservation is not always a top priority.
Liberia turned down an interesting offer last week. Basically, a consortium of Western ‘partners’ offered to pay Liberia millions of dollars to not ratify several forestry contracts, themselves worth millions. The Liberian speaker of the house was reported to have called the offer a joke, saying, ultimately, that Liberians need jobs, not money.
This may be a fair assessment, but it did not seem like the full purpose of the offer was really considered.
[…] Despite being a country known for its ‘blood timber’ during the war, Liberia holds a massive share of the largely untouched Upper Guinean Rainforest, a precious, and increasingly rare commodity around the world.
This is valuable in a way that is difficult to sometimes rationalize in a country with an unemployment rate of 85%, and a desperate need for jobs: telling rural workers that they cannot have a job because of a global crisis involving the a substance in the air does not translate.
Of course, as UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness raised in a report last week, these jobs offer a lot [more] shorter term benefits than virgin forests, and almost always, provide significantly less (in jobs, pay, and local benefits such as schools, clinics and infrastructure) than promised in their contracts.
Looking at other international companies involved in natural resources within Liberia, its not hard to see the dangers. Firestone, the largest employee, had to be dragged kicking and screaming last August in order to raise wages to $3.78 / day, plus a modest bonus for production, and to reduce their hours and quotas that were encouraging child labour until 2008. […]
International forestry companies will offer similarly meager salaries for the dangerous, grueling work of equatorial forestry, and, many fear, will avoid responsibilities to the impoverished local communities.
Along with concerns raised by Global Witness and others about the track records of the companies involved in the proposed operations, and the legitimacy of some of the contracts, ample questions remain.
Does providing $5 / day jobs to hundreds of Liberians actually outweigh the benefits of preserving a virgin rainforest? Will the Liberian government be able to hold the international companies to task on their promises? How much of the proposed millions of dollars per year will actually remain in Liberia?
USAID has been working hard with the FDA (Forest Developmental Authority) to create truly revolutionary regulations for forestry here, including barcoded trees and logging strategies that look towards long term forest health. Making sure this happens will be another story of navigating bribes, failed promises and assessments (that may or may not have taken place).
Weighing environmental benefits against the need for economic growth is never easy. And this problem gets magnified in a country routinely exploited by the international companies they depends on for the capital and overhead needed to even start these operations in the first place.
With virgin forests becoming an increasingly rare resource around the world, greater debate should occur regarding the importance of both the forest and the trees, and how they can offer the maximal, long-term benefits to Liberia.
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