This is the third in a series of interviews with previous winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Founded in 1990, the prize is given annually to six grassroots environmentalists working for change around the globe. This year's prize winners will be announced on April 14.
Not many environmentalists are willing to take warlords to task for their involvement in illegal logging activities. But Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, a 37-year-old Liberian, is not your typical TreeHugger. The gutsy, intrepid activist, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2006 for the Africa region, has shown extraordinary courage in the face of tremendous risks to his personal safety. His dedication has helped to make a major dent in the illegal trade in precious hardwoods that are critical to the viability of livelihoods, ecosystems, and biodiversity in his native Liberia.
The tiny West African nation of Liberia is sandwiched between Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone. It has a population of 3.2 million and is one of the poorest nations on earth with GDP per capita of just $1,000, partly a result of the civil war that seethed there for 14 years and left 150,000 people dead. Much of the war unfolded under the brutal regime of President Charles Taylor, Liberia's most infamous citizen. Taylor is now in detention at the International Criminal Court, where he faces trial for various war crimes.
To fund death squads and pro-government militias, Taylor's regime gorged on profits from illegal timber sales. That deadly "blood timber" partnership between the logging industry and Taylor regime resulted in widespread human rights violations and environmental destruction.
Liberia's forests encompass 11.8 million acres, an area twice the size of Vermont, and include the last remaining closed-canopy tropical rainforest in the Upper Guinea Forests of West Africa. The tropical forest ecosystem is home to nearly half of Africa's mammal species, including the pygmy hippopotamus, Liberian mongoose and West Africa's largest forest elephant population.
During Taylor's rule, Siakor painstakingly collected evidence of falsified logging records, illegal logging practices and associated human rights abuses. He submitted the evidence to the United Nations Security Council, which then put trade sanctions on Liberian timber. With much of his cash flow cut off, Taylor lost his grip on power and was ousted in 2003.
When the first report detailing the links between illegal logging and the war was released in 2002, Taylor publicly threatened Siakor. The following year, Siakor left his family in Liberia while in exile in neighboring countries until 2004. He has received numerous other threats over the years but remained unflinchingly committed to protecting forest resources.
In February 2006, newly elected president Ellen Sirleaf Johnson canceled every logging contract in the country, an endorsement of the sanctions Siakor fought for. An interim government also protected 3.7 million acres of forest with pressure from Siakor. Today Siakor's Sustainable Development Institute works to outline forest sector reform priorities, emphasizing transparency, civil society input and sustainable forest management.
Siakor is still up against potent economic forces that want to reap the riches of Liberia's hardwoods. The timber sanctions were lifted in 2006, and now the the Forest
Development Authority (FDA) of Liberia has started to issue timber contracts, under intense pressure from the timber industry, including Chinese interests. Environmental groups
TreeHugger: How did you become passionate about forestry issues?
Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor: Forests are central to the livelihoods and well-being of the overwhelming majority of Liberia's population. People in rural areas rely almost entirely on forests for a variety of products including food and non-food items. The poorest of the poorest in Liberia, people who live beyond the red dots marking the margins of our society, are heavily dependent on the forest. Destroy or degrade the forests in their communities and you take away the only means they have to stay alive. Theirs is a desperate struggle to stay alive -- not lift themselves out of poverty --but to stay alive.
TH: Why did you choose this particular environmental cause?
SKS: Interacting with people in these situations, especially at a time when their forest was not only being ravaged by logging companies but they were also being subjected to some of the most inhumane forms of rights abuses, I felt a calling to do something. The more my colleagues and I interacted with these people we were convinced that we were doing the right thing.
The situation hasn't changed much, but there is now a window of opportunity to address some of these injustices.
TH: What were your methods of getting hold of the evidence of falsified logging records, illegal logging practices and associated human rights abuses?
SKS: The strength of our approach lied in our alliances with people at the grassroots level. For example, people developed confidence in us and fully participated in group discussions focusing on human rights abuses in their communities. Individuals working within the industry and the government also had confidence in us and willingly provided information including shipping manifests and invoices, and highlighted discrepancies between the internal government records and those available to the public. These were very useful and it helped us direct our investigation.
But what was critical in our strategy was securing the confidence of whistle blowers and maintaining their confidence by protecting their identities.
TH: Is China's hunger for Liberia's forest resources the greatest threat to ensuring the protection and sustainable management of the country's unique forest ecosystems?
SKS: China's hunger, but more broadly western demand, for Liberian hardwood is driving deforestation and destruction of some of the world's key biodiversity areas in Liberia. Today, the government is set to issue nine new timber concessions while we are still struggling to reform the entire forestry sector. The government is yielding to pressure from timber companies with Chinese and European links, including notorious companies such as Rimbunan Hijau, to reopen the sector. This lobby is supported by misinformed and ill-advised politicians who apparently wield extraordinary powers over the forestry authorities.
TH: Do you feel optimistic about the future?
SKS: All is not lost because Liberian civil society is stronger than ever and will not tolerate a complete return to business as usual.