U.S. Consumers Help Finance Liberia's Bloody Regime

On November 18th of last year, the cargo ship Torm Birgitte pulled into the Philadelphia harbor and unloaded its cargo, including 16 crates of plywood worth $76,463 destined for a small importing company based in Raleigh, NC. Few would have noticed that this innocuous timber shipment originated in the war-torn West African country of Liberia, according to official import documents, and that the shipper was Oriental Timber Company, a firm linked to international arms traffickers and to embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor. It is rare proof that U.S. consumers are buying wood products from a notorious Liberian company in a country repeatedly sanctioned by the United Nations because of its illegal arms trade -- including a new ban on logging exports -- and where fragile rainforests are threatened with extinction.

The exploitation of natural resources has fueled bloody conflict in West Africa, where the lucrative trade in "blood diamonds" played a key role in spawning violent civil wars. But in recent years, as international efforts have partially stemmed the illegal diamond trade, another valuable resource -- timber -- has become linked to deadly conflict in the area. As a result of growing international concern over the "conflict timber" trade, the U.S. Agency for International Development released this week an unprecedented three-volume report on the connection between the logging trade and conflict in Africa and other parts of the world.

But few countries rival the problems in Liberia, where President Charles Taylor has used natural resources to purchase weapons illegally for rebel forces in the region and to line the pockets of his family and friends, according to United Nations reports and human rights groups. A special UN court recently indicted Taylor for his role in war crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, a war fought largely over diamonds. The UN prosecutor and others also have accused Taylor of harboring terrorist groups such as al Qaeda who are linked to the illegal diamond trade.

Taylor has turned increasingly to timber revenues to support his regime after the UN and the international community cracked down on West African diamond sales, eventually banning their export from Liberia in 2001. After years of contentious debate and resistance from major Liberian trading partners such as China and France, the UN finally imposed a temporary ban on raw Liberian timber exports this month. But some observers believe there is no guarantee timber exports will stop once the fighting in Liberia dies down and logging operations resume.

The lush rainforests of Liberia are some of the last pristine forests in West Africa. Here, international environmental experts say endangered trees and animal species are threatened by aggressive and, in some cases, illegal logging under the control of President Taylor. Timber historically is one of the country's largest taxable exports and a quick source of cash for government officials. Taylor took control of the logging industry after he was elected President in 1997 and put his brother in charge of managing all timber concessions. It wasn't long before reports surfaced linking the Liberian timber trade to illegal gun-running and organized crime. "Many of those we could identify as being arms traffickers were also involved in the timber business," Johan Peleman, a UN arms trafficking expert, stated in an interview last year for the PBS series FRONTLINE/World.

House Africa Subcommittee Chairman Mike Royce has been a vocal critic of the Taylor regime and its link to illegal logging. "For the sake of the entire region that it preys on, 'Charles Taylor, Inc.,' with its ties to international organized crime, must be shut down," Rep Royce said in a hearing statement last year.

Rudolph Merab, a logger and recent president of the Liberian Timber Association, said in an interview with PBS FRONTLINE/World that his company shipped small amounts of Liberian wood directly to the American market, mostly for use as railroad ties and furniture. Shipping documents show Merab's timber going to an Alabama importer whose web site claims it sells African timber that is "environmentally safe" and "ready for immediate shipment."

But Merab's company wasn't the only firm selling wood to the U.S. market. Import documents show that last year at least three separate loads of wood veneer and plywood were shipped to the east coast ports of Philadelphia and Norfolk by the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), a Asian-owed firm run by Gus van Kouwenhoven, a businessman with close ties to President Taylor and whom UN investigators have accused of illegal arms trafficking. In addition, environmental experts say the logging practices of OTC are damaging West Africa's last remaining rainforests and threatening endangered species such as the forest elephant and pigmy hippo.

Liberian wood products also come to the US through indirect means. The international human rights group Global Witness has linked Oriental Timber to a network of Indonesian, Malaysian and Hong Kong investors who are big players in China's skyrocketing wood manufacturing business. Due to Oriental Timber's huge timber concessions in Liberia, China is rapidly becoming Liberia's biggest timber customer at the same time it has skyrocketed to becoming the largest furniture exporter to the United States. In addition, Global Witness has connected OTC investors to a giant Chinese wood-processing firm, Global Timber Corporation, where a top executive said they ship wood products to the American market.

Other countries besides China buy Liberian timber and export wood products to the United States. Greenpeace has documented shipments of Liberian OTC wood to companies based in Greece, Denmark and Holland, where they ship finished wood products to North America. In one case, Greenpeace obtained internal company documents stating that 15% of two species of wood used in its U.S. flooring products comes from Liberia.

No one really knows how much Liberian timber ends up in processed wood imported here. Government officials admit that it's hard to verify the source of wood products and furniture imported into the US since there is no chain of custody system to trace accurately the origin of the wood. According to a senior U.S. Forest Service expert, there are three kinds of data that track the international timber trade, "incomplete, incorrect and bogus." Steve Johnson, a researcher with the International Tropical Timber Organization, an industry trade group, conceded that there is "little doubt that there are substantial exports" of Chinese furniture that use wood imported from tropical countries like Liberia.

In recent years, the US government has pushed for Liberian timber sanctions finally imposed by the UN this month, and last year President Bush called for an international effort to combat illegal logging in Africa and other environmental hotspots. Even major retailers such as Home Depot are making efforts to curtail their purchase of wood from illegal sources in countries such as Indonesia. But despite the temporary UN ban on Liberian timber exports, there is no U.S. law prohibiting Liberian wood imports, either directly or indirectly through processed wood products from countries in Europe or Asia.

As President Bush considers what role US forces should play to help bring peace to war-wracked West Africa, experts argue that in many regions the international logging trade will continue to be cited as a "conflict commodity" without a valid timber certification or tracking system. Until a trustworthy program is implemented, US consumers have no way of knowing if the wood products they purchase support bloody warfare overseas or destroy delicate rainforests.

William Kistner is a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting and co-produced the May 2002 program "Gunrunners" on small arms trafficking in Liberia and West Africa for the PBS series FRONTLINE/World.

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