SILAS – The Timber Conflicts

There are ‘conflict mineral’, ‘conflict diamond’ and, then, ‘conflict timber’. The timber that fuels the inter-ethnic conflicts and civil wars. As in Liberia where trees trunks, cut down and illegally sold, have become weapons in the hands of the different rebel factions that have bloodied Liberia, and the entire surrounding region, for more than 20 years.

SILAS, the documentary made by Anjali Najar and Hawa Essuman is the story of Silas Siakor, an environmental activist who, with his inquiries into the illegal activities surrounding timber, has made the investigations possible leading to the arrest by the United Nations of the former head of the Liberian state, Charles Taylor, accused of war crimes committed in Sierra Leone between 1989 and 1993 – mass killings, sexual slavery, torture and extermination.

In 2003, the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone, set up by the UN and the national government, found Taylor guilty of having supported, trained and armed the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone. The much-feared militia owing to their regular practice of cutting off their victims’ limbs.

In 1980, Silas Siakor was little more than a child when Samuel Doe’s coup d’état sparked off a wave of civil wars and unstable governments destined to last for 25 years. From the end of the 1980s to the early 1990s, Liberia entered into a downward spiral of economic crises, political anarchy, blood-shedding and brutal violence. The militias of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) originated from the countryside, where they overran village after village, finally arriving in the capital, Monrovia. The brutalized body of Samuel Doe was dragged through the villages, as a trophy.

In 2006, Silas Siakor was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, the highest recognition for grassroots environmental activists, involved in awareness-raising campaigns and whistle-blowing.

In the middle, there were 14 years of civil war (1989-2003), massacres, amputations, blood diamonds and child soldiers. Charles Taylor was the first to exploit these children. In these 14 years, there occurred the deforestation of the country and the illegal trade in timber, monopolized by Oriental Timber Company which controlled all of the boats which carried out the timber and brought in arms. Weapons destined for the rebels in Guinea, The Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.

Silas gathered the proof of the sacking of the Liberian forests carried out over these years. «We cannot stand by and allow multinational companies to destroy our forests. Because when they do, they tear down the trees and strip the land, they tear down our people and strip away their lives», he declared as he was being awarded the prize from the Golden Environmental Foundation.

The exploitation of the forests has always been a very important asset of the national economy, a wealth that is worth about 20% of exports. In Liberia more than a million people, a quarter of the population, live in the areas under the control of the big international timber companies that cut down and illegally trade in timber.

Along with other activists of the Sustainable Development Institute, the organization he cooperates with, Silas began his mission following on the tracks of many cases of illegal land expropriation and human rights’ violations. The large multinationals buy pieces of land from the state and the local inhabitants are forced to leave or become forced labor in the pay of their new masters, with the complete silent consent of the government and the institutions. A silence that Silas and the other activists wanted to shatter. Thanks, as well, to technology. TIMBY, a smartphone app allows citizens to report on site, and in real time, the concessions suspected of being illegal. There are many, especially in Jogbhan Land, one of the country’s largest and most densely populated forest areas.

It is here that the future of Silas, the SDI, Liberia and its development model was being played out. The evidence gathered was enough to set underway judiciary proceedings – about 25% of the country’s land surface, more than half of its forests, had been illegally handed over in concessions.

2005 was an important year and not only for Silas. The Liberian people were called on to elect, democratically, their president. For the first time, the African continent had a woman president. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was much more than a president. She was the hope of the people exhausted by decades of corruption, poverty, arms’ conflicts and war. Ellen Sirleaf was to lead the fight against corruption in one of the countries with the highest rate of corruption in the world, the struggle for women’s rights in a country where female genital mutilation and rape were carried out with impunity. Ellen Sirleaf was to be the “power to the people”. Many, many people supported her. Like Silas.

Very soon, Sirleaf became an icon, in 2011 receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for «her non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights […].»

Supported, accepted and lauded by all the world’s famous and leaders, and from whom she was able to obtain the cancellation of the country’s foreign debt and millions of dollars in investments. A boomerang effect for the “Iron Lady”. The most important promise of President Ellen Sirleaf, however, the fight against corruption, was not being fulfilled. During her second mandate, begun in 2011, the limitations on her actions became more evident, as she herself admitted during her last speech to the nation in 2016.

However, there is more to the story. There are the forests, the trees, the timber. In 2012, the president became the target herself of the Anti-Corruption Commission due to positions held by some of her family members in the management of state-owned companies, above all those involved in timber.

Silas was crucial to the investigations. Thanks to a whistleblower, he was able to reconstruct the network of conspiracy, corruption, family affiliations and the links that began in the forests and led to the Forestry Development Authority, right to the president herself, her family and her grandson, Augustine Johnson, the General Manager of Mandra Forestry Holdings, one of the companies involved in the scandal.

After three years of difficult and dangerous investigations, Silas was able to bring Equatorial Palm Oil, the company managing the permits for the deforestation, before the courts. Despite the evidence, the trial concluded with EPO being acquitted. Nevertheless, it was a victory for Silas and his supporters. The court recognized the rights of the inhabitants to refuse deforestation in their area and introduced a moratorium on the illegal permits.

Silas had fulfilled his task, and it was time to go on, to aim higher. In the last part of the documentary, we follow the attempt to change his civil commitment into a political commitment, running as a candidate in the parliamentary elections of October 2017. He did not succeed, at least not this time. He will try again in the elections of 2023.

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