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Liberia fights illegal logging through agreement with EU

The tiny West African nation of Liberia (about the size of the US state of Virginia) is the most recent country to work with the European Union (EU) on ending the illegal logging trade. Yesterday the EU and Liberia signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) that would make certain no raw wood or wood products exported from Liberia to the EU would have been illegally cut. Liberia follows close on the heels of Indonesia (which signed a VPA last week) and other African countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of Congo. The various agreements stem from the EU’s 2003 Action Plan on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT).

“I am pleased to see that yet another country has joined our common fight against illegal logging,” said the EU’s Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in a press release. “This decision will contribute to sustainable development and poverty alleviation in Liberia on the one hand, and will benefit the European consumers because they can be sure that Liberian wood is from a legal origin.”

Despite decades of bloody civil war and instability, when ‘conflict timber’ was sold to fund warfare, Liberia has some of West Africa’s most intact forest landscapes. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) nearly half of Liberia is covered in forest, around 4 million hectares. Incredibly, about half of West Africa’s total forest cover is found in Liberia. However, only 4% of Liberia’s forests (175,000 hectares) are primary rainforest.

Liberia also possesses a high diversity of species, including 2,200 plants, 590 birds, 193 mammals, and 162 fish. Well known species include common chimpanzee, pygmy hippopotamus, and forest elephants.

Negotiation for the agreement spread out over two years, as Liberia worked to define legal timber and set regulations from harvesting to worker’s rights.

Illegal logging doesn’t just hurt the world’s forests; it also injures a nation’s economic development. During President Charles Taylor’s infamous regime in Liberia it is estimated that ubiquitous illegal logging cost the state $200 million in missed tax revenue. Taylor is currently on trial at The Hague for war crimes.

“In the past, Liberia’s natural resources have been used to drive conflict and greed that benefited few and destroyed many lives. Now it is clear that we are committed to ensuring the gifts from our forests will benefit all Liberians now and in the future,” said Dr. Florence Chenoweth, Minister of Agriculture, in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

The international trade in illegal wood is becoming increasingly constricted as the US recently outlawed acquisition or sale of illegally cut wood by broadening the Lacey Act. The EU is set to do the same through a recently passed law by 2013.

Faith Doherty, lead campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), told last year, however, that much work remains to be done: “we still have major challenges. Russia is not part of any agreement nor is China, two major exporters.”

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