A technology borrowed from supermarket checkouts is poised to revolutionize rainforest conservation from Africa and Indonesia to Latin America
By Fred Pearce
The road north of Buchanan port in Liberia is one of the worst in a country of dreadful roads. Past Compound 3, a town serving a giant, French-owned rubber plantation and so ramshackle they never got around to naming it, there is more pothole than road. We broke down twice. Even the giant trucks carrying logs out of the forest—the main cause of the atrocious roads—were constantly losing their grip on the steep hills.
An hour beyond Compound 3, a large, Malaysian-owned company called Forest Ventures operates a logging concession covering 76,000 acres. We passed its trucks on the road before hearing the sound of chainsaws ringing through the forests near Boegeezaye village.
At the company camp, sitting on a roughly made wooden bench inside a log cabin, I found the Forest Ventures local manager, Prince Mentoe. Shy and earnest, yet steely-eyed, Mentoe was born in a nearby village but received a degree in forestry from the state university in Monrovia, the Liberian capital. After the civil war, when it was safe to return home, he surveyed the local forests for valuable timber species, helped persuade village elders to allow commercial foresters to take a logging concession, and was then recruited by Forest Ventures to run the operation.
He was proud of his work, and his operation was very professional. His staff had been cutting trees there for three months, he told me as he got out his operational logbook. It recorded every tree cut, its dimensions and species—and its unique barcode number. Outside, every one of the huge logs stacked up in the yard also carried a metal tag with a barcode. And so did every tree in the forest around us.
In theory at least, not a tree is cut in Liberia without having a barcode. I had been told in Monrovia that this technology, borrowed from supermarket checkouts, was the key to transforming Liberia from a country torn apart by almost two decades of vicious civil war to a stable nation with a thriving economy. If true, Liberia could become the unlikely trailblazer of a revolution in rainforest conservation, from Latin America to Indonesia.
The nation of Liberia is the creation of nineteenth-century philanthropists from the U.S. who were intent on creating a state in Africa for freed slaves. The early arrivals established settlements along what was then known as the “Pepper Coast” of West Africa. In 1847, they declared their new state, an area covering a region within 200 miles of the coast. The native Africans were not consulted, and even today the country remains divided between a caste of “Americo-Liberians,” who have dominated the country’s politics and economy, and the much larger majority, whose ancestors were never shipped to the U.S.
With financial and strategic support from the U.S.—including the million-acre Firestone rubber plantation set up here in the 1920s and still going—Americo-Liberian domination lasted largely unchallenged until a native, Samuel Doe, seized power in a 1980 coup d’état. During the long civil war that followed, Doe was deposed by Charles Taylor, whose reign of terror was financed largely by timber.
Taylor’s cronies—such as Dutch adventurer Guus van Kouwenhoven, whose past included a conviction in California for selling stolen Rembrandt paintings—shipped out huge amounts of timber and allegedly brought in arms by way of payment. Later investigations showed millions of dollars stashed in Taylor’s personal bank accounts.
The international community failed to intervene until 2003, when the United Nations imposed a global ban on Liberian “logs of war.” The revenues for Taylor and the other Liberian warlords collapsed, and the conflict in which 150,000 people had died swiftly came to an end.
The next chapter in Liberia’s difficult history came in 2005, when Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president. With U.S. backing, Sirleaf is now trying to bring stability to the country and revive its economy by using a newly constituted and legalized timber industry as a major revenue earner. In 2011, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts and was re-elected by her people.
The economic potential of forestry in Liberia is considerable. Despite the plunder of the war years, the country still has nearly two-thirds of West Africa’s remaining rainforests, which cover one-third of the country. Liberia is thinly populated, and its meager road network makes removing timber difficult. The forests still contain rare species such as the Liberian mongoose, the Diana monkey, a small antelope known as Jentink’s duiker, and what is believed to be the world’s only viable population of pygmy hippos.
So, in reopening the forests to commercial forestry, the stakes are high. Can Liberia use its forests to revive its economy without destroying either its natural wealth or its civil peace? Or will forestry bring ecological carnage, corruption, and renewed conflict?
Europe, as Liberia’s largest market for timber, is central to the answer. The European Union has made clear that, for trade to resume, Liberia has to show that its logging is now legal and above-board. In 2011, Sirleaf signed an agreement with the EU to place timber sales on a permanently legal footing. The deal is based on barcodes that track timber from the forest to the port. Barcodes are issued to licensed logging companies to attach to every tree. No timber can leave the country’s ports without a barcode. Every movement is entered into a central database. At least in theory, the tracking system ensures that no more timber is cut than is stipulated in the concessions license.
Individual companies around the world have used barcodes to keep track of their trees, but this is the first time they have been used to monitor an entire country’s timber.
The man in charge is Ivan Muir, a squash-playing South African forester who for the past four years has been the local managing director of SGS, the Swiss specialists in forest-certification systems.
Muir was brought up on a white-owned family farm in apartheid South Africa and fought against an end to apartheid as a soldier with the South African army. “But then came Mandela and I realized I had been duped,” he told me. Now, he says, he is on a mission to help modern black Africa succeed by making sustainable use of one of its prime assets: its trees.
When we met at his office in Sinkor, outside Monrovia, some quarter of a million trees had been tagged. He admits that barcoding cannot ensure sustainability—nobody is sure what a truly sustainable harvest is—but argues that it can prevent the export of illegally logged timber.
By guaranteeing the legality of the entire Liberian timber trade, the SGS proprietary system will allow companies to bypass the complex paperwork that the EU will require all other timber exporters to supply, beginning in March 2013. Other countries with European markets seem set to follow the Liberian example.
March 2013 could turn out to be a critical month for the survival of the world’s forests. That’s when the EU’s Timber Regulation comes into force. This body of regulations outlaws all illegally logged timber in one of the world’s largest timber markets. All importers of timber will have to demonstrate that each shipment has been legally produced. And barcodes could be the most efficient way of doing that.
The EU is not the first to tackle illegal logging. The U.S. banned all illegal timber imports with an amendment to the Lacey Act in 2008 (see box). But the EU has gone much further. Instead of just requiring paperwork to show legality of shipments, Europe wants to make formal agreements with countries that export timber. Through voluntary partnership agreements (VPAs), the EU will ensure that partner nations operate their timber industries within national laws, through barcodes or some other means. But VPAs, as pioneered by Liberia, will also incorporate forest governance reform and level the playing field between big international logging operations and local forest dwellers.
The VPAs are a remarkable and innovative example of using trade agreements to promote social reform and good governance. They cover such matters as setting up community forests, land tenure, ensuring local consent when loggers move in, and involving civil society in wider matters of forest policy.
These are early days for the EU plan, as well as for the ambitious use of barcodes to banish illegal logging. Back in Liberia, it still looks very much like a work in progress. Whatever the agreements with the EU, parts of the Liberian government responsible for forestry still seem keen to promote industrial logging without the consent of locals.
When first elected, the Sirleaf government was eager to involve communities in managing forests. It required companies applying for logging permits to reach agreements with communities—arrangements that recognized the locals’ land rights. But it left a loophole in the form of Private User Permits (PUPs). These special permits were intended to allow private landowners to cut small amounts of timber on their own land without having to go through the complex process of consulting with local communities. Until June 2011, only a handful of PUPs were issued. But since then, campaigners say, they have been hijacked by commercial loggers.
Paul de Wit, a land-tenure consultant for the Land Commission of Liberia, estimated in July 2012 that the government had issued (or planned to issue) PUPs that would cover around 30 percent of the country’s primary forests. Worse, many PUPs were being awarded when the legal status of the land being allocated was unclear. Often, permits have been issued for land that local communities say is theirs. But since communities do not have to be fully consulted before PUPs are issued, their claims can be ignored. PUPs are usually “exploitative agreements, with communities losing out,” de Wit reported.
Several communities told me they had been persuaded to give power of attorney over their forests to prominent individuals linked to logging interests. They were dismayed when they realized, too late, that they had effectively handed over ownership of their forests.
NGOs alerted both the government and the wider world to this abuse of the law. Global Witness, the London-based international NGO, said the scandal “marks an extraordinary breakdown of law in Liberia’s logging sector.” It also made a mockery of the barcode system. Muir at SGS was, in effect, tracking illegally logged timber and issuing certificates along the way.
The pleas of the NGOs worked for a while. In mid-2012, perhaps fearful of losing access to European markets, Sirleaf imposed a moratorium on issuing new PUPs and on exporting logs from existing PUPs, pending an audit of their legality. But weeks later, the country’s supreme court—after being petitioned by a consortium of logging companies, including Forest Ventures—overturned the moratorium.
Fears of a return to the days of plundering the forests and a slide into illegality and conflict in the country’s forests are growing. I heard them in numerous communities, wherever people gathered to tell their stories about the arrival of logging companies and the chaos they caused.
In Moore’s Town in Liberia’s Grand Bassa county, I stopped to meet a community whose youth were mostly working for timber companies in the area. The local PUP concession holder was a little-known local company called Lone Star Global Wood, but the subcontractor doing the work was again the Malaysian company, Forest Ventures.
The companies had agreed to pay local communities US$2.50 per cubic meter of timber logged, said John Clarke, the community treasurer for the concession. Some $50,000 was due. “But we haven’t seen the money yet,” he said. It turned out that the cash had been deposited in the personal account of Hans Barchue, a “community representative” who also sat in the national House of Representatives as deputy speaker. There was a dispute about how this had happened. Some said the communities could not agree on how to allocate it, and Barchue was keeping it for safety while they made up their minds. Barchue insisted he was simply ensuring that Lone Star and Forest Ventures paid their dues. This may be so, but many locals I spoke with said they didn’t believe they would ever see the cash.
It seemed the barcode system was indeed effective at tracking the timber, but that legitimacy did not mean there was justice in the forests. Communities were just not used to dealing with large corporations or large amounts of cash. Even if they were not duped or hoodwinked, they were frequently confused and given to squabbling over the fruits from their forests.
And for all its potential, the barcode system still has its own shortcomings. My local guides took me to what they called a “tree graveyard” on a concession run by Forest Ventures. Dozens of trees had apparently been chopped down, then collected and buried together in a forest clearing with their barcodes still in place. But the burial had been done carelessly. I photographed a tree carrying barcode MNWL K49W, lying half-buried in the forest.
I sent Muir at SGS the photograph, asking him what his records had to say about the tree carrying this code. His chief tracker, Sebastian Schrader, confirmed in an email that the barcode had been issued to Forest Ventures but “is still [listed as] an unused barcode in our system.” In other words, SGS had not been notified that the tag was ever attached to a tree, let alone that the tree had been cut.
Muir confirmed this. Often, he said, companies buy the barcode tags but never submit further details about whether (or where) those tags have been attached to trees or what happens to the trees. He agreed this was an important flaw in the tracking system.
“We rely to a large degree on [the government’s] Forestry Development Authority for law enforcement in the forests, as burying logs is surely not legal,” Muir said. Schrader suggested that “burying logs could be one way of hiding them from our inspectors.” It is unclear whether the logs might eventually be sold illegally or—perhaps more likely—were simply buried to disguise the fact that companies were logging too many trees or the wrong trees. Forest Ventures did not respond to emails requesting a comment. Either way, these trees were not, as the barcoders would have assumed, still growing in the forest.
Nobody can be sure that the new European rules will transform forest governance when they come into force next March. Law and justice in the jungle are slippery concepts. Forest companies remain adept at finding the weakest link in any system of control. Even apparently foolproof tracking systems are vulnerable to slack enforcement.
But I am not entirely disheartened. Whatever its failings, and however big the loopholes, the European exercise does show that at least one major market for forest timber is interested in creating reform in the rainforests, making serious efforts to help both the law and ideas of fairness prevail. And that is remarkable.
We are used to seeing trade agreements predicated on concern to maximize the reach of the market economy, as if nothing else mattered in the world. But here is one form of trade agreement that is at least as concerned about justice and combating dispossession and poverty. It offers a tantalizing glimpse of a better world.
—Fred Pearce is an author and journalist based in London. He has reported on environment, popular science, and development issues from 64 countries over the past 20 years. Currently the environment consultant of New Scientist magazine and a regular contributor to British newspapers, he is the author of more than 15 books, including The Climate Files, Peoplequake, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, When the Rivers Run Dry, and Deep Jungle.
1. Nellemann, C., INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme (eds). 2012. Green Carbon, Black Trade: Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the World’s Tropical Forests. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal.
Note: This article was updated on March 12, 2013.