Timber: The Next "Blood" Resource in Sierra Leone?

Bush near Sembehun, Sierra Leone
It was just a decade ago that civil war ripped through the tiny country of Sierra Leone in West Africa. For me, it is hard to picture the presently peaceful country at war with its own people. Sierra Leoneans are by far the most welcoming, friendly, and peaceful people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. They are not just welcoming to foreigners, but they treat their fellow countrymen, no matter what tribe or religion, with equal hospitality. The current peace makes me hopeful that this small nation and its people will never see war again.

But as I drive through the capital of Freetown, I can still see the remnants of war before my eyes. Buildings are dilapidated, amputee victims roam the streets, and the unemployed sit idle on the roadside as if waiting for some action to happen. I can still picture massacres happening on the same streets that I drive down that are now home to street vendors and their stands of Chinese-made goods.

In addition to its hospitable people, Sierra Leone is also the most naturally beautiful country I’ve ever seen. Lush green forests cover most of the land, the warm Atlantic Ocean meets white sand beaches in Freetown, and brightly colored butterflies seem almost as numerous as the mosquitoes  Sierra Leone is also blessed (or should I say cursed?) with an abundance of natural resources ranging from diamonds, gold, timber, other metals, and now oil.

On my most recent trip to Sierra Leone, my driver told me a story that went something like this:

In the beginning of time, God created Sierra Leone and gave it all the wonders of the world. He gave Sierra Leone the beautifully lush forests, the rolling mountains, an abundance of good fish, and all the natural resources that man could want. When God created the rest of the world, He gave each other country only a few of the resources that Sierra Leone had, but no other country got all of the wonders of Sierra Leone. To make things fairer, He gave Sierra Leone the curse of eternally bad leadership.

          Diamond Mine in Sembehun, Sierra Leone

The response of my driver was, “And that is exactly what has happened.”Bad leadership in Sierra Leone, I believe, is the result of corruption. It was corruption and a bad president that led Sierra Leone to war in 1991. It was bad leadership that allowed the civil war to continue for a decade. Granted, President Kabbah successfully pulled the nation out of war in 2002, but since his leave from office, the situation of the country has not improved.  

The current President, Ernest Bai Koroma, has been a fine enough leader, but he has sold Sierra Leone’s soul to China and has done little in terms of development.

Diamonds no longer fund civil war. In fact, diamond mining is no longer as lucrative a business as it used to be. Although I find it hard to believe that the diamond mining industry is completely conflict and corruption free in Sierra Leone (as I had experiences in a diamond mine in the south eastern village of Sembehun), it is at least mostly legal and peaceful.

With the most recent discovery of oil, I fear that conflict may someday break out again. It is my worst nightmare that Sierra Leone will turn into a large-scale Niger Delta. Thankfully, oil might take years if not decades to create conflict again in Sierra Leone. But is there another resource that poses a more imminent threat?

Timber. Although not as luxurious as diamonds, it might potentially be just as dangerous. Logging has been made illegal in Sierra Leone in order to conserve the forests and to prevent environmental degradation. The environmental effects of further logging would be severely problematic for the nation, so in order to prevent more damage, President Koroma has declared it illegal to export logged timber from Sierra Leone. However, as one soon learns in Sierra Leone, money talks louder than words.

In an Al-Jazeera documentary, Sierra Leone native Sorious Samura exposes the illegal timber trade occurring in Sierra Leone as I write this. Samura finds that illegal logging is still taking place and that all that needs to happen to export these illegal resources is for cash to exchange with the right hands.

Corruption. President Koroma has run on the platform of combating corruption all throughout his presidency. A drive down any street or highway in Sierra Leone provides you with many opportunities to read billboards warning against corrupt practices; but Samura shows that these are simply just billboards and not fact. I know that I was fooled into believing that corruption is now looked down upon in national politics in Sierra Leone, but after watching this documentary, I’m highly skeptical of Koroma’s actions towards fighting corruption.

Corruption is a plague in Sierra Leone (and much of Africa for that matter). Once it gets in politics, there is often no stopping it. Samura’s documentary with Al-Jazeera shows that corruption stills happens in politics – and not just in small political offices in remote towns – but rather in national offices, like the Vice President’s.

In his documentary, one of Samura’s undercover researchers is told to set aside 100,000USD for bribes in order to illegally export timber from Sierra Leone. It is evident that corruption makes it so that any law in place is not binding. With corruption in high places such as the Vice President’s office, there is no hope for Sierra Leone to develop and overcome its severe poverty – not to mention become victim of the effects of environmental degradation that will likely only further hinder the country’s development and increase the poverty.

With this illegal trade becoming so profitable (as many of the trees being logged are in high demand by China – who is in close company with Koroma – and who plays a non-interventionist role in politics) , timber could very well be Sierra Leones next “blood” resource. All that needs to happen is for the demand for timber to rise, which would increase the price, making it more profitable for the loggers in Sierra Leone to continue their illegal trade. With more profitability and better payback, timber would then be in such high demand that it could very well start violence and spark a conflict, or war, over the treasures of the Sierra Leonean bush.

God may have given Sierra Leone all the natural beauty and wonders of the world, but the combination between its natural resources and corrupt government officials have cursed the tiny nation with eternal bloodshed, strife, and struggle. Not until corruption is uprooted from politics and resources cease to be fought over will Sierra Leone truly be at peace. Until that time, I wait on tenterhooks to see what the future holds for my favorite country and my home, mama Sierra Leone. 


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