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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Liberating Liberia

Air Date: Week of May 5, 2006

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Silas Siakor photographs logs being salvaged by ANA Wood in Riverce. (Photo courtesy of Silas Siakor)

When Silas Siakor became aware of the government corruption behind logging in his homeland, he decided to take action, even if it would mean risking his life. For his courage, Siakor was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Host Steve Curwood caught up with him after the ceremony to hear his story.

Transcript

CURWOOD: The head of Liberia’s largest timber company, Guus van Kouwenhoven, is on trial in the Hague charged with violating a UN embargo by supplying weapons and mercenaries to Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president. Mr. Taylor himself is set to go on trial for a long list of crimes against humanity during his six year rule.

One person who contributed in no small measure to these developments is Silas Siakor. Mr. Siakor is a Liberian environmental activist who published a report detailing the links between guns and illegal logging in Liberia. For his actions, Mr. Siakor received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. I caught up with him at the awards ceremony in San Francisco.


Silas Siakor photographs logs being salvaged ANA Wood in Riverce. (Photo courtesy of Silas Siakor)

CURWOOD: So, what got you interested in forests?

SIAKOR: The forest is pretty much a part of every Liberian life. In terms of health, in terms of food security, in terms of basic cultural and traditional practices. But, actually, my work started back in 2000 when I worked with a local non-governmental organization. My responsibility, basically, was going out and talking to people to understand their plight in face of the sudden increase in logging activities in the area. The more I talk to people, the more I listen to their stories, everything that had to do with welfare that had to do with human rights in the communities, everything was linked to the timber industry.

CURWOOD: For example?

SIAKOR: Those that were involved in extraction of timber in their communities were the ones that were organizing private militias, were involved in perpetrating different types of human rights abuses. The companies were bulldozing entire villages doing wood construction. Bulldozing their way through private farms. Their cash crops were being destroyed with absolutely no compensation what so ever. So, everything that was happening to their community was very much linked to the timber industry. So we began to take a deeper interest in the timber industry as the root cause of some of the problems they were facing in the communities.

CURWOOD: Sounds to me like very dangerous work. I don’t think these guys would want someone looking into what they are doing.

SIAKOR: In a lot of respects I would say yes. Actually at the time it was pretty dangerous trying to do that. We did realize at the time that it was pretty dangerous, but for us it was something that had to be done. There were people stuck up in the villages with absolutely no access to the media. Absolutely no voice in their communities. Their resources were being plundered. Their livestock was being disrupted by the companies. Someone had to come to the rescue. Someone had to amplify their voices out there and that was why we had to take on that responsibility.

CURWOOD: Tell me the story of a particular village that you went to and helped and maybe even involved a bit of a close call for your associates or yourself.


Silas Siakor, winner of the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize (Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize)

SIAKOR: Well, there was one particularly moving incident where we had gone to a village to talk to people and they had prepared food for us. And we were sitting there and there was no water, any water around for drinking. And I said ‘can I have some water to drink?’ And they said, they were talking to a little kid, ‘oh, can you hurry up with the water?’ And what was he doing? He was trying to filter very muddy water through a bag of sand. And that’s the water we were supposed to be drinking. Every time I think about the timber industry that picture comes right back at me. And so I said to myself, if I can do anything to change his condition, and this was like a ten year old kid, and he was basically having to live the life he was living because the revenue that was coming from the timber industry--none of it was going back to the communities. So, that level of depravation for us was something that we consider unacceptable. And just coming up against the industry to talk about that in the public, a lot of people even today back in Liberia don’t quite understand why we did what we had to do. Because they all know that it was pretty dangerous. So, everyday that we had to live with that fear, we were living a very dangerous life, walking a very difficult line, but it had to be done.

CURWOOD: Did anyone ever threaten you?

SIAKOR: Worst of all, the president at the time, Charles Taylor, he was at the head of all those illegal militia forces, different paramilitary groups, commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He was very unhappy with the report that we had published. And he went on national radio and said that if he was fortunate to ever lay hands on the person that published that report, their family would have a long time grieving. So that was a very strong remark coming from the president at the time. And I was supposed to appear before the senate to give reasons behind the publication of the report that we had published. And failure to appear would lead the senate to know to take very strong action against me.

CURWOOD: What is in your report that so angered Charles Taylor?


Silas Siakor and team of trainees conduct field exercise in documenting illegal logs. (Photo courtesy of Silas Siakor)

SIAKOR: Well, simply to put the information that was out there together in a very organized manner, presenting it to the public. He didn’t, simply, like that. That people were being made aware of what was happening. For example, timber production had increased by 1,300 percent in 2002. And that translated into several million dollars in tax revenue that was due to the government. So, what we were saying was: why was it that none of that revenue was going back to the communities from where the timber was being extracted? Kids were growing up with no school, no hospital, no clinic. And everybody in those villages was living below the one dollar per day poverty line. So, simply bringing out that information and telling people what’s coming from your community is worth several million dollars. And here is the government plundering those resources and none of that is being used to better your lives. And he simply didn’t want that information out there. And then we began to show to all the people also that that revenue was actually being used to pay for arms that were being brought into the country to, basically, wage a war against the Liberian people because it was the ordinary people who were being affected by the war. A little over 200,000 persons were supposed to have died as a result of that war.

CURWOOD: So, what are you going to do next in Liberia?

SIAKOR: What we are working on now is trying to find way to strengthen local people, local communities to find their own voices. I’m not very old, but in the next five to ten years I would like to see myself do something else. So, what we are trying to do now is spend the next couple of years, five, six, seven years from now helping those communities, strengthening local structures, different grassroots institutions that would then begin to take on their own issues, take on their own cause, and stand up for their own rights. So that we don’t necessarily have to do this for them for eternity.

CURWOOD: Silas Siakor is the 2006 African winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Thank you so much.

SIAKOR: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

 

Links

The Goldman Environmental Prize

 

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