The Grist Interview with Silas
The forests of the West African nation of Liberia cover
almost 12 million acres, and are home to nearly half of Africa’s
the region’s largest forest elephant population. But these forests,
and the communities that call them home, have been ravaged by 14 years
of brutal civil war. Liberian President Charles Taylor used timber
to fund much of that violence, entering into illegal logging contracts
with a favored company. Private militias hired by the logging industry
exacerbated the country’s already enormous suffering, in some
cases destroying entire villages.
Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor, the director of the Sustainable Development
Institute in Liberia, risked his life to collect evidence of falsified logging
records, illegal logging practices and arms smuggling associated with the timber
industry. He gave this evidence to the UN Security Council, which imposed an
international ban on the export of Liberian timber—part of a series of
broader trade sanctions still in place. Arthur Blundell, chairman of the UN panel
of experts on Liberia, commented, “The evidence Silas Siakor collected
at great personal risk was vital to putting sanctions in place and cutting the
links between the logging industry and conflict.”
Though Siakor was forced to flee the country in 2003, he returned in 2004, after
Taylor’s ouster, and is working with the country’s new leadership
on national timber policy reform. Liberia’s current president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf,
has cancelled all of the country’s timber concessions, and has said that
new contracts will not be issued until reforms are in place.
Siakor, 36, was awarded one of six 2006 Goldman Environmental Prizes at a ceremony
honoring grassroots activists in San Francisco on April 24. Silas Siakor spoke
to Michelle Nijhuis of Grist Magazine.
How did you first become aware of the illegal logging taking place in Liberia?
Back in 2000, when I started work on these issues, I was primarily working on
my organization’s newsletter. Part of my responsibility was to go out into
the field and try to get an understanding of what the situation was like, what
the logging activities were like. The more I went out and talked with people,
and saw logging actually taking place, the more I was drawn to the issue. So
in 2001, I began to work full-time on logging.
How did you discover and expose the link between illegal logging and civil war
It was public knowledge within Liberia at the time. All we did was pull the information
together, organize it, and present it to [NGOs] and influential policymakers
who were working outside of Liberia. That paved the way for more dialogue and
more discussion of these issues.
What made you personally decide to take action?
As I went out more and more to talk with people, their stories were just very
disheartening, traumatic in a way. I talked to villagers whose houses had been
destroyed by logging companies in order to build roads through their villages,
women who had been harassed and intimidated by militias belonging to those companies,
and individuals who had been arrested and detained by the different militias
belonging to the companies. So it kind of challenged us to ask ourselves, “What
can we do to change this situation?” Even though it was a fairly difficult
thing to do, we felt somebody had to do it.
It sounds extraordinarily dangerous. What gave you the courage to take such enormous
When you experience the level of poverty, the level of humiliation, the widespread
human rights abuses that are being perpetrated against these people, it makes
it really difficult to turn back, in spite of the risks associated with trying
to bring the issue up. So we saw it as a calling, in a way. We felt we had to
stand up and say, “This isn’t right, this has to stop.”
Were you or your allies threatened directly?
In our everyday work, we had to live with the fear that when [the information
we were gathering] became public knowledge within Liberia, it would have very
serious implications. That fear was always there. When we published our report
in September 2002, that brought the issue to the forefront. Once, when Charles
Taylor granted a radio interview, he went off track and made very threatening
comments about our work. He said that if he were ever so fortunate to lay hands
on the individuals who published that report, their families would have to mourn
their loss. The words he used were that their families “would have to wear
black,” which in typical Liberian parlance means that that person will
be killed. The president himself said this.
A couple of weeks later, the Senate summoned us to explain the motive behind
the preparation of the report—not to discuss the content or the issues
we were raising, just our motives. They were very, very harsh in their response,
and the debate in the Senate was characterized by a lot of very threatening comments
by different senators.
Most of the opinion leaders that we talked with at that time said it wasn’t
really safe to go forward and play hero. So I left the country in 2003, and stayed
away until 2004.
If you had stayed, do you think you would have been harmed?
There was no question about that whatsoever. Just listening to the comments that
were thrown across the floor by the Senate, just getting a feel for the intensity
of debate, the level of comments being made, there is no doubt in my mind what
would have happened. Some of those who dared to challenge the system in the past
actually lost their lives. Some of them went to jail. So I can only imagine what
would have happened to me if I had stayed.
Where did you go when you left?
I had to go hang out in Sierra Leone, which ironically was one of the countries
deeply affected by Taylor’s war activities in Liberia. After a while, I
moved on to Cote d’Ivoire—and then Cote d’Ivoire became embroiled
in a conflict, which was again promoted by Charles Taylor. So I was just running
around in the West African subregion. My family was still back in Liberia, so
day in and day out, I had to just think about them, and stay in telephone contact
with them. They laid low and things went okay, and we are all very happy that
we can be together again.
What do you consider your greatest victories so far?
All that has happened as a result of this work is a very, very powerful indication
that when there is something wrong in your community, you can make a difference
by standing up.
Two of the logging barons that were very involved with Charles Taylor and the
timber-for-arms trade are in jail now. One is standing trial in The Hague for
crimes against humanity, and for violating international law and the UN arms
embargo on Liberia. Charles Taylor himself is personally behind bars and will
be standing trial in the next couple of months. All the timber companies have
lost their concessions—as we speak, no timber company has any claim whatsoever
to an inch of Liberian territory.
When I look back, I think that all of these things, in many different ways, carry
their own significance for me.
What has the election of President Johnson-Sirleaf meant for your work?
She has made some very positive moves. She has acted very boldly to cancel all
[timber] concessions, at our insistence. She has put together a committee to
look at the industry in a holistic manner, and come up with a blueprint for how
things can be turned around for the benefit of the country. For the first time,
we have been asked by the government to play a very active role in that entire
We are kind of cautious at this point, staying aware of the fact that she is
a politician, and most of the time political agenda or interests can override
the environment and human rights. We are giving her the benefit of the doubt,
but we are very conscious that we have to stand firm and maintain our position
on some of the critical issues.
What does [receiving the Goldman Environmental] Prize mean to you?
To be quite honest, I haven’t really come to terms with the fact that I’ve
been awarded this prize [laughs]. But it is going to raise the profile of our
work in a lot of ways. It is going to add credibility for what we did, for what
we stood up for. It tells people that even if what you do doesn’t appear
to be that big, a lot of people can value it very much. I think it will be a
source of inspiration for a lot of people back in Liberia.
What do you plan to do with the money?
I’ve been talking about this a lot with my colleagues, and one thing we’ve
agreed on in principle is to use the money to strengthen the communities we are
working with—those communities most impacted by the illegal logging activities.
We want to work with them to help them find their own feet, their own voices,
so that we don’t always have to be there to talk on their behalf.
What do you hope Liberia will be like 10 years from now?
We hope that local communities in the forest region will have a very strong say
in how natural resources are managed, particularly the forests on which they
depend. We hope for a Liberia in which multinationals, especially those in the
timber industry, will do all they can to respect environmental standards, and
that their extraction practices will not unnecessarily degrade our forests. We
hope for a Liberia in which our culture and traditional practices will be respected
by our central government, and by the multinationals that come to extract resources
For more on the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize winners, see www.goldmanprize.org. Michelle
Nijhuis is a freelance writer in Paonia, Colorado, and the winner of
the 2006 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism. This interview
was originally published by Grist Magazine April 24, 2006. Reprinted
by permission from Grist Magazine (www.grist.org). For more environmental news
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