Silas Siakor’s quest to Save Liberia’s Natural Resources

“Silas” is a documentary by the Writer/ Director/Producer and TIMBY Founder Anjali Nayar. “Silas” follows the Liberian activist, Silas Siakor in his fight to destroy corruption and stop the vast environmental destruction in Liberia. The film which was screened as the Human Rights Watch Festival’s closing night film on Friday 16th of March, is the story of how “one man’s battle gains momentum and emboldens communities to raise their fists and smartphones, seize control of their lands and protect their environment.  A new generation of resistance”.

40% of Liberian land area is covered by forest, containing over half of the remaining rainforest of West Africa.

In 2003 Silas Siakor was responsible for exposing evidence that the then Liberian President Charles Taylor used the profits of unchecked, rampant logging to pay for the brutal 14-year civil war that killed 150,000 people. Collecting this extremely hard-to-get evidence of falsified logging records, illegal logging practices and associated human rights abuses was at a great personal risk.  In 2006 he won the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa (Liberia). At the Human Rights Watch Festival 2018 Alt A sat down with Silas and Anjali.

How much has changed since 2006 regarding Liberia’s illegal logging issues?

Silas- “Well certainly the legal framework governing logging in Liberia has changed radically. New legislation was introduced in 2006 and 2007 and new systems and procedures have been put in place. Community wise there is a much more enshrined legal framework. The government has an interest in sharing and distributing the revenues within the communities where the logging takes place. So, there has been significant progress in terms of the legal framework, there has been some challenges with implementation. But overall, I would say that at least the communities are seeing some economic benefits and communities are much more involved in the decision making around logging”.

Do you think the political environment is changing for the better and how?

Silas: “We did see some progress during the reign of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Civil society was very vibrant, and the political space was quite good. It is what all of us in civil society organisations are hoping for, that the space will remain. We are not quite sure yet how the current government is going to engage with us going forward. But I do think there is a lot of vibrancy in civil society and to push back the progress that has already been made would be extremely challenging, we hope the President (George Weah) will not try and do this”.

Do you think African countries can protect their resources without Western support?

Silas- “It can be said we made progress because we wanted to make progress and it can also be said that Western support for reform processes has been crucial as well. I think this a recognition that our countries as producers must engage with Western countries and Europe as consumers of products coming from Africa to work together to ensure rule of law prevails in our countries and that corporations leaving Europe are playing by the rules in Africa and not taking advantage of weak governance”.

What are the obstacles to democracy in Africa?

Countries in Africa are on different levels in terms of democracy. In Liberia now, some of the challenges we see are much more related to lack of respect for the rule of law even though we have very good laws, implementation is very weak. Legislation around elections for example and around the check and balance of government are often not enforced. The judicial system is not very strong. All these things come together to undermine the progress we are trying to make.”

Although the film focuses on Liberia this is a global tale looking at the “misuse of political power” and individuals who are no longer afraid to take a stand against the corruption that puts the future of their countries environment and people at risk. Liberia is just one of many timber-producing countries that is affected by illegal logging.

According to the WWF the 11 regions in the globe where the most forest loss will occur by 2030 — include East Africa and Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya—if action is not taken against the major forest threats, then we are in danger of losing nearly 30 million acres which is expected to occur by 2030 in East Africa alone.

The WWF has a key focus to stop illegal logging as part of its strategy to conserve the world’s most important forests. Illegal logging is part of a chain of events that leads to deforestation. Many of us are unaware of the kind of devastation it can cause, for local communities and indigenous peoples it could mean losing a way of life that they have maintained for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

What is logging? Logging, or commercial logging, involves cutting trees for sale as timber or pulp. When within the confides of the law the damage to the environment is less brutal as rare species of trees are protected, local communities and wildlife are considered. Legal reform is needed where there is sometimes no clear legal framework for forestry, agriculture and mining and weak cohesion between the sectors. Across Africa local communities are waking up to the damage governments are doing by selling large acres of land to foreign investors who in turn make millions in profit from timber sales, some of these companies do not operate on an ethical scale.

The profits are rarely seen by the local communities and sometimes whole communities are uprooted as they can no longer rely on the land for their survival. Creating a matter of life and death situation where food and medicine can no longer be sourced from the forest that they live in. According to the World Bank the formal timber sector employs more than 13.2 million people, producing more than 5,000 types of wood-based products, and generates a gross value added of over $600 billion each year.

Nayar tells us how she become involved in the project;

“As an environmental journalist for many, many years, it was a topic that came up time and time again. You would read the headlines, about communities of upper 50.000 people being moved from their land and you ask the question how this even happens? How is it possible that a company gets 25% of a countries land mass? It was something I wanted to dig more into, more than just a six-hundred-word article. When I met Silas I was working for a nature magazine and I realized that he could be the voice of that story because not only was he very well spoken on the issues, he also had deep deep roots on the ground within those communities and he was working with them. From the time something happens on community level to the time it is reported to the public it can be two years and by that time that land has gone and if you are able to facilitate the root of that information getting general awareness then you have the possibility of stopping these big deals from happening.

How did the narrative develop, did you have an idea of what you wanted to portray?

Nayar: “I wanted to look at what communities and groups on the ground are doing to change their world. I wanted to not make a film, a lot of films do this, environmental films especially, that shows an outsider coming in and saving the day. This is really about what an incredible human being and his network of inventories and incredible NGO’s working in Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) among others, that were effective in their work. This is not sexy activism, this is not lie down on the street and not accomplish anything activism. This is the boring activism like writing letters, freedom of information, creating legal arguments to change the world. This is soft spoken effective activism. And that was interesting to me. It is definitely not the of type film where there are these sweeping views and dramatic moments but is a compelling film from beginning to end that is why it has had such great life”

Why do you think the film is important when shaping the global narrative on environmental issues in Liberia?

Nayar: “I think there are a few different levels that it works on, the one kind of takeaway that I really hope is that people realize things are not black or white in these issues, it is not that a leader is all good or all bad, that there are nuances to the idea of development, that development does not mean you have to devastate a community’s social and environmental infrastructure, there is the possibility for compromise and different methods to development. Is so easy to make sweeping statements that a leader as all good or all bad. As soon as a leader becomes all good there is no room for error and there is no room for accountability and we have seen it in Liberia and we have seen it in Myanmar, we have seen it in so many different countries where as soon as we start propping up our leaders to a point of no accountability things start going wrong and it is almost impossible to go backwards. It is a legacy that is going to be hard to reckon with in Liberia now that there is a new administration. I think there was the possibility and good will to do a lot more.

Will this new government create a better political footprint?

Nayar: “I do not want to speak too soon, this current president (Weah ) is a populist, he is an ex-footballer and I think the best thing I think he can do is surround himself with people who have a lot more experience in politics or running the kind of cabinets that he would need people to run. So, if he surrounds himself with good people I think there is a chance”.

Would the film have worked without Silas?

Nayar: “The first way we cut this film was an entourage film, there are many different people and that is important to point out in the story, that many people are doing this type of work, working with Silas, but it could not work, because it is really complicated issues, you have a very complicated political history and these are not easy issues and it does take one person to hang the issues on to be able to tell the story. So, it was not meant to be a superhero movie, but it was the best way we could communicate the information and subject matter in a way that you could fall in love with him and his family and his life and understand the other issues. If we tried to make it about the issue itself, it would not have held together”.

What do you want the audience to take away?

Nayar: “It is about the power of one person to make a change in their world. We look around ourselves whether you are in the USA and dealing with the politics going on right now, or if you are a woman dealing with sexual harassment issues, it can feel like nothing can change, but we have seen this year time and time again that it is possible to make a change. If when everything seems hopeless, if we stop being pessimistic and lying down in paralysis, if we stop being complacent, we have the possibility of being activist and changing things. If I can help inspire hope, then I would have done my job in this film”

In 2015, the Zanzibar Declaration on Illegal Trade in Timber and Forest Products was formed by the national forest agencies of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Madagascar and Mozambique who agreed to this significant declaration to jointly combat illegal timber trade in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)

The SDI works to transform decision-making processes of natural resource management so the benefits are shared equally. SDI’s work aims to create space for the participation of local communities in decision making processes on natural resources.

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