Risking His Life for Grass-Roots Environmentalism

By Nora Boustany
Saturday, April 29, 2006

S ilas Kpanan'Ayuong Siakor is more than an environmental hero. He helped save a nation.

Siakor, 36, alerted the United Nations to human rights abuses involving raids of one of Africa's richest woodlands. His action helped trigger Security Council sanctions on Liberia in 2003 that included a ban on the export of timber. He said he was compelled to act by concern about the destruction of the countryside and the plight of rural communities suffering from the shady links between foreign timber firms and hired guns fronting for President Charles Taylor .

Revenue from the logging was used to finance Taylor's war machine, which left 150,000 people dead in Liberia and caused destruction across the region. The embargo on timber sales cut off the main source of funding for the violence, and Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria months after it was imposed.

Siakor was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize of $125,000 at ceremonies in Washington and San Francisco this week for setting up a probe into the plunder at great personal risk. The honor, which was created in 1990 and is the world's most prominent award for grass-roots environmentalists, allows individuals to continue pursuing such victories and inspires ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the world.

"Our struggle for the environment is not about trees. It is a campaign for social justice and respect for human rights," Siakor said. "It is about our right to have a healthy and safe environment."

Liberia is home to 45 percent of the forests in West Africa and 2,300 varieties of timber, 1,000 of which are marketable. The country's wilderness preserves provide a natural habitat for one of the rarest kinds of deer in the world, as well as the Liberian mongoose, the pygmy hippopotamus and elephants.

When he was 19, Siakor sought refuge in neighboring Sierra Leone after the conflict in Liberia erupted in 1989. In 1992, the fighting spilled into Sierra Leone.

Siakor went to work for the United Nations, providing logistical support to its relief missions so convoys could move from the Liberian capital, Monrovia, to the interior. To perform his work, he often had to request special permits from Taylor's rebel forces and seek militia escorts for vehicles carrying relief supplies and medications to the hinterlands under their control.

While working at the United Nations, Siakor and his brother set up a nongovernmental organization, the Save the Future Foundation, that examined the timber companies and their impact on people.

"Entire villages were being broken, decimated by the timber companies. Farmers' cash crops were being destroyed. People were being arrested and detained illegally. There were massacres and rapes," Siakor said in an interview Wednesday. "What they were doing to the population was devastating, and most of it was being done by Chinese companies."

One Chinese firm, the Oriental Timber Co., was headed by a Dutch national, Gus Van Kouvenhoven , who turned out to be Taylor's major logistician and arms dealer. The company had its own militia, facilitating transport, the arrival of shipments and other tasks.

In one village used as a staging ground for forays into Ivory Coast, a lumber company's militia went on the rampage, raping and killing 250 women and children, a massacre that was investigated by U.N. officials in 2004.

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