WILLIAM POWERS, Op-Ed Contributor, New York Times: "Seeing the Forest for the Peace"
January 10, 2005
TWENTY-FIVE years of dictatorship and civil war, preceded
by a century and a half of misrule, have made Liberia one
of the world's poorest countries. But Liberia's development
failures have paradoxically led to a success. Liberia has
something that the world values now more than ever: a vast
Liberia's status as a republic with strong ties to the
United States kept out European colonizers, so no Western
power came in to slice rails and roads into the interior.
Nature flourished in splendid isolation, and today more
than a third of the country is virgin rain forest, one of
the largest proportions of any nation. A Garden of Eden
bloomed around the hamlets where I worked: colobus monkeys
crashed through the jungle canopy, pygmy hippos tobogganed
into rivers, and sometimes the only roads through the
forest were those blazed by elephants. Conservation
International says that Liberia is the linchpin of West
Africa's Upper Guinean forest, which is believed to shelter
the highest mammal species diversity of any region in the
It's not just tree-huggers who want to save the Liberian
rain forest; nearly all first-world governments have made
conserving the last great rain forests on earth a priority.
The Liberian forest serves us all: it mitigates global
warming; it harbors vulnerable species like the Mount Nimba
viviparous toad and zebra duiker; it could be the source of
new medicines; and it provides aesthetic and spiritual
Economics 101 is also at play here. As the supply of
pristine rain forests declines (conservation groups
estimate that the world loses an acre every two seconds)
and the demand for what they provide increases, their value
increases. Liberia should capitalize on its ecological
wealth by exchanging something the world needs for
something Liberians desperately want: stability.
It would be a sort of Peace for Nature swap, based on the
Debt for Nature model in which third world countries
receive debt relief for conserving their natural heritage.
Under Peace for Nature, Liberia would convert a significant
part of itself into a United Nations biosphere reserve,
zoned for both strict preservation and multiple use.
In return, the world would commit to a sustainable, lasting
Liberian peace instead of the usual Band-Aid approach. This
means a full 20 years, long enough to establish a habit of
peace and to educate a new Liberian generation. We would
ensure security through the United Nations, meanwhile
training Liberians to do the job themselves, including
retooling former fighters as park guards. We would also
help bring electricity and piped water to their capital,
Monrovia, and a few interior towns. Liberia's potential for
ecotourism and certified timber production will be
fulfilled over time, as its image transforms from red
(blood diamonds) to green (rain forests).
Alternatively, Liberia faces one of two other possible
futures, neither rosy.
The first is the status quo, which has Liberia headed for
political collapse. True, the United Nations mission in
Liberia has disarmed combatants; but the world still spends
a thousand times more each day for war in Iraq than peace
in Liberia. And while it's refreshing to drive across a
Monrovia patrolled by grinning Ukrainians in blue helmets
instead of the gun-toting children used by the ousted
president, Charles Taylor, this lull is transient; interest
will fade as other conflicts ignite and the world
prematurely pulls out the United Nations tanks. When that
day comes, anarchy could return to Liberia, and it could
become a breeding ground for the next generation of
A second possibility is that the impoverished nation would
try to keep itself afloat by selling its principal asset to
multinational companies, auctioning timber concessions for
rapid clear-cutting (a job Charles Taylor started). Profits
are quickly racked up and sent offshore, and Liberia finds
itself a barren land.
Peace for Nature is an idea in keeping with the history of
Liberia, whose very existence is a result of a deal struck
in the United States between early 19th-century Northern
liberals who yearned to help freed slaves go home and
Southern conservatives who simply wanted them out of sight.
Today, the greening of Liberia is both liberal (help
starving Liberian children; heal the earth) and
conservative (reduce global warming cheaply; control
anarchic zones that foster terrorism). President James
Monroe christened Liberia "a little America, destined to
shine gem-like in the heart of darkest Africa." If Monroe's
language is anachronistic, his optimism is not; what we
have spawned, we can help renew.
Luckily, President Bush likes Liberia, and the feeling is
mutual. It's not just that Liberians love America, which
they certainly do. (They cling firmly to their red, white
and blue flag; their national dance, "the Dixie square
dance"; and a Constitution written at Harvard and codified
at Cornell.) They adore Mr. Bush because he stood up for
them. I heard the story a dozen times from earnest
Liberians on my recent visit there: with Marine helicopters
thwacking over Monrovia in 2003, Mr. Bush warned that
Charles Taylor must leave Liberia now, and I mean now. Mr.
Taylor left for Nigeria, and is now, thankfully, a
A challenge of Mr. Bush's second term is to move beyond
chasing tyrants to developing a foreign policy that's both
creatively compassionate and conservative. Why not start
with a green quid pro quo for Liberia?
William Powers, who directed aid projects in Liberia from
1999 to 2001, is the author of "Blue Clay People: Seasons
on Africa's Fragile Edge."