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Deforestation, “Development” Connected to Spread of Ebola in West Africa

Silas Siakor, director of Friends of the Earth Liberia, discusses the complex relationship between disease, deforestation and development.

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It is clear that the spread of Ebola in West Africa is directly linked to the region’s deep poverty: Out of 187 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone rank 175th, 179th and 183rd, respectively. But, while it is easy to recognize the links between poverty and the spread of the virus, there has been little focus on the root causes of the region’s impoverishment itself.

Along with the world’s deepest poverty, West Africa is in the running for the region with the highest deforestation rate in the world. Some researchers have drawn clear links between the outbreak of the disease and the resource exploitation that plagues the region.

Earlier epidemics have followed a pattern similar to the current spread of Ebola: Almost invariably, they affect regions whose economies, ecosystems and public health systems have been decimated; poverty drives people deeper into the forests to look for food and fuel, where they come into contact with animals that act as “disease reservoirs” – hosts that carry the pathogen without manifesting symptoms; the situation is compounded by the inability of the public health system to respond. Consequently, the impoverished health system itself becomes the reservoir of infections, serving to further the spread of disease, and patients and health workers alike carry the infection to the general population.

Armed with this understanding, the Peoples’ Health Movement argues that a broad response to Ebola requires understanding not only the pathology of the disease, but also the pathology of the global political and economic architecture that underlies it. I recently spoke with Silas Siakor, director of Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of the Earth Liberia, on the link between the Ebola epidemic and the ruthless exploitation of forest resources in the region.

Jeff Conant: Do you see a relation between the Ebola crisis and deforestation?

Silas Siakor: Those who are knowledgeable about the relation between the increasing human contact with wildlife, some of which have been noted as carriers of the Ebola virus, attribute that to the increasing deforestation in the region. Deforestation in West Africa is continuing in an alarming way. Most of the forest cover in the entire upper Guinean forest ecosystem has been lost. Liberia is the only country in the region that retains a significant cover of rainforest. So, it is understandable that scientists are pointing out that there may be a link between declining forest cover, increasing human contact with wildlife and the Ebola outbreak.

Would the increased contact with wildlife result from wildlife losing its habitat and entering areas where human beings live?

Across West Africa we are seeing lots of agribusinesses coming into the region. It’s not new, but it is now being taken to a very severe scale, and they are decimating the last remaining plots of forest. So there is increasing loss of habitat for bats, for chimpanzees – and as a result, increasing contact with human communities. That’s where our leadership needs to look at the Ebola crisis as a wake-up call: to begin to think, “Well, if diminishing forests and ecosystems are a problem, if increasing human-wildlife contact is a problem, than we need to take additional steps to avoid the situation getting worse.”

Is there a parallel with the response of the government to the Ebola crisis, and the way it has dealt with extractive industries?

The underlying challenge in Liberia after the war is the governance failure. Corruption, lack of accountability for state officials, all of that comes together in this crisis. We see that in the extractive sector, too. For example, virtually all logging concessions are illegal. A year ago, the president was compelled to cancel permits covering more than 2 million hectares, forest that had been allocated under illegal permits. It is a situation of state failure.

Golden Veroleum, a plantation company with large palm oil concessions in Liberia, says on its website that its objective is to end rural poverty and bring the beginnings of long-term prosperity. How do you see this?

This is the most fundamental issue that Liberia has to deal with. We have pursued development for 165 years as a nation, and it has gotten us nowhere.

To clarify: We produce lots of timber. All of that timber is exported to Europe and to China as round logs, not in processed form. At very low costs. We then turn around and import cheap furniture from China. If our government simply decided to process timber in the country, to produce our decks, chairs, our tables to use in all of the government offices, we would no longer use imported furniture.

Palm oil companies like Golden Veroleum and Sime Darby grow the palm, and then process and export crude palm oil. But this is not for the Liberian market; it is not intended to contribute to the food needs of the country. This is intended to sell to Europe and to other parts of the world to be turned into biofuels. But this is land that we need to grow food. Rather than doing that, we are devoting all of this land to grow oil palm and other commodities for the West.

This applies to all the raw materials we have. Unless we start to think about new ways of doing business, we are going to remain as poor as we are; the human condition will not be improved; the elites will continue to benefit from the resources and the majority of the population will continue to live in poverty.

If the government can’t prevent the plunder, what about the corporations themselves? Both large oil palm developers, Golden Veroleum and Sime Darby, have been the subject of complaints at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) (here and here), a body that’s existed for 10 years now. Did these complaints result in any improvements?

We haven’t seen any real improvements on the ground. Because the communities are not supported by legal experts, and the companies have got lawyers, they frame agreements with these communities in ways that have no benefit whatsoever. But besides that, the contract that Golden Veroleum has with the state is illegal. The contract that Sime Darby has with the state is illegal. An independent audit commission said to the government that the contracts were awarded in violation of several laws and regulations. But the companies continued to operate illegally.

Has there been any action from the RSPO?

The RSPO has not been useful at all. Where communities have filed complaints, they have asked communities to enter into dialogue with the companies. What we have seen as a result of these dialogues is talking and talking, meetings and meetings. The companies have made promises that they would rectify some of the situations, but some of these situations are irreversible. For example, if you have already claimed the farmland that these villagers were using to grow food and planted oil palm on that land, there is very little you can do to address that situation. In the case of Sime Darby, after the complaint was filed against them at the RSPO, they said they would distribute rice to the elderly people in the affected villages, that they would hire people from those villages. How long did they distribute the rice? A couple of months. But the land that the people used to grow cassava and other foods was never returned to them. These are not resolutions because some of these damages are irreversible.

What does it say about RSPO, if two companies whose contracts are illegal are still allowed to be members of this round table?

Voluntary initiatives are not enough. We need to ask for our states to regulate, to strengthen the oversight of the way these companies conduct themselves. Our states need mechanisms that allow citizens who are negatively impacted by these companies to hold them accountable. There is no way these companies will regulate themselves in a meaningful way. They make promises, but they don’t keep them, and there are no sanctions.

Is it possible to run a large-scale monoculture plantation in a sustainable manner?

In a country like Liberia, it is not possible to do large-scale sustainable plantations, for a couple of reasons. First, about 40 percent of the country is under some kind of forest cover. Therefore, if Golden Veroleum says they won’t cause any deforestation, that cannot be true because they are operating in a landscape that has a lot of forest cover. On the other hand, they say they’ll be socially responsible. “We will not take land that communities depend on.”

Of course, where you’ve got human settlements, the immediate surroundings of those settlements are the lands that people use to grow food. Therefore, there is no way that you can take that without affecting their livelihoods. If you do that, you push them further into forest areas where they would otherwise not go. That’s why it is important for the government to support our people to engage in agriculture activities in ways that improve their overall condition, without the devastating impacts that these large-scale plantations have.

What can the international community do to help?

Continuing to support the international response to the Ebola crisis is number one. While doing that, let’s think seriously about what’s next. The damage will continue for many years after the virus has been eliminated. Most of the communities where people had their farms have been affected; people have abandoned their villages and moved elsewhere; people have to go back into their communities. There will be conflicts related to some of these relocations. All of these issues need to be resolved. Donors need to challenge our government to properly use the resources they are supporting our government with. If they don’t, we’ll continue to see a situation where the government squanders international goodwill, and we’ll continue to come begging year after year asking for assistance, and this is not going to last forever.

In terms of resource extraction and trade between the North and South, there needs to be a serious debate in the EU and the US about the issues that are having a direct impact on our communities. Overconsumption in the North is devastating for us in the South. We need to find ways to make trade between Africa and Europe fairer, and mutually beneficial, and to promote development in a real sense in Africa. We need tougher regulations. Should we continue to allow financiers and oil palm companies to run amuck in Africa, and to decimate entire communities in order to provide crude palm oil in the American or European market? The time has come to stop all of that.

SDI’s Community Action and Support Team is working day and night in Liberia to stem the crisis by distributing sanitation kits to prevent the spread of infection. Donate now to support their work.

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