Pic­ture this: A Pres­i­dent who cam­paigned on a pledge to reduce cor­rup­tion in  gov­ern­ment, but then appoint­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers to key gov­ern­ment posi­tions, as ethics imbroglios sky­rock­et and shady deals are struck out of pub­lic view.

No, I’m not talk­ing about the Unit­ed States, I’m talk­ing about Liberia, where activist Silas Siakor has been lead­ing the fight against gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion and col­lu­sion with tim­ber com­pa­nies, who are dis­plac­ing whole com­mu­ni­ties while enrich­ing them­selves and destroy­ing the environment.

Siakor, win­ner of the Gold­man Envi­ron­men­tal Prize, is the sub­ject of “Silas”, a doc­u­men­tary that has been on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit for the last year and which I screened at the 2018 Seat­tle Inter­na­tion­al Film Festival.

Liberia is a coun­try that went through twen­ty-five years of polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty and inter­mit­tent vio­lence after a mil­i­tary coup in 1980.

Charles Tay­lor was Pres­i­dent of Liberia dur­ing part of that time, from 1997 to 2003. Tay­lor was a war­lord, fund­ed by mon­ey from dia­monds and tim­ber. Ships were “tak­ing out tim­ber and bring­ing in guns,” accord­ing to the film.

Siakor and oth­er activists brought evi­dence to the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty of human rights abus­es and the plun­der of the forests. A sub­se­quent inves­ti­ga­tion led to Unit­ed Nations sanc­tions and the down­fall of Tay­lor’s regime. Tay­lor was even­tu­al­ly found guilty of aid­ing and abet­ting war crimes, the first for­mer head of state to charged in inter­na­tion­al court.

It was for this work that Siakor won the Gold­man Envi­ron­men­tal Prize for Africa in 2006.

In 2005, Liberia had their first demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions after for­teen years of civ­il war. The per­son cho­sen to gov­ern was Ellen John­son Sir­leaf, Africa’s first demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly-elect­ed woman pres­i­dent. Sir­leaf ran as a reformer, and Siakor vot­ed for her.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Tay­lor’s oust­ing did not spell the end of the gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion and mis­use of the coun­try’s nat­ur­al resources in order to enrich the select few. Under Sir­leaf’s con­trol, the gov­ern­ment con­tin­ued to over­sell per­mits to tim­ber com­pa­nies, to the detri­ment of the coun­try’s cit­i­zens as well as the environment.

The new gov­ern­ment intro­duced reforms, but Siakor reg­u­lar­ly received reports from com­mu­ni­ties that the gov­ern­ment is fail­ing to imple­ment it’s new laws.

Sir­leaf enjoyed a lot of inter­na­tion­al sup­port and atten­tion, so Siakor faced an uphill bat­tle get­ting peo­ple to lis­ten to him and oth­er activists.

More than one mil­lion peo­ple, about one-quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion of Liberia, live in the areas that have been hand­ed over to for­eign tim­ber companies.

The gov­ern­ment claimed in its defense that sell­ing the tim­ber per­mits were nec­es­sary to get funds for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. How­ev­er, Siakor found evi­dence that there were a large num­ber of ille­gal per­mits being issued.

Explain­ing the impact on com­mu­ni­ties when tim­ber per­mits are issues for their land, Siakor says, “Com­mu­ni­ties become tiny islands in plan­ta­tions owned by the com­pa­nies. They lose their abil­i­ty to grow their own food and be sus­tain­able. They become very depen­dent on the com­pa­ny for their livelihoods.”

“They become pris­on­ers to the com­pa­nies on their own ances­tral land,” he adds.

The film explains that Pres­i­dent Sir­leaf’s nephew was named Deputy of Inter­nal Affairs, the depart­ment that over­sees the Forestry Devel­op­ment Author­i­ty (FDA), which over­sees the tim­ber per­mit­ting process.

Siakor was secret­ly giv­en a let­ter from some­one in the FDA show­ing all the tim­ber per­mits that were allo­cat­ed. The let­ter showed that there had been more ille­gal­ly allo­cat­ed per­mits than legal per­mits through open process, with some of the biggest con­tracts even giv­en, even dur­ing the civ­il war and Tay­lor’s presidency.

Con­front­ed with the evi­dence of ille­gal per­mits, Sir­leaf com­mis­sioned an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion. Her nephew, who had by then left his posi­tion, was impli­cat­ed in the inves­ti­ga­tion, which did show that per­mits were ille­gal­ly issued.

No one was held account­able, but the ille­gal tim­ber per­mits were void­ed and a mora­to­ri­um was placed on the issu­ing of new per­mits. Despite the mora­to­ri­um, com­pa­nies con­tin­ued to expand into com­mu­ni­ty land, and Siakor and oth­er activists con­tin­ued to work with com­mu­ni­ties to protest and fight the tim­ber companies.

Sir­leaf is shown vis­it­ing some of the vil­lages where protest­ing is hap­pen­ing, and telling peo­ple, “When your gov­ern­ment and rep­re­sen­ta­tives sign any paper­work with a for­eign coun­try, the com­mu­ni­ties can’t change it.”

In one of the poor­est com­mu­ni­ties, protest­ing because their land was just sold, Sir­leaf admon­ish­es them, “You have to be civil.”

Yet the efforts of com­mu­ni­ties and activists like Siakor have led to some wins, includ­ing get­ting one tim­ber com­pa­ny to agree not to expand into com­mu­ni­ty land, set­ting a prece­dent that oth­er com­mu­ni­ties may be able to use. How­ev­er, a com­plete change to whole mod­el of devel­op­ment and forestry in Liberia is still needed.

The film then depicts Siakor wag­ing a cam­paign for the Liber­ian House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. “You can’t just wait for bet­ter lead­ers to come along,” he says.

Siakor did not win his race, but since then he has found­ed a com­mu­ni­ty radio sta­tion and is build­ing a micro­fi­nance bank in his hometown.

Sir­leaf’s term end­ed in Jan­u­ary 2018.

“Silas” shows that even when fight­ing a cor­rupt gov­ern­ment and large cor­po­ra­tions, every­day peo­ple work­ing togeth­er can still score wins and cre­ate change.

Some infor­ma­tion about the film can be found on it’s web­site, but the infor­ma­tion on screen­ings is not up to date. The Face­book page for the film seems to have more cur­rent infor­ma­tion, though no upcom­ing screen­ings are cur­rent­ly listed.

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