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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

Documentary Review: “Silas” will take you inside the fight against corruption in Liberia

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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