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.