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Last Updated: Monday, 24 April 2006, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
Anti-logging activist wins award
Silas Siakor photographing felled timber (Image: Goldman Prize)
Mr Siakor's evidence led to a global ban on Liberian timber exports
A campaigner who risked his own safety to expose illegal logging operations in Liberia has been recognised with a prestigious environmental award.

Silas Siakor, 36, has won a Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts, which resulted in the UN banning the export of Liberian timber.

The awards are described as "the Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalism".

Mr Siakor and five other winners will receive their awards on Monday at a presentation ceremony in San Francisco.

Working for the Liberian environmental group Save My Future Foundation (Samfu), Mr Siakor revealed in 2002 that President Charles Taylor's regime was selling off the nation's forests to timber companies.

It is understood that warring factions in the region turned to logging after the trade in so-called "blood diamonds" became subject to UN sanctions.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), illegal logging during the 14 years of civil war had reduced the nation's forest cover by almost one fifth.

Personal touch

Mr Siakor worked alongside industry contacts and fellow campaigners to gather a dossier of evidence showing the full extent of the illegal logging, corruption and human rights abuses that was fuelling the civil war.

What started as a simple exchange of material amongst a small group of people soon formed the basis of a report which caught the attention of the international community.

"In 2002, we decided that we needed a change in strategy," Mr Siakor said. "We knew that the personal touch would have an impact on international policy.

"When we published the report it was being quoted more and more within the international debate, and the Liberian Government came under increasing pressure to act," he added.

The publicity surrounding the report angered the government. Evidence contained in the report had led to the UN Security Council banning the export of timber from Liberia, which had an impact on the funds available to the warring factions in the civil war.

'Big trouble'

"At one point, President Taylor himself referred to the report on national radio," Mr Siakor recalled.

"He said that the people who were responsible for the report would be in very big trouble if he got his hands on them."

Silas Siakor at UN airport, Monrovia (Image: Andy Black)
Mr Siakor went into exile after Charles Taylor said he was in 'big trouble'

The president's warning, combined with a summons to appear before the nation's Senate, led to Mr Siakor's colleagues advising him to leave Liberia for a period of exile spent in several neighbouring countries.

In August 2003, Charles Taylor himself fled, handing power to his deputy. Soon after, UN peacekeepers arrived in Liberia.

Mr Taylor would eventually face trial for crimes against humanity during the civil war which saw more than 250,000 people killed.

Towards the end of 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became president, the first woman to be elected as an African head of state.

She cancelled all previous timber concessions made by the previous government and has promised to carry out a series of reforms.

However, this is not the end of the road for Mr Siakor. The international sanctions on timber exports are set to be lifted in June.

'Social momentum'

As director of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), he published a report in January outlining the sort of reforms he feels need to be carried out in order to protect the long term future of Liberia's forests and the wildlife that depends upon them.

Mr Siakor hopes that winning the Goldman Environmental Prize will encourage others to follow in his footsteps. "I would like to see more and more local people take on these issues," he said.

"We are going to need people who will insist that the rate we extract these natural resources must allow for natural regeneration.

"What we are doing now within the SDI is to support more grassroot involvement, a social momentum, that will take on this sort of campaign. If people are empowered to actively engage with the government, I strongly believe that this will be good for overall political governance."

The other winners of the Goldman Prizes, being presented in San Francisco on 24 April, include:

  • a young Ukrainian lawyer who successfully brought a temporary halt to the construction of a canal that would have cut through one of the world's most valuable wetlands, the Danube delta.
  • a veteran of the Vietnam War who convinced the Pentagon to stop plans to incinerate stockpiles of old chemical weapons.
  • a Brazilian whose efforts led to the creation of the world's largest group of protected tropical forests, which had been under threat of illegal logging.

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