Features | May 2005
Learning to See Abundance in Liberia
by William Powers

For Earth Day 2005, Guernica asked William Powers, author of the recent Liberia memoir “Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge” to reflect on his Op-Ed essay “Seeing the Forest for the Peace” which caused a stir upon appearing in the New York Times (1/10/05) and the International Herald Tribune (1/11/05). Powers was invited to present the idea in Washington, D.C. in February to a group of officials from the World Bank, U.S. State Department, USAID, U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and others. That group, the Liberia Forest Initiative, is currently disbursing $4 million to conserve Liberia’s rain forest in this critical post-civil war juncture.

We reprint Powers’ essay below some thoughts which he sends from Bolivia, where he is at work on a book about tropical ecology, Indian culture, and multi-national oil in Bolivia entitled A Natural Nation.

“If you don’t share your wealth with us, we’ll share our poverty with you.” This, from a village chief in Africa.

Wishful thinking, I thought when I first heard this. Africans have no such power over our fine economies.

But last November I began to understand this afresh as I barreled in a white Land Cruiser through Sierra Leone’s Koingadugu province. I was there to oversee long-term vaccination and clinic construction program, but I found my official vehicle forever converted into a makeshift ambulance for dying women and children. And—this is a fact that continues to astound me— there was not a single doctor in the province of one million people.

Such misery is hidden away, and Africa cannot “share it with us” as the chief suggested. I witness such things because, as an international aid worker, it’s my job to be there. Looking out that Land Cruiser window, a strong stench of sweat coming off the unwashed pregnant woman and her nervous husband next to me, I noticed something else disturbing: the rain forest had been clear-cut as far as I could see. All but a small percentage of Sierra Leone’s primary forests are gone.

It is a myth that poor countries must do what the rich world did: raze forests in order to grow their economies. Quite to the contrary, denuding Sierra Leone for agriculture, ranching, timber, and mining has not only left the country the world’s poorest (UN Human Development Index 2004), but is making it poorer still through barren soils and scant firewood for cooking.

“If you don’t share your wealth with us, we’ll share our poverty with you.” Perhaps that chief was talking about ecological poverty. As in: “Our forests will go, hastening global warming. And your children will live in a world devoid of virgin rain forests.”

More than a warning, the chief’s insight is a call to action. He’s suggesting we think holistically instead of getting caught up in minutia, missing the forest for the trees.

In my New York Times piece I made a conscious mental shift to see abundance rather than scarcity. Sure, it would have been tempting to look beside me and out the window of that vehicle in Sierra Leone and think: lost cause. But much wiser people have shown me that the very darkest corners, the hidden ones, can inculcate the greatest hope. Think of Victor Fankel’s psychology of meaning that he found in Auschwitz, or Helen Keller's reaction to the evil of her era: “This is a time for a loud voice, open speech, and fearless thinking. I rejoice that I live in such a splendidly disturbing time.”

Today, Liberians are similarly inspiring. Having lived there myself for two years, I witnessed vibrant hopeful Liberians struggling toward peace, including preserving their own rain forest, among the most marvelous in the world. Inspired by them I started asking myself, as I do again this Earth Day: How can our human creativity, intelligence, and love pry workable solutions from the complex landscape of wealth, poverty, and ecology? How can we start to live in one world instead of two?

Seeing the Forest for the Peace

TWENTY-FIVE years of dictatorship and civil war, preceded by a century and a half of misrule, have made Liberia one of the world’s poorest countries. But Liberia’s development failures have paradoxically led to a success. Liberia has something that the world values now more than ever: a vast rain forest.

Liberia’s status as a republic with strong ties to the United States kept out European colonizers, so no Western power came in to slice rails and roads into the interior. Nature flourished in splendid isolation, and today more than a third of the country is virgin rain forest, one of the largest proportions of any nation. A Garden of Eden bloomed around the hamlets where I worked: colobus monkeys crashed through the jungle canopy, pygmy hippos tobogganed into rivers, and sometimes the only roads through the forest were those blazed by elephants. Conservation International says that Liberia is the linchpin of West Africa’s Upper Guinean forest, which is believed to shelter the highest mammal species diversity of any region in the world.

It’s not just tree-huggers who want to save the Liberian rain forest; nearly all first-world governments have made conserving the last great rain forests on earth a priority. The Liberian forest serves us all: it mitigates global warming; it harbors vulnerable species like the Mount Nimba viviparous toad and zebra duiker; it could be the source of new medicines; and it provides aesthetic and spiritual well-being.

Economics 101 is also at play here. As the supply of pristine rain forests declines (conservation groups estimate that the world loses an acre every two seconds) and the demand for what they provide increases, their value increases. Liberia should capitalize on its ecological wealth by exchanging something the world needs for something Liberians desperately want: stability.

It would be a sort of Peace for Nature swap, based on the Debt for Nature model in which third world countries receive debt relief for conserving their natural heritage. Under Peace for Nature, Liberia would convert a significant part of itself into a United Nations biosphere reserve, zoned for both strict preservation and multiple use.

In return, the world would commit to a sustainable, lasting Liberian peace instead of the usual Band-Aid approach. This means a full 20 years, long enough to establish a habit of peace and to educate a new Liberian generation. We would ensure security through the United Nations, meanwhile training Liberians to do the job themselves, including retooling former fighters as park guards. We would also help bring electricity and piped water to their capital, Monrovia, and a few interior towns. Liberia’s potential for ecotourism and certified timber production will be fulfilled over time, as its image transforms from red (blood diamonds) to green (rain forests).

Alternatively, Liberia faces one of two other possible futures, neither rosy.

The first is the status quo, which has Liberia headed for political collapse. True, the United Nations mission in Liberia has disarmed combatants; but the world still spends a thousand times more each day for war in Iraq than peace in Liberia. And while it’s refreshing to drive across a Monrovia patrolled by grinning Ukrainians in blue helmets instead of the gun-toting children used by the ousted president, Charles Taylor, this lull is transient; interest will fade as other conflicts ignite and the world prematurely pulls out the United Nations tanks. When that day comes, anarchy could return to Liberia, and it could become a breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists.

A second possibility is that the impoverished nation would try to keep itself afloat by selling its principal asset to multinational companies, auctioning timber concessions for rapid clear-cutting (a job Charles Taylor started). Profits are quickly racked up and sent offshore, and Liberia finds itself a barren land.

Peace for Nature is an idea in keeping with the history of Liberia, whose very existence is a result of a deal struck in the United States between early 19th-century Northern liberals who yearned to help freed slaves go home and Southern conservatives who simply wanted them out of sight.

Today, the greening of Liberia is both liberal (help starving Liberian children; heal the earth) and conservative (reduce global warming cheaply; control anarchic zones that foster terrorism). President James Monroe christened Liberia ‘’a little America, destined to shine gem-like in the heart of darkest Africa.’’ If Monroe’s language is anachronistic, his optimism is not; what we have spawned, we can help renew.

Luckily, President Bush likes Liberia, and the feeling is mutual. It’s not just that Liberians love America, which they certainly do. (They cling firmly to their red, white and blue flag; their national dance, ‘’the Dixie square dance’’; and a Constitution written at Harvard and codified at Cornell.) They adore Mr. Bush because he stood up for them. I heard the story a dozen times from earnest Liberians on my recent visit there: with Marine helicopters thwacking over Monrovia in 2003, Mr. Bush warned that Charles Taylor must leave Liberia now, and I mean now. Mr. Taylor left for Nigeria, and is now, thankfully, a non-factor.

A challenge of Mr. Bush’s second term is to move beyond chasing tyrants to developing a foreign policy that’s both creatively compassionate and conservative. Why not start with a green quid pro quo for Liberia?

[from the New York Times Op-Ed, January 10, 2005]

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