Liberia: Hike in Transport Fares Upsets Lumber Trade



James Bartoe  was amongst hundreds of employees that were downsided by the United Nations peacekeeping missions in 2008. He immediately sought to venture into the timber (plank) business. 

At first, he said  business was good, but it all turned sour for the 49 year old man when the government of Liberia increased the prices of gasoline last year.

“This is my sixteenth year selling planks,” Bartoe said.  “But transportation has gone up. We are now paying L$500.00 to L$600.00  just for one piece of plank." Prior to the hike in transportation fares, Bartoe and his colleagues used to pay L$250.00 from Grand Bassa and other Counties.

The hike in transportation fares has been having adverse effects on many business people across the country, but those in the lumber industry (plank sellers) appear to be the most affected, Bartoe and other dealers told the Daily Observer

"I have been into the plank business since 2006. I worked with the United Nations when they downsided us in 2008.  My friend told me we should do tire business, but  I said no, I want to do plank business,” Bartoe said.

Like Bartoe, most lumber traders in Monrovia would send their money to people in the counties, where the timbers are felled, processed and then sent to Monrovia.

“The transport fare is too high. Imagine, we pay L$500 or L$600 for one piece of plank to Monrovia, and we pay L$100 for one piece of plank to agents of the Forestry Development Authority at the checkpoints, and when we bring we have to sawmill it,” said Moses Yahkpah, another plank dealer.  

This was a normal amount, according to him. The wood was sold at L$400, transported at L$200 and L$45 to FDA agents, while they sold at L$800.  

“The truck drivers are complaining that gasoline prices have gone up, and those felling the trees have also increased their prices. 

Sometimes when you go in the bush for your plank then the driver charges you. Before, we used to pay L$200 to L250 for a piece but now we are paying L400, LD500, or L600 for one piece, mainly from Sinoe county.”

The timber industry plays a major role in the Liberian economy, making up a significant part of the country’s Gross Domestic Products (GDP). The sector feeds the chainsaw milling, rural production, transportation, urban market purchases, sales, and woodworking and construction businesses. It involves all counties. 

According to a survey conducted by  researchgate, a Germany-based network of scientists and researchers, the timber value chain in Liberia is short and unindustrialized, with limited processing and transformation. 

Ranging from supply to construction, carpentry and woodworking products are relatively unprocessed, un-dried, and ultimately low-quality. There are no sawmills and no kiln facilities in Liberia and the entire primary processing is done on rudimentary equipment, like chainsaws and ripping machines, directly at the county level and mostly at the point of extraction. These bottlenecks make the industry a substandard one.

“Chainsaw millers are the key element of the supply chain, contributing to the major part of the product’s value (39%). Informal, they operate the entire primary transformation, felling trees and sectioning them into planks using chainsaws. Calibration, drying, treatment, dyeing, and quality control are not done or done poorly; storage, logistics and distribution facilities are open-air, which affects the quality of processing and value of the products,” the report said.

The survey titled, “Liberia: Domestic Timber Value Chain Analysis” was conducted in 2017”, said  data on the forest sector is fragmented, but it is suggested that the annual sustainable production of timber could be between 800,000 and 1.3 million.

 In addition to the industrial export-oriented timber sector, which exports about 200,000 m³ annually, a significant domestic timber market does exist. While the export of raw timber has a valuable economic impact for the central government, value addition is non-existent and the export sector does not go beyond harvesting raw logs and paying taxes.

On the other hand, domestic timber has an extensive and complex value chain that generates direct and indirect employment throughout the country and downstream value addition opportunities. 

The sector also played a significant role in funding the two civil wars that raged in the country between 1989 and 2003. Revenue from illegal exploitation of timber — alongside diamonds and rubber — fueled the conflict and armed the combatant groups.

In 2003, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Liberian timber export after the Government failed to prove that the revenues were “used for legitimate social, humanitarian, and development purposes.”

The sanctions ultimately offered an opportunity for improved rule of law and were lifted three years later following ambitious reform efforts.

Nevertheless, forest governance in Liberia remains a challenge. Between 1990 and 2010, the country lost 12.2 percent of its forest cover, posing a threat not only to the communities depending on the forest for a living, but also to climate, wildlife, and biodiversity conservation. To tackle these challenges, the EU and Liberia signed the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in 2011.

Liberia is home to half of the remaining rainforest in West Africa. Covering more than 60 percent of the nation's land space surface, forests are the fourth-largest contributor to the country's economy and an important source of income one-third of its population.

They also make Liberia one of the world’s hotspots for biological diversity, hosting more than 2,200 species of flora and nearly 900 fauna. However, the forests face pressing challenges due to illegal logging and other drivers of deforestation.

In 2011, Liberia signed up to the VPA under the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan to protect its forest from illegal and ensure that timbers exported to the EU are illegally produced.  

The agreement commits the government of Liberia to develop systems and ensure sustainable management of all types of forest, and provides a legal framework.

However, other economic factors are also affecting the domestic market of timber/lumber industry, as traders bemoan the hardship that they are being faced with. 

“Because the price of plank has increased, customers are no longer pouring into the market. Everybody is complaining and we also are complaining,” Martha Tommah, a dealer in Red Light.

Lawrence Thompson, aged 32, a furniture maker in Red Light said, “The increment in plank prices has affected us greatly. We are no longer getting customers as we used to.”

Many of the dealers interviewed said the increase in gasoline has led to hurdles in regular business.