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Draft Author: Benjamin Hofstatter (May 2001)

Liberia: Trade, Environment,
and Conflict

Case Background
Environment Aspects
Conflict Aspect
Environment Conflict Overlap
Related Information


I. Case Background

1. Abstract

The diamond trade contributes significantly to the private sector economies of many African nations. The vast majority of rough diamonds extracted in Africa are monitored in legitimate fashion by government agencies. However, some rough diamonds originate in areas controlled by rebels and evade proper monitoring. These "conflict diamonds," which help finance the violent activities of outlaws, enter the world's legitimate supply of diamonds between the time of extraction and the point at which they are processed. The trade in conflict diamonds has become a significant threat to stability in West Africa largely because of Charles Ghankay Taylor, the president of Liberia. Taylor actively supports a rebel group in neighboring Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), in exchange for diamonds. He has provided the RUF with weapons and related materiel, training, logistical support, a staging ground for attacks, and a safe haven for retreat.(1) Known for its unusual brutality, this notorious rebel group has terrorized Sierra Leone by killing civilians and amputating the limbs of tens of thousands of innocent persons, including children. Taylor has also sold timber from Liberia's forests to pay for arms for the RUF and to enrich his personal coffers. Since the end of Liberia's civil war in 1997, the export of forest timber has become the government's key source of revenue. Forests that once fed and protected rural communities have withered, and at the current rate of logging the vast majority of the pristine forests that remain in Liberia will be gone within the next 10 years.(2) Liberia is engaged in armed conflict with Guinea, as both governments support rebel forces in each other's country. Liberia, with help from the RUF, has engaged in a series of border clashes with the armed forces of neighboring Guinea, which already shelters 500,000 refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Refugees face starvation and hardship, and thousands have been killed. The conflict threatens to destabilize the government of Guinean President Lansana Conte, jeopardizes the fragile peace process in Sierra Leone, and has brought war back to Liberia. The escalation of fighting could create an African interstate war and could worsen the refugee crisis.

2. Description

World diamond production is estimated at more than seven billion dollars a year, and global diamond jewelry retail sales exceed fifty billion dollars a year.(3) American consumers account for about half of the retail market. There are two sources of gem-quality stones. Primary source diamonds are mined from hard rock, often found deep below the earth's surface. Because of the effort required to extract them, primary stones can be easily counted, tracked, and controlled by authorities. Secondary source stones, found along river beds, have been thrust to the surface by geological events, loosened from hard rock, and distributed over wide areas by river systems. Because these stones do not require expensive equipment or supervised work forces, they can be smuggled into neighboring countries and exported with false documentation to mask their illicit status.

The mining and sales of diamonds by parties involved in armed conflicts, notably in Africa, are considered to be a significant factor fueling hostilities. Such diamonds have been labeled "conflict diamonds" because they provide a source of funding for the purchase of weapons and other resources. Trade in diamonds is a contributing factor to conflicts currently taking place in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The possibility of gaining access to diamond wealth appears to have motivated foreign actors, including governments, to become involved in these conflicts.

Proposals for curtailing the trade in conflict diamonds are designed to identify the origin of the stones. This will help ensure that diamonds sold by illicit dealers do not enter legitimate international commerce. Some approaches for identifying the origin of diamonds include: the physical or chemical identification of diamonds, with the aim of establishing unique identifying features of groups of diamonds from similar places of origin; the tagging of diamonds, which seeks to use laser technology to inscribe identifying information on diamonds; and certificate of origin laws, intended to create trade documentation that validates the legal origin of diamonds.(4)

Liberia is a West African country with a population of slightly more than three million and an area of approximately 38,250 square miles.(5) Liberia has a tropical climate and is bounded by Sierra Leone to the northwest, Guinea to the north, Cote d'Ivoire to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the south and west. Monrovia is its capital. Liberia's main natural resources include iron ore, timber, diamonds, and gold. There is an unemployment rate of approximately seventy percent, and approximately eighty percent of the population lives below the poverty line.(6) Liberia is the only black state in Africa never subjected to colonial rule and it is the oldest republic on the continent. Liberia owes its establishment to the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, to resettle freed American slaves in Africa The United States has had a special relationship with Liberia since the country was founded by freed American slaves in 1847. At the time independence was declared, a constitution based on that of the United States was drawn up.

In December 1989, Charles Taylor led a rebel group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in an uprising against the Liberian government. Shortly thereafter, an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) monitoring group (ECOMOG) was sent to Liberia as a peacekeeping force but failed to halt the fighting. Civil war spread throughout the country as the NPFL battled ECOMOG, the Liberian army, a splinter group called the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO). Various transition governments ruled Liberia through the 1990s as cease-fires were agreed upon and broken. Finally, an ECOMOG disarmament program initiated under an August 1996 peace agreement was successful. Under considerable international scrutiny, presidential and legislative elections were held in July 1997. Charles Taylor, the man who instigated the Liberian civil war eight years earlier, was elected president. His political party, the National Patriotic Party, won a majority of seats in the National Assembly. The Liberian civil war killed more than 150,000 Liberians and displaced more than a million people between 1989 and 1996. Since his ascent to power, the lives of ordinary Liberians have not improved much.

President Taylor is actively involved in fueling the violence in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone. The relationship between the Liberian government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) is fed by the extraction of natural resources in both Liberia and areas under rebel control in Sierra Leone. He and a small coterie of officials and private businessmen around him are in control of a covert apparatus that includes international criminal activity and the arming of the rebel RUF. Evidence has shown that Taylor has used his position of power to obtain rough diamonds from the RUF in exchange for arms. Known for its extreme brutality, the RUF has killed civilians in Sierra Leone and has amputated limbs to instill terror in the population.

Children in Sierra Leone have been victimized, but not just by the severing of limbs. The RUF has kidnapped children as young as seven years old and forced them to join their gangs. Those who try to escape are either sent back into battle or killed if they are caught. Facing gun battles, thirst, and hunger, those who manage to escape can walk for more than fifty miles seeking safety. Desmond is one boy who can attest to this. The rebels abducted him at age seven. He is now fifteen years old and a true veteran. Safe in a refugee compound inside the British security zone around Freetown, Desmond does not want to go back to war. When speaking about himself and children in the camp like him, he states, "We like it here. We are safe now. They (British aid workers) give us food and we play football, and we don't want to fight again." Desmond and the others like him cannot be used as child soldiers while they are protected. No one can say for sure how many other children are being forced to fight in this dirty war.(7)

The personal connection between President Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh, the former RUF leader, goes back a decade to their training in Libya, to their combined efforts on behalf of Blaise Campaore in his seizure of power in Burkina Faso, and to Sankoh’s involvement in Charles Taylor’s struggle to take power in Liberia in the early 1990s. While President Taylor admits that he is a close friend of Foday Sankoh, he denies that he or his government have provided any weapons or assistance to the RUF.

The sovereign right of Liberia to register planes and ships and to issue diplomatic passports has been misused in order to carry out the arms-for-diamonds transfers and to ship Liberian timber. More than 1,600 ships totaling 59.8 million gross tons fly the Liberian flag. The $50 million in fees paid to the Liberian government comprises significant revenue to the government.(8) A flag of convenience, its shipping lines escape many of the taxes and restrictions imposed by more other countries. Many businessmen close to the inner-circle of the Liberian presidency operate on an international scale, getting their weaponry from Eastern Europe transported on these boats.

Diamond Production Estimates: 1999

source: World Diamond Council

VALUE (US $1000)
South Africa
DR Congo
Ivory Coast
Sierra Leone

On March 5, 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1306. This resolution put a halt to the export of diamonds from Sierra Leone and expressed concern at the role played by the illicit trade in diamonds in fueling the conflict in Sierra Leone. Resolution 1306 also noted that such diamonds pass through Liberia. A report by a panel of experts appointed pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1306 found overwhelming evidence that Liberia has been actively supporting the RUF at all levels in providing training, weapons and related materiel, logistical support, a staging ground for attacks and a safe haven for retreat and recuperation.

On December 1, 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 55/56. This resolution expressed concern about the problem of rough "conflict" diamonds being used by rebel movements to finance their military activities and fuel conflict to overthrow legitimate governments.

A United Nations panel recently concluded that Charles Taylor has overseen the smuggling of diamonds mined by the RUF and has dedicated part of this money to paying off rogue arms dealers who, in turn, use Liberian-registered planes to deliver large quantities of weapons back to the RUF. The panel also found that Burkina Faso has facilitated weapons shipments to Liberia, Gambia has allowed diamond smuggling within its borders, and Ukraine has been a primary source of illegal weapons shipments. On March 7, 2001, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1343. Provisions in the resolution call for the Government of Liberia to cease its military and financial support for the RUF, to end all assistance to armed rebel groups in the region, and to end all direct or indirect importation of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone. Resolution 1343 threatens a ban on all Liberia's diamond exports by May 7, 2001, unless Liberia cuts all ties with the RUF.

3. Duration

1989-present: Civil war in Liberia began in 1989 when Charles Taylor attempted a coup to gain power. Support for the RUF by Taylor began in 1991. In 1997, he was elected president of Liberia. Taylor claimed that he suspended contact with the RUF in March 2001. One month later, the RUF issued a statement saying that it would lay down its arms and pursue its political goals peacefully.

4. Location


West Africa

Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gambia

5. Actors

Directly Involved

Charles Ghankay Taylor, president of Liberia

The Revolutionary United Front and Foday Sankoh, its captured leader

Lansana Conte, president of Guinea

Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, president of Sierra Leone

Indirectly Involved

Captain Blaise Compaore, president of Burkina Faso

Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh, president of Gambia

Ukrainian arms dealers

United Nations and UN peacekeepers

Diamond industry traders

Diamond customers worldwide

Civilians and refugees from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem

The method of production for small-scale diamond mining ranges from very basic methods of digging, washing and sifting to the use of equipment such as water pumps and excavators. The most common method is the highly labor intensive process where large groups of people dig the earth and wash and sift the ore for diamonds. The environmental impact of small-scale diamond mining is severe. The areas suspected of containing diamonds become exposed and unsuitable for farming. Miners not only remove vegetation and economically valuable trees but their activities also divert increase erosion. Mining carried out on hilly areas and slopes can lead to flooding.

Mining activities expose communities to a wide range of health problems. Heavy rains cause dug-out areas to become stagnant pools that become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and increase the incidence of malaria. People who come in contact with water sources contaminated by mine wastes are exposed to disease. Mining activities cause heavy silt to flow into river beds and creeks, which reduces fish populations. Toxic wastes in the water sources contaminate marine life making them unfit for human consumption.

The trade of Liberian timber may be more financially valuable to Charles Taylor and his security forces than is the trade in diamonds. Currently there is no reliable data or estimate as to the amount of revenue that President Charles Taylor has gained as a result of the Liberian timber industry. However, it is believed that the forestry sector provides the bulk of President Charles Taylor's funds. According to sources, he has used this income to provide the RUF with funding, arms, training and logistical support. Revenue from this industry is also the main source of funds for President Charles Taylor's security forces, some of whom have reportedly been helping the RUF in Sierra Leone and in Guinea. This illicit trade is monopolized by one company, the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), which also has a monopoly on Liberia's ports and the country's internal transportation system. Roads built and maintained for timber extraction are used to move weapons through Liberia into Sierra Leone. Taylor has also used this income to pay for his personal security forces.

Liberia will likely have no forest reserves within the next ten years because of the destructive rate at which logs are being extracted. The fact that there is virtually no forest management nor replanting of trees means that the social, economic, and ecological impacts of this trade will have severe long term implications for the future of Liberia and its people. The plants and animal species that live in these forests will have their habitats destroyed and may face extinction.(9) Unique and rare species of vegetation and trees are disappearing rapidly. These include red ironwood, camwood, whismore, teak, and mahogony. Of direct importers of Liberian timber, the five largest in 1999 were recorded to be France, at 37.07%; Italy, at 19.17%; Turkey, at 15.07%; China, at 7.77%; and Indonesia, at 6.31%.(10) Animal species indigenous to Liberia that are threatened by deforestation include forest elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees, short-horned buffalo, bats, and various species of birds.

7. Type of Habitat


8. Act and Harm Sites:

Site of Act Site of Harm Example
Liberia Liberia Deforestation
Liberia Liberia Loss of biodiversity
Liberia Liberia Soil erosion
Sierra Leone Sierra Leone Pollution from diamond mining
Sierra Leone Sierra Leone Clearcutting
Sierra Leone Sierra Leone Soil erosion

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict

Interstate and intrastate

10. Level of Conflict

Interstate: High

Intrastate: High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

200,000 fatalities (including Liberia's civil war); 1,500,000 refugees

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Direct Relationship:

Revolutionary United Front ----> Diamonds ----> Liberia ----> Weapons ----> Revolutionary United Front

13. Level of Strategic Interest

Regional, State, Sub-state

14. Outcome of Dispute:


V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

ICE Cases

DIAMOND-SL: Diamond Trade in Sierra Leone

ANGOLA: Angola Diamond Mining and War

CONGO: Congo Diamonds and Domestic Conflict

SPRATLY: Spratly Islands Dispute and Oil

HAITIDEF: Deforestation in Haiti


United Nations

Global Policy Forum

World Factbook

World Diamond Council

The Perspective

Amnesty International

Human Rights Watch

Liberian Embassy, Washington, DC


"US Warns Liberia Again on Its Support for Sierra Leone Rebels," The Washington Post. August 3, 2000.

"A Bully in His Pulpit," Newsweek. August 28, 2000.

"Spreading," The Economist. September 16, 2000.

"UN Confirms Liberia's Role in Smuggling of Diamonds," The New York Times. December 20, 2000.

"Fueling Africa's Wars," The Economist. January 13, 2001.

"Liberian Pledges to Cut Sierra Leone Rebel Ties; Facing Sanctions, Taylor Agrees to UN Demands," The Washington Post. January 20, 2001.

"Liberia Offers to Let UN Monitor Diamond Sales," The Washington Post. January 26, 2001.

"Liberia Bans Import of 'Blood Diamonds' Following UN Strictures," Agence France-Presse. March 19, 2001.


1. Report of the Panel of Experts Appointed Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1306 (2000), Paragraph 19, in Relation to Sierra Leone S/2000/1195. December 20, 2000.

2. "Saddam's Oil & Taylor's Timber," By Tom Kamara. The Perspective. April 21, 2001.

3. World Diamond Council.

4. World Diamond Council.

5. World Factbook.

6. World Factbook.

7. "Sierra Leone's Rescued Child Soldiers," by Jane Standley. May 30, 2000. BBC News.

8. Pelton, Robert Young. "Liberia."

9. "Saddam's Oil & Taylor's Timber," By Tom Kamara. The Perspective. April 21, 2001.

10. "Investigative Report on Oriental Timber Corporation." The Perspective.