In an effort to legitimize Liberia’s timber industry, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is putting barcodes on her nation’s trees. The barcodes will be instrumental to a deal signed in May with the European Union, Liberia’s biggest market for timber, that requires Liberian timber imported into the EU to be tracked from source to sale. Starting in 2013, European timber importers will have to prove that all of their trees have been legally harvested.

Under Liberia’s timber tracking-system, every tree that can be legally harvested is tagged with a unique barcode. When the tree is cut, new tags are put on the log that can be traced back to the stump in the forest, proving that the tree comes from a legal source. Globally, 20 to 40 percent of industrial wood production uses illegal sources, with the EU consuming 20 percent.

Liberia has nearly two-thirds of West Africa’s remaining rainforests; it also has a history of corruption and illegal logging. The UN placed sanctions on Liberian “logs of war” after former President Charles Taylor was accused of using timber profits to buy weapons during the country’s 14-year civil war. The sanctions were lifted in 2006, but the country’s timber industry has not recovered. Before the sanctions, timber sales contributed 20 percent of Liberia’s GDP, with the EU buying more than half of Liberia’s exported timber. Sirleaf is hoping the deal with the EU will stimulate growth and encourage foreign investment in Liberia. “This decision,” says EU development commissioner Andris Piebalgs, “will contribute to sustainable development and poverty alleviation in Liberia on the one hand, and will benefit the European consumers because they can be sure that Liberian wood is from a legal origin.”

Some environmentalists, however, have raised concern that green-lighting logging in Liberia will lead to corruption and unsustainable harvesting. But others are more optimistic, believing the system could transform Liberia into a symbol of green economic growth in Africa. Says Frank Hawkins of Conservation International, “Liberia has an opportunity to show the world how it is done.”

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