Green spot in Africa

Alexander Peal describes Liberia’s unique forests and the threats to them

As the new millennium opens, Liberia is the only country in humid West Africa that still has a significant portion of its original rainforest cover. Indeed it contains an estimated 40-45 per cent of the entire remaining – and two of the only three large intact blocks left – of the Upper Guinean Forest Ecosystem, a rainforest belt which once covered the whole of Liberia, and parts of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo.

This zone is one of the world’s biological ‘hotspots’. Its fauna and flora display high rates of endemism (species unique to a given area). Many other species are nearly extinct outside the country. Liberia alone is home to over 2,000 flowering plants (including about 240 timber species), approximately 125 mammals, 590 birds, 74 known reptiles and amphibians and over 1,000 described insect species. It is home to the only remaining viable populations of the Pygmy hippopotamus, and is the last stronghold of forest elephants in West Africa. Early literature even talks of a dwarf form of the forest elephant that reportedly lived in Liberia until as late as the mid-1920s. A survey of the Cestos and Senkwehn rivers in the south-centre in early 1999 found dozens of endangered bird species, some of which had been thought to be extinct or whose range had not been established before in Liberia.

A conservation priority-setting initiative for the Upper Guinean Forest Ecosystem – led by Conservation International with the participation of over 150 experts and with support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – identified Liberia in December 1999 as the top priority country in humid West Africa from a conservation perspective. With notable exceptions, Liberia’s forests have been poorly surveyed by scientists. So, though many species would become extinct if the forests were cut in the near future, science would never know the extent of the loss.

Liberia’s forests provide many goods and services to the country, including fuel, meat and other foods, medicines, resins and vines, as well as timber, and protecting watersheds and soils and regulating the climate. Yet it is estimated that over half of the forests have been lost. Historically, slash-and-burn agriculture has been responsible for most of this; but logging became increasingly important with greater mechanization in the 1970s and 1980s, and timber rose to become the third largest export commodity.

During the 1980s, 2 per cent of the forests were being felled every year for logging and farming and, if this had continued, they and their wildlife would have been severely reduced by the end of the 1990s. Ironically, the Liberian civil war that ravaged the country from 1990 through to 1996 largely protected the forest and animals. The war emptied most rural areas as citizens fled for their lives, going abroad or to Monrovia, where they received humanitarian assistance and protection. Both logging and farming were reduced and this contributed to the re-growth of forests and to an increase in wildlife. During the war the depletion of forests and wildlife principally occurred around camps for internally displaced persons, and in the greater Monrovia area, as well as in limited areas where rebel factions logged.

Before the war, the nation relied on the forestry sector to generate foreign exchange. Today, with its mining industry destroyed and its rubber industry in the process of recovering, even more pressure than before is being exerted on the forests to raise revenue. The desire to tap their potential for quick cash is reflected in the Government’s (unrealized) policy of reducing the number of active concessionaires from 25-30 to 4-5 very large companies. As capital is severely lacking in Liberia, this policy automatically implies that foreign companies have to be attracted to undertake logging, if operations are to be on the scale envisioned.

However, a series of factors conspire against the sustainability of forest management according to this plan. The investment climate is not considered favourable internationally, due to weak legal and banking systems, an unstable policy environment, poor physical infrastructure and a risky regional political situation. In such a context, only companies interested in short-term profits are willing to invest. Because trees take decades or centuries to reach maturity, forestry is not by nature a short-term activity. So encouraging short-term profit-taking in forestry is a recipe for stripping as many trees as possible as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Experience shows that predatory logging companies who seek short-term profits generally export them rather than re-investing them locally, and leave a legacy of environmental problems behind. Against this backdrop the Liberian Forestry Development Authority (FDA), responsible for managing Liberia’s forest estate, is struggling to operate on a budget worth only a couple of per cent its pre-war one in real terms.

Thus in the post-war period, the major threats to Liberia’s forests and wildlife include:

  • private operators’ non-compliance with laws and regulations (felling more trees per unit area than the legal limit, felling undersized trees, ignoring planning regulations, illegal infrastructure, ignoring preparatory and post-felling activities)

  • lack of government enforcement of existing legislation, regulations and policies pertaining to the these practices, to revenue collection, to colonization and to hunting

  • improper granting of concessions (granting concessions above legal size limits, double-issuing logging permits for a single area, granting salvage concessions in proclaimed national forest reserves)

  • spontaneous colonization

  • intensive hunting, especially of endangered and slow-reproducing species.

Underlying all these threats are the grinding poverty of rural Liberians and of most government agencies, and a political system in which some tolerate profiteering. There is also a prevalent lack of awareness or indifference among decision-makers in Monrovia about the long-term consequences of their current actions – or a sense of helplessness about what economic and political circumstances force them to do.

Liberia’s pre-civil war conservation policies had four long-range goals:

1. protection of prime catchment and watershed lands

2. preservation of the diverse biotic communities of tropical lowland rainforest

3. conservation of critically endangered populations and/or species

4. establishment of a nationwide system of habitat protection, while encouraging interest in wildlife conservation as an economically sound enterprise for its multitude of benefits, including food production.

Only one nature protection area has been created in Liberia – Sapo National Park – out of the seven proposed in 1983 to protect a representative array of its forests and the wildlife associated with them. All the other areas adjoin, or are within, areas used for logging, and a huge portion of the country’s forests lie outside the proposed protected areas. Thus promoting sustainable forest management is critical to nature conservation in Liberia for the foreseeable future.

The Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SCNL), Liberia’s oldest environmental NGO, is working with the Liberian Government and international partners to achieve the following goals:

1. establishment of a protected area system representing the full array of Liberia’s biological diversity

2. protection measures for Liberia’s biological diversity outside strictly protected areas

3. resumption of effective, planned management of Sapo National Park

4. ensuring local communities’ support and respect for Sapo Park and other protected areas

5. building Liberian capacity in conservation planning and protected area management skills

6. research and monitoring of Liberia’s wildlife and forests

7. building public awareness of, and concern for, environmental and nature protection issues.

Achieving these goals represents a formidable challenge, but if we fail to do so, we will also fail in our duty to ensure that Liberians unborn and the global community will appreciate and benefit from these resources. And the green spot on the west coast of Africa will disappear forever.

Donors have been extremely reluctant to get involved in Liberia, except to provide humanitarian assistance. But they should not be hesitant just because post-conflict Liberia does not present their idea of a ‘proper’ donor’s environment. Their support is even more desperately needed in this context. Shunning Liberia now is a sure-fire recipe for forest loss.

Resources should not be directed to those agencies perceived as the source of the problems, but they are desperately needed by those who are capable and committed. There may be some waste along the way – as in most donor programmes – but the consequences of inaction are worse. In a post-conflict situation, land-use patterns can be influenced positively or negatively. Donors have the moral responsibility to intervene decisively by identifying and supporting capable and honest organizations in the country.

Forests will be cut irresponsibly as long as the international demand for cheap timber persists – and as long as people are indifferent or ignorant about the origin of their wood products. Timber supply is extremely ‘leaky’: if getting it from one source becomes too difficult or costly, logging companies will go elsewhere. The world is full of poor countries rich in forests with weak institutions who accept disingenuous promises and payments from predatory logging companies. We can eliminate the basis for destructive logging by focusing on the supply side of wood products. Educating consumers and supporting systems that encourage sustainable management are the only ways to secure a future for the forests

Alexander Peal, a former goal-keeper for the Liberian national football team, founded and leads the Society for the Renewal of Nature Conservation in Liberia (SRNCL). He has received many awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa (2000).

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | The right to diversity | Gain, not pain | Changing course | From summit to summit | Empowering the poor | The environment millennium | Focus On Your World | Competition | A critical priority | Flashing indicators | Sea changes | No wires attached | Now for vigorous action | Malmö Ministerial Declaration | Young, impatient and soon to be in charge | Green spot in Africa

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Biological Diversity 2000, including
Thomas Lovejoy: Tall trees and bottom lines
Ted Turner: Critical crossroads
Maritta Koch-Weser: Getting it together
Abdou-Salan Ouedraogo and Ruth D. Raymond: Woodman, spare those genes (Food) 1996
E.S. Diop: The coast is the key (Water) 1996