Charismatic creatures like the Western chimpanzee, the forest elephant, and the pygmy hippo live in Liberias forests. Until recently, so did corrupt warlords who traded timber for arms.
A New Law for a New Era of Governance
Following 14 years of conflict, Conservation International (CI) and its partners now are helping the Liberian government better protect the countrys species and ecosystems, in part by ensuring that violence does not return to the forests. In October 2006, collaborators reached a new milestone when Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf signed a forestry reform measure that aims to balance the needs of the countrys depleted forests with those of its human communities.
It signifies a new era of governance and the rule of law, says Alex Peal, director of Conservation International-Liberia. There is a legal framework governing the protection, use, and conservation of this significant heritage that was blatantly abused for personal gains, fueled the war, and deprived a majority of the citizenry of their birth rights.
Liberia Forest Initiative Confronts "Three C's"
Conservation, community use, and commercial use are each accounted for in the new law. The measure protects certain forests and regulates others for both community benefit and commercial logging.
Balancing these multiple uses is the result of the Liberia Forest Initiative, a collaborative effort initiated in 2004 by U.S. government agencies and international nongovernmental organizations, including CI. Striving to help Liberia revive its economy and environment, CI has helped craft wildlife and protected areas provisions, for example, while the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service worked to restart commercial timber opportunities.
The Liberia Forest Initiative has been a very successful partnership and vehicle for bringing together a large number of diverse organizations to work toward a common goal, says Oliver Pierson, Africa program coordinator for the USDA Forest Service.
For conservation purposes, the law sets asides 3.7 million acres of forest through a network of protected areas and stipulates that a percentage of forest taxes be used for conservation efforts.
Communities to Share in Management, Benefits
For the first time in our history, communities in forest areas will share directly in forest fees and taxes, Peal adds. Communities will also be permitted to manage their own forests in accordance with international standards for sustainable forest management. Sustainable forest management is also required in areas designated for commercial logging.
Collaboration to accommodate multiple forest uses is especially uncommon.
In Liberia, conservation will not succeed if communities are not given some legal access to use forest resources sustainably, Pierson says.
The post-conflict state faces significant unemployment and poverty, and according to Pierson, has backed a multi-use plan from the start. It has quickly paid off.
On Oct. 20, 2006, the United Nations Security Council praised the Liberian Forest Initiative and the Liberian government for their efforts to reform the timber sector. The Security Council also said there will be no need to reinstate timber sanctions temporarily lifted in June 2006 if the new timber law is carried out with transparency and accountability, as intended.
A History of Biodiversity and Violence
The combination of environmental and political circumstances has made the situation in Liberias forests exceedingly delicate.
Liberia lies within one of the world's severely threatened biodiversity hotspots, in the upper Guinean Forest of West Africa. The countrys 11.3 million acres of forest represent 45 percent of its landmass and half of the remaining forest cover in West Africa. The forests are home to 2,000 flowering plants, 150 species of mammals, 620 species of birds, 125 known reptiles and amphibians, and more than 1,000 described insect species.
Under former Liberian president Charles Taylor, now facing charges for crimes against humanity, however, Liberia exported timber and made logging concessions in exchange for arms. Fraught with corrupt contracts, the swap fueled a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people before Taylor went into exile in 2003. That same year, the United Nations began barring Liberia from exporting timber.
Today, Liberias forest habitat faces increasing threats, including rural migration and resettlement, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting, mining, and excessive logging.
The new law provides Liberians with opportunities to benefit from their lush resource, clarifying that the forest belongs to the people, and the government is the custodian of it.
Peal maintains that if Liberian communities take action to care for and sustain their forests, they will have a promising future. Protected lands will not only allow conservationists to safeguard species and link conservation regions, but also to eventually promote ecotourism and other activities to generate income.
"Liberia's biodiversity and natural environment provide a variety of resources for economic development and poverty alleviation," says Peal.