This story is the second part in a series. To read part 1, see The Logs of War.
Lunch is served in the tiny Liberian village of York Island. The thick brown oil and forlorn-looking fish-heads in my curry are not making me feel very hungry. I smile and have a taste. And actually, it's pretty good – ferociously spicy and a little boney, but pretty good.
As I guzzle the curry and rice and look around at the ramshackle collection of shacks, I notice a teenager watching us from the small mud building that serves as the village school. "To be a man is not easy," reads the sign over his head. In this part of Liberia, that is an understatement and a half.
The village is miles from the nearest market, and gets completely cut off when the rains come. Jobs are almost impossible to come by – unemployment in Liberia is at 85 percent and in rural areas like this it's particularly bad. And after 15 years of civil war, people are still trying to recover.
Local teenager in the village of York Island, Liberia. The sign above the doorway reads "To be a man is not easy." © CI/Photo by Rob McNeil
The villagers of York Island have also been having trouble re-establishing their farming income. Their small palm oil plantations – which are responsible for the oil on the fiery sludge I've been eating – were abandoned during the civil war, becoming unmanageable and unproductive, and the small quantities they were selling meant they had to go through middle-men, who took a hefty cut.
To be a man – or woman – in Liberia is certainly not easy.
Improving Agriculture, Saving Forests
But Conservation International (CI) and its partners in Liberia, like the Community Forest Partnership (CFP), are starting to help change things for this community. It's all part of an effort to help Liberia to build a "green economy" where development can happen without environmental compromise. And in York Island – and the other communities around Lake Piso, a mangrove-fringed lagoon near the border with Sierra Leone – people are starting to see benefits.
IN DEPTH: Liberia's Green Economy
"CFP has been helping us to revitalize our palm-oil plantations and to get a good price for our oil by creating a cooperative where we work with other local villages and sell all our produce together," said one community elder in York Island. "It has brought us better income and better prospects. We are very pleased."
The work that CFP is doing with the communities is part of a wider plan by CI to encourage improvements in agricultural practices in Liberia, like reducing slash and burn practices – where forest is cut and burned to create agricultural land that is then farmed until the soil is exhausted – therefore reducing deforestation and carbon emissions that exacerbate climate change.
LEARN MORE: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation
CI estimates that by following conservation agriculture principles to maintain soil fertility and prevent erosion through crop rotation and other practices, agricultural yields can be increased dramatically – sometimes even doubled.
CI and its partners have also been helping to find ways that Liberians can generate revenue from keeping forest standing, such as selling non-timber forest products they can gather in the forest. Dao Kamara, who lives in the village of Bandor, not far from York Island, has been gathering Xylopia pods to help boost the income he generates from farming. He said: "In the past we used to use Xylopia as medicine, but we never really considered that people would buy it from us. It's a useful bit of extra income."
"Liberia can be rebuilt as a 'green' nation – an inspiration to the rest of Africa and the world … We can do it on the industrial scale and at a village level too. If we all do this right – the government, the local people, the NGOs, the businesses and the international community – we can make a new Liberia."
– Jessica Donovan, CI-Liberia
Rubber Trees to Fuel
Liberia's move towards greener ways of generating money isn't limited to community-scale projects either – some of the new green industries emerging in the country are truly monumental. Perhaps the most notable – and inspiring – is Buchanan Renewables.
The company – funded by billionaire philanthropist John McCall McBain, whose foundation also supports CI-Liberia's work – has come up with a plan of mind-boggling brilliance.
Liberia, the company realized, has hundreds of thousands of hectares of rubber plantations, and these plantations have a problem; their rubber trees are only productive for around 25 years, and when they are no longer producing latex they have to be disposed of. Traditionally, they were cut down and burned or allowed to rot – which, of course releases, CO2 and adds to climate change.
So Buchanan Renewables decided to buy the unwanted rubber trees (providing extra income for rubber farmers), shred them into tiny chips and sell them as a replacement fuel to coal-fired power stations around the world. Admittedly this still releases CO2, but the overall emissions are less.
LEARN MORE: The Wealth of Forests
In the Buchanan Renewable compound, huge trucks filled with unwanted rubber trees rumble in and gigantic chippers reduce them to chips in seconds, creating mountains of inch-wide squares of wood. Then more huge trucks carry these piles of wood off to container ships in the nearby harbor, which will transport them to power stations in Europe.
The company is also building a power station outside Kakata, a city in central Liberia, so that it can produce low-cost energy for the city of Monrovia and its surroundings. It will be a vast improvement on the hundreds of thousands of inefficient, dirty diesel generators that currently supply Monrovia's energy needs.
FROM THE BLOG: Despite Troubled History, New Hope in Liberia
"Liberia can be rebuilt as a 'green' nation – an inspiration to the rest of Africa and the world," says CI-Liberia's Jessica Donovan. "It's going to be hard, but I believe we can do it.
"We can do it on the industrial scale and at a village level too. If we all do this right – the government, the local people, the NGOs, the businesses and the international community – we can make a new Liberia."
Read the third and final part of this series, The Cost of Bushmeat