Alex Peal, head of CI-Liberia, knows the conservation challenges in this country are steep as it recovers from 14 years of civil war, which left the nation in tatters.
"People want to improve their livelihoods very fast, and the economic situation does not permit that," he says. "That is one of the challenges with conservation."
This West African nation, founded by freed American slaves 160 years ago, is literally depending on its forests for its future. The government and its partners recognized what was lost during the civil war, so the forests' value as a carbon collector is being evaluated.
What was once regarded as "conflict timber" is now one of the main planks in Liberia's plans for national reconstruction.
Recently, Liberia's forest resources have been recognized for more than their timber value by the country's government and its international partners. Saving Liberia's forests helps combat climate change and can lift the country's spirits and a struggling economy.
With the Liberia Forest Initiative's assistance, progressive policies put into place by the new government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf have resulted in a national forest management strategy known as the "3C" approach – establishing areas zoned for community, conservation, and commercial purposes.
In September 2007, Liberia's government formed a national forest carbon working group to document the potential of carbon financing to help protect Liberia's forests consistent with the forest management strategy. The group was also charged with laying the groundwork for pilot carbon projects that integrate community development and biodiversity conservation goals.
A grant from the Geneva-based McCall MacBain Foundation is being used to accomplish this and to leverage other funding.
"At CI, we believe that innovations such as carbon offsets and conservation incentive agreements can ensure that biodiversity conservation is not only delivering economic opportunities at a national level but also that the benefits reach the forest fringe communities who need them most," says Jessica Donovan, CI's Liberian program director.
Liberia contains 4.5 million hectares of lowland tropical forest, comprising a major portion of the Upper Guinea forests of West Africa. The country's remaining 45 percent of forest cover is the highest in Africa outside of the Congo Basin.
And although its greenhouse gas emissions are roughly 250,000 times lower than those of the United States, its forests store approximately four billion tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the amount emitted by 57 million cars over 10 years. This creates an opportunity for Liberia to benefit economically from its stored carbon.
But progress does not come easily in attempting to build a program that can finance economic redevelopment through the sale of carbon credits. In the next few years, CI, the Forest Development Authority, and other partners, like Flora and Fauna International, will face many challenges while forging an equitable investment system to benefit community well-being and the health of these amazing forests.
Today, 180,000-hectare Sapo National Park is a stirring example of recovery, as it becomes a model for forest conservation.
Sapo is one reason Peal is optimistic.
"We are proving here at Sapo," he says, "that conservation can benefit all Liberians."
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