Violent conflicts are festering in 15 biodiversity hotspots
and two high-biodiversity wilderness areas
, and I knew that Liberia’s had been one of the worst. I’ve traveled to 36 countries but had never been in a war zone. As our plane descended into Monrovia over brilliant green forest
laced with sparkling wetlands, I felt tense but excited. My assignment: to lead a communications strategy design workshop to help protect Liberia’s vast forests, the heart of the Guinean Forests of West Africa Biodiversity Hotspot
Liberia’s cycle of civil wars began in 1980 and has claimed more than 150,000 lives, but things had been relatively quiet since the latest round of conflict ended in the summer of 2003. That’s when warlord Charles Taylor was ousted as president and replaced by interim leader Gyude Bryant, who began rebuilding his shattered nation. CI’s role is to help the government establish a system of protected areas, ensuring sustainable use of Liberia’s resources.
When I arrived, all seemed normal. Girls walked to school in bright pink uniforms. Kids sold oranges from wheelbarrows. Women in patterned skirts gossiped at the water pumps. Then I passed a bank that had been hit by a mortar. Broken windows in several buildings were covered by woven palm matting, fabric, or plywood. Families were living in the rubble of destroyed houses. United Nations (UN) peacekeeper checkpoints reminded me of the proximity of war. Everywhere I went I heard stories of violence, fear, and loss.
I spent an uneventful first week planning the workshop and meeting participants. The weekend was to include a trip to Sapo, Liberia’s only national park, established in 1983 with the help of Alex Peal, now CI-Liberia executive director. CI Technical Director Tyler Christie, newly relocated to Liberia, organized the excursion.
On Friday morning, Tyler picked me up at my hotel, but there was a change of plan. There had been street fighting overnight in parts of the city. Houses, a church, and a mosque had been burned. Tyler decided we would hunker down at his house to see whether the violence would abate or escalate. His UN roommates, who had experience in war-torn countries, were nonchalant. Tyler continued working on a CI proposal at the dining room table. Unable to concentrate on work, I listened attentively to the radio, hoping for news updates on the unrest.
Then we heard shouting outside, and for the first time I was actually scared. Loud, angry mobs brandishing machetes and sticks were rampaging on the street. Looters broke into a neighbor’s house and began carrying off the contents—televisions, chairs, a sofa, a refrigerator, even the toilet! We heard gunshots from the beach and saw smoke rising from a burning house a few blocks away. UN helicopters armed with machine guns flew overhead.
With the riot raging in our neighborhood, we evacuated and spent the rest of the weekend in an apartment across from the U.S. Embassy compound. By Monday, the security situation seemed to have stabilized. Then violence flared again on Wednesday, and I seriously considered canceling the workshop and flying home. With some qualms, I stayed.
To my amazement, when the workshop opened on Friday morning, we had 76 people from 55 organizations fully focused on conservation. For two days, journalists, government and nongovernmental organization staff members, rural community
leaders, and private sector employees discussed the environmental threats
In the dialogue and debate, the participants shared what they knew about Liberian law and governance, the logging
industry, and the bushmeat trade. They explained how they saw the links between building a stable democracy and ensuring equitable and transparent management of natural resources. Having facilitated 10 similar workshops in seven countries, I was amazed at the level of interest and commitment shown by our Liberian partners. The participation would have been admirable anywhere, but in a city where 16 people had been killed over the previous weekend, it was frankly astonishing.
We closed the workshop on Saturday afternoon with a performance by young students from a cultural school where children are taught traditional dance. After so many years of intermittent civil war, it is hard to imagine what life means to children who have known little else. Yet seeing so many people working to create a stable future offers hope that the violence during my brief visit represented the final throes of the conflict.
Today, Liberia is calm. National elections are scheduled for October 2005, and citizens will have the opportunity to choose new leaders. CI and its partners are helping to shape this democratic future, committed to working with the newly elected government to ensure that Liberia’s vast natural wealth is wisely invested to help underwrite a lasting peace for this hotspot nation.