Conservation International’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP) works with communities to establish conservation agreements that protect priority habitats and ecosystem services in exchange for tangible benefits including social services, community development and employment in conservation actions.
Eduard Niesten, Senior Director of CSP, blogs about reaching agreement with communities around the East Nimba Nature Reserve in Liberia.
Located in Liberia, the East Nimba Nature Reserve (ENNR) covers more than 13,500 biodiversity-rich hectares, with 70 percent forest cover overall. Home to a number of endangered species, including the Nimba toad and the West African chimpanzee, the ENNR is also important for the well-being of neighboring communities who use the forest to obtain food, medicine, household materials, and more. Major mining companies are also making global investments in the area, which has immense mineral wealth.
Conservation International (CI) has been working in Liberia since 2003 to ensure that the value of biodiversity and forests is considered in the country’s development planning
. In late April, CI and ArcelorMittal Liberia (AML) hosted an ENNR Planning Workshop
with local communities, NGOs and government stakeholders in Liberia to reach consensus on an interim management strategy for the reserve and to explore how best to sustainably manage the landscape in the immediate vicinity, which is shared by mining operations and local communities.
At this workshop I provided perspectives from the Conservation Stewards Program (CSP) on how to use conservation agreements
to ensure that communities have a role in sustainable management in the wider ENNR landscape, and also derive concrete, tangible benefits from conservation.
For nearly two and a half days, the attendees shared their views and affirmed their conviction that East Nimba is important for conservation and that successful conservation requires strong community involvement and attention to the pressing needs of the local population. However, during the final session, we saw that apparent agreement on these general principles obscured a critical difference: the Forest Development Authority (FDA) responsible for managing the ENNR, along with its partners, felt that the reserve should be protected with strict limits on community access, while community representatives were adamant that their people are entitled to the land and resources in the reserve.
These opposing views precluded further progress on a management plan, and threatened the viability of the roles of CI and AML in the overall initiative. The different groups in the workshop agreed to confer amongst themselves and then reconvene to see if there was a way out of the impasse. During this break, the CI team drafted a proposed solution involving a trial period during which the ENNR would be managed as a strictly protected area, in return for a community benefit package of socioeconomic development investments governed by conservation agreements. This arrangement would take at least a year or so to implement, and we were concerned that the community representatives quite understandably would insist on a much shorter timeline.
When everyone reconvened, the community representatives announced they had a proposal that they wanted to present before hearing our ideas. They proposed a five-year trial period for the ENNR as a strict reserve, in return for compensation in the form of investments in improved health, education, infrastructure and livelihoods.
We were elated. Adherence to the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent
(FPIC) – the right of indigenous peoples to give or withhold their consent for any action that would affect their lands, territories or rights – meant that we were prepared to respect community decisions with respect to this project, regardless of what they were. However, open dialogue and listening to each other’s concerns and priorities had led all parties to the same conclusion regarding the way forward. Moreover, the result is a strong endorsement of the conservation agreement approach as a way to reconcile conservation objectives with human development needs.
Dr. Eduard Niesten is the Senior Director of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program. He has worked on conservation agreements in more than 20 countries in South and Central America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Island region.