Environmental Peacebuilding: Conservation Agreements Reduce People-park Conflict in Liberia

© CI/Bailey Evans

Editor's note: This is the first blog in Human Nature’s “Environmental Peacebuilding” series, which will chronicle CI’s growing role in this emerging field of research. Today’s post focuses on our case study in Liberia.

When I began working in Liberia right after the Accra settlement ended Liberia’s civil war in 2003, I could not help worrying about whether the peace would last. Burnt-out cars lined the streets of Monrovia, bullet holes scarred many of its buildings and the wary U.N. peacekeepers manning checkpoints behind sandbags and barbed wire reinforced the sense that violence could flare up again at any time.

Now, 12 years later, the roads are lit by streetlights rather than smoky fires in oil drums, the checkpoints have been dismantled, and I would like to believe that the country has put civil war firmly in the past.

That said, Liberia’s development needs are enormous. For the majority of Liberia’s 4.3 million people, daily life was a struggle even before last year’s deadly Ebola outbreak that so far has taken the lives of 3,900 Liberians. More than half the population lives below the poverty line.

Many Liberians depend directly on nature for their survival, and the urgency of their needs poses a challenge for sustainable management. Forest covers nearly 45 percent of the country, and is a vital source of food, medicine, construction material and energy for hundreds of thousands of households.

This value is precisely why it’s so important to protect these forests, but too often the creation of protected areas can seem to pit conservation goals directly against the pressing needs of local people, leading inevitably to conflict. This was the case around the East Nimba Nature Reserve (ENNR) in northern Liberia, documented in a recent case study commissioned by CI’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace.

The ENNR covers 11,530 hectares (28,500 acres) of Upper Guinean rainforest, and is home to several threatened species found nowhere else, such as the Nimba toad, the Nimba otter shrew and the West African chimpanzee. The Nimba mountain range is home to more snakes than anywhere else in Africa, and is the Alliance for Zero Extinction’s highest priority site on the continent.

Unfortunately the government established the reserve in 2003 with little regard for community needs and limited participation from the people living nearby. This was the root cause of the conflict between ENNR management authorities (the Forest Development Authority, or FDA) and neighboring communities.

Before the ENNR was created, the area was already government property, so communities did not have legal rights to this land. However, the lack of any government presence until 2007 had resulted in a long history of community use of these forests.

In 2007 FDA staff began to mark the boundary on the eastern side of the reserve. Hostile community members confronted them, physically blocking their path and threatening violence. Negotiations yielded a compromise in which the FDA agreed to move the eastern boundary westwards by 1 mile, allowing more space for family farms. In 2010 the FDA also granted communities a role in managing the reserve through a committee that included FDA and community representatives.

However, the FDA continued to insist that the law creating the reserve clearly stipulates that the area is to be strictly protected, while the communities expected they would gain access to the reserve’s natural resources. Thus, instead of resolving the conflict, the committee just provided a more formal arena in which to continue the standoff between the FDA and communities, where they alternated between heated, angry arguments and periods of refusing to speak to each other.

Working with the Arcelor Mittal iron ore mining company and local NGO partners, CI Liberia addressed this conflict using a strategy based on the conservation agreement model developed by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP). Conservation agreements offer direct incentives to communities in exchange for conservation actions. Benefits typically include funding for social services like health and education, as well as investment in livelihoods.

The process of designing the agreements together with communities is highly collaborative. The conservation commitments must respond to direct threats to the ecosystem (such as deforestation) but also be realistic and culturally sensitive. In return, the benefit packages must reflect community needs and priorities. Reserve authorities must incorporate the principles of “free, prior and informed consent” in these consultations — essentially ensuring that they don’t repeat previous mistakes and that the terms and decision to proceed reflect informed agreement on the part of the whole community.

By offering a benefit package to offset foregone access to resources in the reserve, the conservation agreement model persuaded neighboring communities to propose a five-year trial period in which they will work with government authorities to manage the ENNR as a strictly protected area. The benefit packages were negotiated with each community, and included such things as job training to convert hunters into “ecoguards,” funding to establish household piggeries, technical support to improve rice production and skills training for community health workers.

Strengthening peace in Liberia is an ongoing process. Although the warring factions laid down their weapons over a decade ago, continued peacebuilding will require addressing questions about the relationship between government and people, community rights to land and resources and how money Liberia earns from its natural resources is distributed. I believe that the government’s implementation of conservation agreements, drawing on lessons from the Nimba experience, would offer an equitable and environmentally sustainable answer to such questions.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state — has made a strong commitment to putting Liberia on a green economic development path, and CI’s Liberia program is working with her government to use conservation agreements to do so.

Now that the Ebola crisis appears to have been brought under control, CI and the president’s partners are eager to return to the task of building a sustainable Liberian economy grounded in protection of the country’s amazing natural wealth — and the Nimba communities are leading the way.

Eduard Niesten is the senior director of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.