— As SDI, Partners kickoff project to tackle deforestation, among others
Liberia is still one of the most forests countries in West Africa, with more than two-thirds of its land surface covered by forest.
The forests’ biological diversity encompasses the last long-term viable populations of several endemic species including the Western Chimpanzees, forest elephants, and leopards. Also the rare zebra duiker and pygmy hippopotamus, in addition to over 2000 flowering plants, are to be found in the Liberian rainforest.
The country is listed as one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots. But illegal and destructive logging and industrial agriculture activities fueled by concessions companies, are treating the survival of the forest– leaving the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and its partners to embark on a rescue mission.
But illegal and destructive logging and industrial agriculture activities fueled by concessions companies, are treating the survival of the forest — leaving the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and its partners to embark on a rescue mission.
The SDI move, which was unveiled recently under the Green Livelihood Alliance (GLA), project, intends to combat the drivers of deforestation, abuses, and address policy issues affecting the forestry sector.
It also seeks to secure the customary land rights of communities affected by concessions in line with the Land Rights Act of 2018. The law guarantees customary land rights but many communities are still unaware of the law and how they can harness the rights it gives them.
According to Forest Inventory reports from the Liberia Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the country is covered by 6.69 million hectares, which is approximately 69 percent of the total landmass, a big reduction than it was three decades ago.
The report was released between 2018 and 2019. The rapid deforestation of the country’s forest became clear in 2012 when the Private Use Permit (PUP) saga revealed how huge tracts of forest were illegally given out to fraudulent logging companies during the reign of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
However, since 2006, the country has had more than 18 policy-related documents to protect the country’s forest sector, but to no avail. Though the forestry sector is the fourth largest contributor to the economy, past conflict mapping reports, have highlighted that poor exploitation and management of the natural resources of the country’s resources remain a potential source of conflict.
As a result, the government has targeted the sector and aims to boost the export of oil palm, rubber, and cocoa—investments that would see a large tract of forestlands cleared.
The US$4million dollar project, according to Richard Sam, is expected to benefit some 593,291 people in the project counties.
Sam, who is a campaigner for SDI furthered that “By 2025, the area and expansion of the industrial and elite land-based concessions will be reduced in Liberia and will no longer drive deforestation, forest degradation and the violation of local communities’ rights.”
Sam also noted that the initiative is a five-year project, which will be implemented in Sinoe, Grand Kru, Maryland, Gbarpolu, Grand Cape Mount, and Bomi counties.
“The importance of these counties, in the wisdom of the project initiators, is that together these counties host the largest percentage of Liberia’s forest, the largest percentage of land allocated to oil palm concessions, the highest concentration of industrial logging and oil palm plantation development,” Sam added.
These counties, Sam noted are infamous for elite land-grab, which continues to threaten Liberia’s more than 40 percent of the country’s Upper Guinea Forest.
“It undermines gains made in the forestry and land sector as well as the country’s commitment to conserving 30 percent of its forest. In the midst of all this, is land-related conflicts nationwide,” he added.
Meanwhile, Wilfred Gray-Johnson, who once worked as a former commissioner of the Independent Human Rights Commission, has described SDI and its partner’s efforts as timely, and in the right direction.
“This could not have come at a better time,” he said.
According to Gray-Johnson, the livelihood, culture, and human rights of these communities are under threat due to oil palm companies’ expansion and activities.
“Forest communities in several communities have been devastated by the impacts of industrial oil palm,” Gray-Johnson noted.
He narrated that despite government commitments, policies, and the emergence of numerous private sector initiatives to halt deforestation, Liberia has made little progress reducing deforestation.
“Rather, the drivers of deforestation, including illegal and destructive logging and industrial agriculture, are gaining in power and speed, ”Gray-Johnson said.
Gray-Johnson further noted that illegal logging in government-allocated logging concessions covering more than 1 million hectares and industrial-scale logging under community forestry licenses are accelerating at an alarming rate.
He added that huge blocks of forest land inhabited by local communities have been handed out to Agro-Business, while many also fear that political elites are grabbing lands from communities for plantations as well.
Gray- Johnson, however, regrets that there is no law regulating agriculture and allocation of concessions to agri-business.
However, for the Ministry of Agriculture’s representative on the National Oil Palm Platform of Liberia, the initiative is welcoming but it should not drive away concessionaires.
“We are faced with double problems here,” said Francis Mwah. While we are endeavoring to protect our forest there is also a need for us to handle concession companies with care so that they do not pull out.”