My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
In 2009, a vision was conceived to create a transboundary peace park covering Gola forest across the Sierra Leone-Liberia border: protecting nearly 250,000 hectares of one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet.
For this vision to be realised, both countries needed to designate areas of their best forest as national parks. Sierra Leone reached this milestone in 2011 with the designation of the Gola Rainforest National Park. Following that, Liberia needed to revise its protected area legislation and then make the case for designation of the Liberian part of Gola forest.
Today, thanks to the tireless work of the BirdLife partner, Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia, the legislation is now in place and the Gola Forest National Park should soon be publicly launched*.
Like Sierra Leone, Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet unlike Sierra Leone, much of its forest remains intact with 43% of the Upper Guinean forest (which is one of the top 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world) found in Liberia.
A slightly updated map from the one I shared last week - but still only partially illustrating the extent of forest on the Liberian portion of the Gola landscape
On the seven hour drive up to meet the joint RSPB-SCNL team just north of Gola, good quality forest dominated the landscape. We have been supporting SCNL for five years and believe that together we can have a massive impact for forests and people.
The new National Park will protect 88,000 hectares of forest and there are options for further designation in the north at the Foya proposed national park.
Throughout this region, there are good numbers of critically endangered pygmy hippo, forest elephant, Western Chimpanzee, Diana Monkey as well as populations of the two endemic birds, White-necked Picathartes and Gola Malimbe.
Yet, the ambition is to ensure that the forest outside the Park is also well managed to ensure connectivity across the wider landscape. This is why the Community Forest concept is taking hold in Liberia and is now enshrined in legislation. Through a EU grant, we have been working to try to establish a Community Forest in an areas to the north of Gola – which we have called Golama (which means ‘unity’ in the local language).
The goal is establish plans and governance so that the local community takes responsibility for managing its forest resources. It would essentially provide the equivalent of a local strategic planning.
We are in the middle of a nine-step process (shown below) hopefully resulting in the creation of a Community Forest Management Plan. In parallel, we are working to improve livelihoods. Our team has been training the community in beekeeping, rice, cocoa and groundnut farming. The idea is simple – improve production so people have enough food to live without relying on more forest-damaging extractive activities. For example, we are training farmers to do lowland rice farming which delivers three harvest a year rather than one harvest of rice in seven years in the hills.
I was pleased to be able to hand out certificates to newly qualified ‘master farmers’ who, having learnt the best practice in lowland rice farming, will now go back to their community to train other farmers. It’s a simple model but could be transformational.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the programme is the belief that artisanal mining for gold might be an environmentally sustainable alternative form of income. The region has a long history of mining for diamonds and it is likely that people will carry on in the belief that one day they will strike it lucky.
We visited an active mine in the forest perhaps the size of half a swimming pool. Here, we are piloting new approach to encourage the miners to go for gold rather than diamonds. Gold, which was during our stay confirmed in the forest, has a shorter supply chain and so more of the profits stay with the miner. Yet, the mine we visited was right next to an old nest of Gola malimbe. The belief is that the community forest concept might not only help identify the best places to mine for gold, but also direct the miners away from the more sensitive sites. It is hoped that, in time, miners will have obligations to restore the site after mining – essentially replicating the Nature After Minerals model we established in England.
Despite its traumatic recent history (two civil wars and the Ebola epidemic), Liberia has the potential to follow a very different economic development path – one that protects its globally important biodiversity whilst also improving prosperity.
We hope that our work with SCNL in Gola makes a small contribution to this endeavour.
*To differentiate the two Golas on either side of the border, it was decided that the Liberian National Park would be Gola Forest to complement Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone.
An excellent article and project emphasising the international co-operation of the RSPB.