Martin Harper's blog

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Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Next steps towards the Greater Gola Landscape

    While staying in the Kongba region in north-west Liberia to see our Golama project (which I described in my previous blog), we could walk into the forest to watch fabulous West African birds including the endemic Gola Malimbe (pictured).


    But, while enjoying the huge variety of life that the rainforests offer it is impossible to ignore the connections to home when you see swifts flying above the canopy while sitting on the veranda of the field station. 

    Over the past few years a number of organisations across Europe have been tracking a variety of ‘summer’ migrants and our understanding of their migratory routes is growing.  From the 2014 State of UK Birds report* we also know that the group of migrant birds that are in most trouble in the UK are those that winter in the humid zone of West Africa.

    As well as swifts, the Upper Guinea forest is clearly important for a range of migratory birds many of which are declining.  For example, one pied flycatcher (a species that has declined by 50% since 1970) tracked by my colleague Malcolm Burgess was found to winter very near Gola.  A hunter turned birder from the local community who works for our partner Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SNCL) on the Golama project told me that he has also seen wood warblers in and around the forest.

    So, while the RSPB believes that we have a role in helping local BirdLife Partners to conserve globally important species such as Gola Malimbe, as a UK based charity, we have a responsibility to take action to stop the decline in migratory birds.  The Liberian and Sierra Leone birders I spoke to were supportive of our flyways work – after all, this is nature we share. 

    My trip to the region has been hugely instructive and it has been great to see RSPB colleagues staff from BirdLife partners working together and having such a big impact.

    When asked about our future plans, I confirmed that the RSPB is committed to the region for the long term. 

    We plan to build a strong network of BirdLife partners across the flyway to help recover threatened migratory birds and progress has already been made by establishing the East Atlantic Flyway Initiative.

    We will continue to support our BirdLife partners (the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia and Conservation Society of Sierra Leone), to turn the Greater Gola Landscape vision into reality.  This means protecting half a million hectares forest through well managed national parks and sustainable management of the connecting areas - delivering Professor Sir John Lawton’s more, bigger, better and connected protected areas mantra on a massive scale.

    For this to be successful, we must provide sustainable livelihoods for the forest communities by continuing to help them grow more food and generate income through wildlife-friendly farming businesses such as cocoa.  I am sure that UK consumers would be delighted if we can make the Gola chocolate brand a success. 

    And, perhaps most important, we need to find a way to finance this operation in the long term.  Much of what has been achieved to date has been through donors (especially the European Union grants that have supported Gola for many years) and the generosity of RSPB members that have allowed us to sustain our support in the region.

    While we continue to believe that it will be possible to access carbon finance on both sides of the border (for example through our partnership with Climate Care), I am convinced that European Governments that are keen to support forest protection could do more to make their donor money work harder.  This is particularly important given that Brexit creates uncertainty about whether it will be possible for UK based charities who have links to the region, such as the RSPB, to access future EU funds. 

    In 2010, the nations of the world agreed to halt biodiversity loss by the end of the decade.  That deadline is fast approaching.  My hope is that Sierra Leone and Liberia will, in 2020, be able to announce to the world that they have established and secured long term sustainable finance for the management of the Greater Gola Landscape.  And that European governments, including the UK, can say that they played their part. 

    This would be a fabulous message to send to the rest of the world – that it is possible to improve people’s lives and protect our shared nature.


    *State of UK Birds 2014 was produced by RSPB, BTO, WWT, JNCC, NE, NIEA, NRW and SNH 

  • The impact of Gola Forest in Liberia (Part 1): a focus on forest communities

    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.

  • The impact of Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone (part 1): a focus on chocolate

    “When Gola came here, I didn’t want it because the forest was my livelihood.  Now, I want Gola to stay because it taught us cocoa farming.” [Quote from a member of cocoa production cooperative.]

    During my brief stay in Sierra Leone, I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome we received from the local communities living in and around Gola Rainforest.  It is clear that the work we are doing with our local partners is transforming lives and helping to protect the forest.

    I travelled with my colleague Jonathan Barnard who has led our tropical forest work for the past seven years – about a quarter of the time that the RSPB has been working in Gola.  We were hosted by the Gola Rainforest National Park team whose 150 staff are employed by the Gola Rainforest Company (GRC) formed as a partnership between the Sierra Leonean government, the Conservation Society for Sierra Leone, the RSPB and the local community.

    As well as protecting the park by teams of park rangers, the National Park team invests in local community development.  This is based on a range of benefit sharing agreements which are essentially compensation payments to the landowners of the forest. 

    These payments have allowed the communities to build core infrastructure such as hospitals and schools but also to purchase essentially technology.  For example, we visited a community which had bought a rice mill in 2016 and it has had a massive impact: reducing the time it takes to mill one bag of rice from one day by hand to five minutes by machine.  The women, now relieved of that labour, are now able to invest in vegetable gardening thereby generating another source of income.

    But the Gola Rainforest Company goes further to support community development that benefits the forest.  This has led to a new focus on cocoa farming which has the potential to provide even greater impact.  In partnership with TWIN, Rainforest Alliance, Jula Consultancy and the RSPB with funding from Comic Relief, this project is training communities that live next to the forest to raise standards in cocoa farming and to work together to provide a much sought commodity. 

    Having sampled the end product with the first batch of Gola chocolate bars last year (see here), I saw the rest of the supply chain in action: the nurseries where the cocoa plant saplings were grown; the demonstration plots where farmers were shown best practice in cocoa farming; the harvest of cocoa (re-enacted as we were in the wrong season), the drying, bagging and storage of the beans ready for shipment.

    Since starting the project 18 months ago, 1,871 farmers (both men and women) have formed cooperatives to manage their cocoa production and divide the profits amongst themselves.  Now, families can send their children to school because of the extra money they have earned.  It is unsurprising that are keen to grow their business.

    The Gola partners want the cocoa farming to be successful not just because it is a key requirement of the carbon financing project we started in 2014 (see here) but also because it offers the chance of a lasting solution by providing sustainable livelihoods which are not dependent on forest destruction.  What’s more, research we have carried out suggests that this type of farmer is better for wildlife than other farming methods.

    It is humbling to see the impact that this programme is having on the lives of the local people and the RSPB has been at the heart of this from the beginning.

    As one local chief said, “The forest gives life.  When we took the trees down, the streams and rivers dried up.  We know we must change.  We are now the best advocates for Gola Rainforest.” 

    The UK is the fourth largest consumer of chocolate in the world.  We want that chocolate consumption to do good and to help save the planet’s remaining rainforest. That’s why we are determined to make the Gola chocolate brand a success and will continue to work with the Gola communities. 

    You can watch a video (made by our Chief Technical Advisor to the Gola Company, Pietro Sandini) of the cocoa production process here.