Concord Times (Freetown)

Sierra Leone: Gola Forest Co-Management - a Standard Practice for Conservation

The forest co-management program is aimed at instituting and maintaining a positive relationship between the resources in the Gola Forest reserve and the surrounding communities. It involves a strategic planning that would appropriately and sustainably combine and use available resources in the reserve and allied customary laws to generate and optimize benefits for the communities, while at the same time maintaining the forest's ecosystem.

Forest reserves are portions of state lands where commercial harvesting of wood products, mining and other domestic activities are prohibited in order to capture elements of biodiversity that could be missing from harvested sites. Small (patch) reserves will conserve sensitive, localized resources such as steep slopes, fragile soils, and habitat for certain rare species that benefit from intact forest canopies. Large reserves will represent the diversity of the forest landscapes remaining in the country.

The core objective of forest co-management is to improve and maintain boundary communities' livelihoods. The program has its specific objectives that it aims to achieve. It implements activities within a specified impact area and partners with communities in order to achieve the set objectives.

Gola Forest is part of the Upper Guinea Forest, of which less than 30 percent of the forest now remains intact. It was once a huge expanse of lowland rainforest covering Sierra Leone, south-east Guinea and Liberia. Often times, surrounding communities, especially those that oppose conservation for farming, mining and other domestic activities in the reservation, have been critical about the effective utilization and the management of the resources of the Gola Forest.

The co-management of the God-given resources of the Gola Forest has now been considered by many conservationists as the best way forward to involve communities in the governance and utilization of the reserve. The process will among other things support the regeneration and sustainable management of forest resources in customary land, promote community institutionalization, governance and responsibility. The process will also include the provision of capacity building and skills development services for local communities so as to enhance the promotion and development of natural resource based enterprises which will in turn facilitate conflict management in the respective communities.

In Tunkia Chiefdom, Kenema District, a good number of forest edge communities have expressed frustration over the utilization of the forest, saying they are yet to see fulfilled the promises made to them in return for their cooperation to protect the forest. The Gola Forest program however claims to be supporting education, social and infrastructural development projects in the edge communities.

Recently, the Paramount Chief of Tunkia chiefdom, PC Amara Goway Sama and other sub chiefs, preferred mining to conservation. In April 2011, Sable Mining Company announced that it has acquired an 80% interest in Red Rock Mining Company, which claims to hold a fifty-year mining lease agreement at Bagla Hills, an area located within the Gola Forest reserve. Bagla Hills is said to have a rich deposit of iron ore and other minerals, according to an exploration conducted by Bethlehem Steel Mining Company, between 1973 and 1975. This has made the site highly attractive to investors. One such investor is quoted to have casually remarked while addressing community stakeholders in the area that: "Your government has to choose between development and the preservation of a mere forest".

The proposed Bagla Hills Iron Ore project in the Gola Forest has faced stiff resistance from the people of Tunkia chiefdom, as some land owners have openly challenged and condemned the said lease agreement, saying they were not involved in the arrangement.

The situation seems to be getting worse for the investors as according to a government press statement issued few months ago, no mining activities should take place in the reserve. The huge rainforest is under strict government protection, and has been hailed as one of the best examples of forest conservation to cut down carbon emissions in the African sub-region.

His Excellency President Ernest Bai Koroma while launching the Trans Boundary Programme between Sierra Leone and neighbouring Liberia, declared the 75,000 hectares stretch forest as the country's national park, thereby protecting more than 50 mammal species including leopards, chimps and forest elephants, 2,000 different plants and 274 species of birds of which 14 are said to be close to extinction.

The area, situated close to the Liberian border, will become the flagship site in a new national park network with local communities paid annually to replace royalties linked to logging and diamond mining in the forest. Scientists will be encouraged to study the wildlife of the area which is expected to become a hub for eco-tourism.

The Gola Forest project leader, Guy Marris, in an interview said they are currently embarking on two management approaches that are geared towards involving community stakeholders in the protection of the reserve and to help them know their 'usual rights and obligations' through a forest co-management system, which he said will minimize the misconceptions amongst community people about immediate benefits or a mining option.

"We are planning to set up village co-management committees, because it is our intension to allocate funds for an alternative livelihood project for the people," he said. According to him, a wide range of consultation with forest edge communities to develop the said project has been held in the affected communities.

Protected Area Manager of the Gola Forest, Alusine Fofanah, emphasized that the inputs of stakeholders for effective forest management are key to the successful conservation of the forest. He said even though there are limited 'usual rights' of the proclaimed national park by people, yet the program strongly recognizes the role of the traditional people in the management of the reserve.

The Promoting Agriculture, Governance and Environment (PAGE), which is operating in Kailahun, Kono, Kenema and Koinadugu districts, is implementing a four-year project worth $13.2 million, funded by USAID. The aim of the project is to enhance the economic development of four of the country's most underserviced districts. The project is working to increase agricultural productivity while supporting sustainable natural resource management and promoting transparency and participatory democratic governance.

The project also aims at supporting producers' organizations and marketing associations through a market-driven and value chain-based approach that supports the achievement of USAID's economic development goals in the country.

The Natural Resources Management Officer of PAGE, Maamod Turay, in an interview, referred to the forest co-management initiative as an innovative approach for the Gola Forest conservation project, nothing that the old idea of chasing away intruders has now become an outdated strategy. He said PAGE has engaged stakeholders in various communities to properly manage the forest and that they have provided agricultural support as an alternative livelihood scheme for the communities.

"Our objective is to enhance the conservation of the forest, and for it to be sustainable you don't have to keep the people away from the planning and governance processes. We are currently operating in five chiefdoms and 98 communities in the Kenema district," he noted. According to him, PAGE has so far been overwhelmed by the level of cooperation between the organization and the people because, as he puts it, "We have created village, section and chiefdom forest management committees to formulate policies for the effective utilization and conservation of the forest".

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