Nimba County — Residents of several towns in three districts in Nimba County are deeply divided over Blei Community Forest Reserved, 629 hectares of forest, set aside by locals, with assistance from NGO for conservation purposes.
There is likelihood for serious trouble in the northern county, over the community Forest, as some residents have publicly expressed strong opposition to the project, which they claimed is denying them access to the forest that once served as a source of livelihood.
Association for Rural Development (ARD), with funding from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) helped local communities set-up Liberia's first community forest reserved in 2010, two years after project was initiated.
USAID, according to Saye Thompson, a local rights campaigner, provided both local and foreign training for some community members charged with the responsibility to man the forest.
"USAID sponsored several workshops in several areas including bio monitoring, GPS training, forest guard training and forest monitoring in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon," Thompson disclosed.
Mr. Thompson explained that the idea behind reserving the forest, are enormous, but indicated that paramount among them, is for the protection of endangered animal species, preservation of the forest for future use, the protection of the community from storm and in response to the REED+.
But, some locals told a training workshop organized by Green Advocates International in Gbobayee Town that the decision to reserve their forest is negatively affecting them.
The workshop was held under the rights group's Alternative Models of Customary Community and Informal Forest Entrepreneurial Ventures program, being funded by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
Some residents at the interactive workshop claimed in separate statements that they are being restricted from entering the forest, which they depended on for survival.
Residents said it is not only forbidden to farm, hunt and fish in the area, but people who had farms in the area, prior to the decision have been denied access to crops cultivated there.
The residents, most of whom are farmers and hunters, said they can no longer grow pepper, palm-apple, plantain and banana and hunt in the forest, due to the huge presence of forest rangers preventing access into the forest.
According to them, the decision is hurting them badly, because they can no longer keep their children in schools.
They depend on proceeds from crops harvested to send their children to school.
"We are suffering because our forest, which can give us money, has been taken away in the name of conservation,"
A traditional birth attendance, Kou Saye said the restriction on the forest has compelled her to start using modern medicines, because according to her she don't have access to medicinal plants from the forest, which she usually used to attend to pregnant women in Gbobayee.
But, Francis Dahn, a member of the community forest management body dismissed the claim and said people wanting to enter the forest for medicinal plants and local building materials need to only ask for permit from his office.
Dahn explained that the permit can be issued for ten days and noted that applicants can get permit the same day they applied for it.
"Just tell us what you want from the forest and we will let you enter the forest, because you will not be permitted to market what you take from the forest," Dahn told the gathering.
Clan Chief Karwin Zargbay corroborated that some people are being affected by the decision to preserve the land, but said the greater good surpass every other concern.
He disclosed that prior to the decision, the forest was being depleted and animals killed daily.
"We decided to keep the forest for some time so that the trees can mature and that the animals and fish can reproduce. It is because of our children who will come after us," Clan Chief Zarbay justified the decision to keep the forest.
Regarding alternative livelihood for affected residents, he disclosed that some international partners concerned with conservation have agreed to provide fish and American pigs for community members to breed.
Despite problems associated with the country's first community forest, Clan Chief Zarbay is calling on other communities to employ similar model in setting a community forest.