What next for Sierra Leone’s endangered forests?

by Sonkita Conteh

Communities that bear the brunt of deforestation must be at the fore of rebuilding our environment

Last week, the government of Sierra Leone announced that all forest logging concessions are to be suspended “with immediate effect”, warning of repercussions for any violations.

In a country with less than 5 percent of original forest cover remaining, this was welcome news. Now the government must work to ensure that the communities that bore the brunt of deforestation are at the fore of rebuilding our environment for the future of our nation.

This action by the government comes after considerable effort by civil society organisations (CSOs) and activist citizens who, on a daily basis, witnessed the systematic destruction of the country’s forests.

In early 2018, before the country’s historic elections, some 4,000 citizens and 12 CSOs asked political parties and their candidates to endorse the “Wi Land Na Wi Fyuchɔ” pledge,  a set of commitments to respect tenure rights and protect the environment.    

A key demand in the pledge is reversing the trend of national deforestation by preventing exploitative activities in forest areas and supporting community-based afforestation and conservation.

The Sierra Leone People’s Party, which came into power in April, publicly endorsed the pledge and, after some initial inconsistency, looks to be heading in that general direction. The suspension of logging concessions is the first step in a long and arduous journey to “bring back the nation’s forests.”

The government appears to recognise that the public can play an important role in tackling deforestation across the country. The September 17 press release announcing the suspension of timber cutting called on the public to “notify the Ministry through the Director of Forestry of any illegal logging activities within their communities.”

But there is much more the public could do beyond policing the newly imposed timber ban. Any government worth its mandate would avail itself of the opportunity to join hands with its citizens for the common good. The country’s traders, drivers, chiefs, teachers, journalists, farmers, and nurses hold the key to a successful forest regeneration programme.

In the short term, we need to ensure effective implementation of the suspension order. The press release alone will not cut it. Communities in and around forest areas should be made aware of this suspension and encouraged to work with forests guards to protect what’s left of their forests.

They could also be encouraged to adopt by-laws internally to prevent individuals from within colluding with “power-saw poachers” to beat the ban. In Sierra Leone, community-level rule making and enforcement has been shown to be far more effective than mandates from far-off central authorities.  

The process of revising the framework for the awarding of forest concessions should adopt a multi-stakeholder approach with clear provision for consulting and receiving input from forest communities and the general public. An initial stock-taking of forest cover should be conducted to get a sense of those in good health, those critically endangered and those virtually extinguished.

Access to information is critical to a successful review process. As such the government should share information on existing forest concessions. Namati Sierra Leone has already lodged a formal right to information request with the Forestry Division. It would be useful for CSOs to have access to such data to share with the communities affected by these concessions. The data would also shed light on whether this sort of exploitation has a net positive result.

If we are to break the back of climate change, before it breaks ours, we must remain surefooted that our people and environment are placed ahead of profits.

A forest is the life-blood of a community. Once it is destroyed the community begins to die. The fight to save Sierra Leone’s forests is a fight to save the life, the soul of a nation. It requires everyone playing their part because everyone has everything to lose if the forests disappear.

Annihilation by deforestation; how the pursuit of short term “gain” will be the death of a country

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati Sierra Leone 

2019 was a terrible year for Sierra Leone’s forests. According to the 2020 annual pubic finance audit report, more than 10 million slow-growing, rosewood trees were shipped out of the country.  Approximately two hundred thousand acres of forest cover was destroyed in the process. These irreplaceable resources, the report showed, were exchanged for a meagre US $25 million in revenue for the government- less than US $2.50 per tree. 

Had it not been for the Covid-19 epidemic, the rate of plunder in 2020 would have equalled or surpassed this magnitude. How the current government continues to see the destruction of the nation’s last remaining ancient forests as a source of revenue continues to beggar belief. 

Successive governments have pursued an “exploit to extinction” policy ostensibly to break the population out of poverty. In reality, such actions over time have exacerbated penury and misery across the population. Fish stocks have been depleted, coastlines shaved of sand and forests set to become grasslands. In August 2017 a deadly landslide on the hills overlooking the capital city killed over a thousand people and rendered over three thousand homeless, in a matter of minutes. It followed years of unrestrained destruction of tree cover on the hills. This tragedy seems to have been quickly forgotten as the plunder of other areas of the peninsular forest continues unabated and with the connivance of public officials. Governments past and present have been firing on all cylinders in this deadly race to the abyss. 

China, the destination of choice for many of the plundered rosewood from sub-Saharan Africa has been jealously guarding and nurturing its own forests, while merrily demolishing the ecosystems of its African “friends”. Over a period of 20 years, the Chinese government spent US $ 47 billion protecting its natural forests. In 2018, the government deployed 60,000 soldiers to help grow 6 million hectares of new forests.  The country currently boasts the fifth largest forest area in the world and has set an ambitious target to add 4.5 billion cubic metres of forest by 2030. These domestic actions by China seem to have been lost on African governments who continue to submit their rapidly dwindling forest resources to Chinese exploitation.   

The Sierra Leone government continues to peddle a narrative of a country basking in the abundance of multifarious natural resources newly opened for exploration. This may have been true some 100 years ago, but the state-of-affairs now presents a much more sobering picture- that of a country on the brink of an exploitation apocalypse. 

Most of the north has become drier with many communities forced to drink dirty water. Farming patterns no longer hold constant as rainfall has become erratic and violent. The World Food Programme has stated that these unreliable precipitation patterns, along with recurrent climactic shocks are what has led the food insecure population in the country to increase from 34% in 2019 to almost 48% in 2020. 

When trees are felled other animals and plants including micro-organisms that rely on them eventually die, thus cascading the effect of the loss. The quality and stability of the soil becomes compromised ensuring that crops will not thrive. Forest loss affects rainfall patterns and the supply of clean water. The country’s leadership continues to ignore the hard facts, determined to extinguish the less than 5% of original forest cover remaining, in the name of generating revenue. This mercenary attitude to nature’s gifts will be the death of our nation.   

The current lull in the destruction of forest resources, resulting from the pandemic, affords the nation an opportunity to introspect, take stock and course correct. Is the US $ 25 million revenue price tag a fair exchange for the loss of our prized ecosystem?  

Action must be taken to prevent the current situation from degenerating into an unmanageable crisis. Government should immediately end the practice of timber exportation. The losses now and in the future far outweigh any revenue that is being generated. We need to save what is left of our forests and work on restoring them. Communities where these forests sit should be empowered to play a role in their protection and renewal. Fifty years ago, Sierra Leone had more than 60% of its original forest cover intact. Today, only a fraction of that remains. At the current scale of plunder, getting to zero will be achieved in a few short years.     

Political leaders perhaps have already formulated their personal escape plans for when the country hits rock bottom. The rest of the population is not so privileged. Their hope lies in acting now and stopping a trade that has not and will never be profitable for the nation. Government should put the country’s interest above anything else.  

The tragedy of a nation’s over-reliance on natural resource extraction: why time may be running out for Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is running out of fish. In March last year, the government announced a moratorium on fishing in the country’s waters. Fish stocks were low and fingerlings had been decimated by illegal fishing practices such as the use of undersized nets and pair trawling. This catastrophe was years in the making- the culmination of poor regulation, corruption and neglect. The assumption that our waters contained inexhaustible supplies of marine life has been thoroughly dispelled. The month-long hiatus by itself would not yield any positive, long-term outcome without a profound shift towards more sustainable and inclusive management approaches.

Then there are the country’s forests. At independence, more than 60% of the country’s land space was covered by primary forests. Within half a century that has been whittled down to less than 5%. Forests in rural areas continue to be threatened by logging and mining. Despite the well-publicised loss, the government continues to pursue logging as a revenue stream. Under the 2018 Finance (Amendment) Act, the government charges a timber royalty of US $2500 on every cubic metre of timber shipped out of the country. The fact that successive governments have seen the destruction of the country’s ancient forests as a source of revenue is a tragedy in itself.

The peninsular forest in the capital is perhaps the most visibly threatened of the four protected forests in the country. Far less than the 17,000 hectares that were declared protected now remain. Under the nose of the authorities and in the full view of the public, the once lush hills that prevented flooding in the city have been scraped to make way for “development”— buildings constructed in a scattered fashion without proper planning, access to water, electricity or good roads. The Protected Area Authority is unable to mount effective guard over the peninsular park— it is poorly funded and does not have the required labour or technology to do its work.

River networks and wetlands are also vanishing. The Pampana River in the north is already dead— killed off by unrestrained gold mining activities. The largest river, the Rokel River, is being imperilled by mining, hydro projects and dumping of toxic waste. Some of the villages along its path which used to rely on it for drinking, cooking and irrigation can no longer use it. Being an important Ramsar wetland site since 1999 has counted for nothing. The country’s biggest river will soon be dead.

Across rural communities, hundreds of wetlands and small rivers have been destroyed by mining. The fact that communities rely on these resources for water and food has meant nothing to power holders who are always quick to negotiate away these valuable resources in exchange for water wells and promises of improved wellbeing that never come to fruition.

Highland areas – like the Sula Mountain range, the Kangari and Peninsular Hills – are on course to disappear as they continue to be whittled down by mining, quarrying and erosion. Nothing is off-limits in the wild hurry for resources. Soon, the “Sierra” part of the country’s name will no longer be justified as the country will be devoid of any.

Coastal areas could soon be submerged by the Atlantic Ocean as a result of sand and zircon extraction. Along the Freetown coast, a number of communities like Sugarland and Hamilton have had their sands mined to exhaustion. The sandy buffer has been lost and the land is being eroded. In Shenge, in the south, extraction of zircon from the coast has left beach land vulnerable to encroaching waves. Coastal populations are at risk of losing their land and their way of life.

After nearly a century of extraction, Sierra Leone remains a very poor country. Massive amounts of resource extraction on land and at sea has not translated into an improvement in living conditions for its citizens. Essential services like healthcare and potable water supply remain out of reach for millions. Mortality and morbidity rates are among the highest in the world. Infrastructural projects—mostly road construction— in the country have not been bankrolled by wealth generated from natural resources but by debts and benevolence.

The scale of the human, environmental and social injury of extraction, though clearly visible in many places, has not been properly assessed. This failing perhaps accounts for why successive governments find it easy to gloss over the trail of destruction in the extractive industry and quickly move on to the next set of deals. The verdict across several generations of Sierra Leoneans however is that the extraction of natural resources has been more of a curse than a blessing.

Yet, like governments before it, the present regime continues to zealously pursue large-scale investments, touting the country’s “impressive natural resource credentials.” In the last three months, officials have put in appearances at investment conferences, mining indabas and bilateral engagements.

After decades of extractive abuse, the country is showing the strain— violent rainfalls, flooding, landslides, drought, poor harvest, loss of plant and animal species, increased temperature, and dramatic landscape changes. Perhaps now is the time to slow down the resource extraction juggernaut to allow for some serious reflection on (i) the current impact of extraction (ii) long term consequences of continued extraction (iii) alternatives to extraction and (iv) effective ways to manage natural resources.

It is now painfully obvious that the overused formula of “resource extraction for economic development” has not worked out for the country. It is impractical to continue on this same path while hoping for a better outcome. The time to act is now but like much of the country’s natural resources, time is fast running out.

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati Sierra Leone