Saving the Gola Forest: Redesigning forest protection in West Africa

The Gola Forest covers more than 350,000 hectares and extends across the borders of Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is the largest remaining block of the Upper Guinean Forest. The forest is an important hotspot for biodiversity and is home to 49 species of mammals, 327 species of birds and 43 species of amphibians, as well as more than 200 species of trees. More than 60 threatened species worldwide, including the western red colobus monkey Piliocolobus badius (critically endangered), the zebra duiker Cephalophus zebra and the Rufous fishing owl Scotopella ussheri (both endangered) are found in the Gola Forest. In addition, the forest is home to the second largest population of western chimpanzees in the world. Overall, it functions as a carbon sink and helps to reduce the effects of climate change.

Years of deforestation and degradation caused by logging, agriculture, armed conflict, and mining have resulted in the loss of important global biodiversity and decreased resilience to climate change. This has a significant impact on the local communities, whose livelihoods depend on the forest. In 2011 the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation in the management, research, protection and conservation of the Gola Forest. In February 2020, the two countries signed an amended declaration of intent, which reaffirmed their commitment to jointly manage the forest and protect its biological diversity.

In August 2020, the European Commission-funded Program to Support the Conservation of Forest Ecosystems in West Africa (PAPFoR) to conserve the Gola Forest was introduced in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The three-year program is run by BirdLife Partners, the Society for the Conservation of Nature in Liberia (SCNL) and the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, together with the Gola Rainforest Conservation Limited by Guarantee, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB -). BirdLife in the UK) and BirdLife International.

Rufous Fishing Owl, Sierra Leone, Copyright Nik Borrow, from the Surfbirds Galleries

“The PAPFoR project is a catalyst that will promote the world of conservation and biodiversity in two countries as we know that animals have no borders,” explains James Mulbha, the PAPFoR project coordinator at SCNL.

In collaboration with local communities, national partner organizations and government agencies in Liberia and Sierra Leone, PAPFoR will support effective forest management throughout the Gola landscape in protected areas and community forests. A key aspect of this program is the creation of land use plans to support conservation efforts, including the development of a cross-border database and the provision of Geographical Information System (GIS) training. In addition, the program will carry out a participatory landscape-wide land use planning process and support local communities in developing land use plans.

“This project is unique in that it is a precursor to peace between communities spread across two countries. Land use planning is not just a land management tool and a decision-making aid, but above all a conflict management tool between communities that share the same forest resources, ”explains Babacar Gueye, Africa Forest Coordinator at BirdLife International.

Second, the project will support the management of five protected areas within the landscape through the development of management and co-management plans. These sanctuaries include the Gola Rainforest National Park, Kambui Forest Reserve, Tiwai Wildlife Sanctuary, Gola Forest National Park, and Foya’s proposed sanctuary. Training and empowering individuals to carry out forest management and conservation is a key component of PAPFoR. To this end, the program will train environmentalists and support the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone in conducting joint patrols and implementing a landscape-wide bio-monitoring program.

“The involvement of community members as environmentalists forms the basis for the participation of the local population in protecting the forest. This intervention has generated income for the community’s environmentalists and further eased the pressure on the forest as many of them were former hunters, miners, loggers and farmers, ”adds Mulbha.

Another result of this program is to support sustainable community-based management of forest resources outside of the protected areas while at the same time improving the livelihood of the community. To achieve this, the project will support two community-based ecotourism projects and test a sustainable logging model in Liberia. It is anticipated that more than 50,000 people in 160 communities will benefit from this program. The project has already started putting its plan into action, including contacting local communities in the project area, training environmentalists and introducing staff to land use planning.

“This can be a very effective approach to managing this key resource in Africa,” Gueye concludes.