Into the Jungle – Conservation against Livelihoods

We were ready for our first appointment and since it was with the national park staff we didn’t have far to go.  As some people were still cleaning their teeth and abluting, the rest of us gathered in a big square.  This made it quite a tricky meeting as you never knew which way to face.  As well as the park staff, our big partners working in the region; Bioclimate and CARE international staff were also present so it was quite a crowd.  But formalities through, plans made, and outcomes highlighted, we piled into our vehicles and drove to the nearby village we passed through the night before – Kortor.

While the national park is on the far side of the Little Scarcies River, the camp we were staying in is on the Kortor side, indeed the land has been granted as a gift from Kortor’s chief.  There have been problems raised with this, as it means the park wardens do not have a proper presence in the park.  Their role is to try and conserve a large area of land and there are examples of incidences of occasional cultivation, firewood collection and even logging going on.  Perhaps bizarrely, there are several small villages in the park.  When the park was declared, some people did not agree to the compensation and relocation package, a rather nice way of saying they were being evicted.  Even thirty years later these villages still stubbornly live on.  Fortunately it looks like their footprint is fairly small; what is more damaging is the pressure at the borders from villagers heading in to raid resources, including bushmeat and trophy animals.  The problem is worse on the Kilimi side where there is no permanent park warden presence – at least in Outamba there are some people trying to moderate the impact and publicise the usefulness of the park.

It is a tough job and it contains the usual variance between conservation against livelihood that tasks communities, governments and international organisations worldwide.  We all agree in principle that the conservation of our biodiversity is essential, but when the poorest people live nearby, who are we in the west to limit their opportunities when we have heavily transformed our own environments for our own economic gain.


The Centre of Kortor

To arbitrate in this debate, STEWARD tries to have an impact.  By showing the value of keeping forests and harvesting their fruits, medicines and game sustainably, it can maintain a balance of biodiversity and resource for the communities.  STEWARD has high respect in Tambakka Chiefdom and also in the other places it works.  Few development projects have made it to these remote parts, and STEWARD has been careful to build up the trust of the chiefs, elders and communities close to the park before suggesting changes in the way they operate.  Two key people in this were Momoh from Bioclimate and Martin from CARE.  With very different styles, they had become highly respected and liked members of the communities across the region; and if you were introduced by them to anyone, you were already given a lot of consideration.  They were invaluable to outsiders like me who were only on the ground for short times.

Into the Jungle – Lengthy Logistics

That environment, as I was soon to discover was incredible, full of surprises, and, most of all, very remote.  I had timed a three week visit with that of the USFS and many other partners, who were there to travel around the priority zones and learn what had happened in recent years.  STEWARD had been going for several years already and many prototype activities had occurred.  This current phase was a big extension.  A couple of USAID personnel from their Accra office had also turned up, and some people from the US Geological Survey who were conducting a huge mapping exercise across west Africa to look at land cover.


USGS maps

The idea was we had a couple of days in Freetown to arrange logistics and have some start up meetings, in particular with CARE International who operated many projects in the area we were to traverse.  Then we would go in a convoy of four vehicles to Makeni in central Sierra Leone for a meeting with another project funded by the World Bank that was working in the area, then head north to the zone itself.

The logistics would have been difficult even if we had been a small party, but there were about twenty people involved in this trip, and we were not all staying together.  Hugo had to return to the UK early, so would only be with us about 3 days on the Sierra Leone side.  One of the USGS guys and myself and my new found Thomson Reuters colleague, Kofi, were to travel back to Freetown a day later after having made a short trip onto the Guinea side.  Then the others were going to travel the length of Guinea to the other area before driving down to Monrovia and flying out from Liberia.

A whole load of issues came up; the main one for me being that my VisitSierraLeone visa was a single entry one; if I got in to Guinea and then attempted to re-enter Sierra Leone it would be probable that it would be refused.  Others had no Guinea visas; so one of the office staff spent the next day or two at various embassies around Freetown trying to get the right stamps.

The project currently had only one up country vehicle, so three others had to be hired from a local firm, along with drivers.  The two USFS staff temporarily running the project – Stephanie and Annie, had to arrange a lot of the fuel, water, food and currency, as well as the documentation to allow vehicles across all the borders.  I was glad to be treated like a VIP guest and they just had to tell me when to be where and what to bring.