Living in the Community – The plunder of the forest

In village after village we saw the red crosses and steadily increasing numbers on the houses – I seem to remember it got to over 500. North of Kamakwie it was only a long term plan to widen the road, but instead we got evidence of another change that had occurred since my last visit.  Near the ferry across the Little Scarcies River, there was a massive truck piled high with thick tree trunks.  The driver was being assisted by a couple of others to load more massive timber in the vehicle… he was planning to drive it back towards Freetown that evening.  I’d seen parts of the road had deteriorated even further from what I remember already.  I speculated what more damage this vehicle would do.  I also wondered how these huge trucks got through the occasional drains, or crossed the strange little bridges that were frequent along the northern section of the road.  They were basically a large tube covered in a square of concrete.  I think at one time the top of the block would be level with the road, but the road either side tended to erode away, and vehicles had to bump their way up on to these bridges and bounce down the other side.  Not so bad in a light 4WD but a nightmare for a heavily laden lorry.

These lorries had not been going up and down this route last time I had been here, but the government had reversed a policy that allowed logging concessions in the forest.  This was not good news for our project.  We were trying to find ways to work with the communities to conserve and regenerate the remaining precious Guinea Forest.  Our work was slow and incremental.  Compared to the loggers who came in with their chainsaws and heavy machinery could clear the best and most precious gallery forest for these gigantic logs a million times faster than our efforts to regrow trees.  It was quite depressing to see before we had even reached Fintonia to start out own work.

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Sunset on the Scarcies River

It was sunset as we got on the river bank and the serene atmosphere calmed the spirits; we waited for the ferry to come over from the north bank, with a ancient blue tractor aboard.

Into the Jungle – Kansema

We had one more stop that morning in the small village of Kansema to the east of Madina Oula.  The sun had come out again and the village looked very pleasant, mostly thatched rectangular houses in the centre shaded by mango trees.  We were greeted by a couple of men and we waited as the chief came out of his house and his secretary started to direct the locals to obtain some seating.  As was now a routine, various chairs and benches, even a bucket or two, were dragged out of all the nearby houses and we had our meeting right there in the centre of the village.

As in all the other places we visited we attracted a lot of attention.  At one point I looked across the road to a shady open wooden shed and was greeted by about twenty pairs of eyes of children staring back; new ones would arrive every minute and shuffle inside to keep cool, as well as for them to feel safe from their shyness.  We could not get away without inspecting the community forest so we trooped up a gentle hill to the north.  As we headed up the view to the south revealed itself.  So far in Guinea, the land had been gently undulating and, without the forest of Sierra Leone, you could see for miles across the plain.  Here we were close to the border and the northern edge of the Kuru Hills abruptly rose up and imposed itself on Kansema.  Deep in the hills were chimpanzees and elephants, so close to a manicured human landscape on the Guinea side.  Here was the physical evidence of the fine balance needed for thriving environments but sustainable livelihoods.

Into the Jungle – The last village in Sierra Leone

We had parked by a different style of construction.  It was made up of open wooden frames in a square and a huge roof made of grass coming to an open point.  It was used as a meeting room by the community and we squeezed in to the space.  We waited a while for the chief and his elders to congregate then had a brief meeting looking at the issues in Sanya.  We were not to go on a tour of the town, but we were to be given lunch here and from a nearby house huge plates and bowls of rice, chicken curry, fish stew, okra, came into this meeting room.  We ate with the elders and then made our farewells as we still had to cross the border.

Sanya is the last village in Sierra Leone, and now I looked more carefully, had some of the trappings, albeit on a small scale, of a border settlement.  There was steady traffic in both directions but not just the usual bikes and motorbikes, but more heavily laden taxis and trucks.  One of our vehicles did not have the permit to cross into Guinea, and Hugo had to return to Freetown to catch a plane home.  So there was a lot of reorganisation of the luggage.  Haba’s STEWARD car roof rack was piled even higher and the tarpaulin carefully tied over the top as the rain appeared to be returning.  While this was going on I was once more observing the village life around me. During the meeting and lunch, the sides of the meeting room were filled with dozens of pairs of eyes as the children of Sanya came to look at the visitors – I felt even more in a cage than in Sumata.  When the feast was over, there was a lot of spare rice and sauce.  The main cook stood on the step of her veranda and ladled out spoon after spoon to the children who mobbed around her.  They were not especially under or malnourished, but the opportunity to get some extra calories and different tastes was not to be missed, and if you saw your friend getting some, why not you?

But for some of the kids they were torn; do they continue to watch these weird outsiders in their funny clothes taking pictures on little machines and talking in strange languages, or do you go for the ladle.  Some tried to do both, looking at us in one direction while their hands were stretched out in the other, i.e. towards the rice dish.

Into the Jungle – Beekeeping

On the edge of the village we were taken on a diversion to see some curious white boxes on legs under big trees.  One of STEWARD’s older activities  had been to establish beekeeping.  The rich honey of the African wild bee has been always prized by people in this part of the world, but the difficulty in obtaining it from caves high up in cliffs or up in the canopies of trees was a risky business.  Not only could the forager fall a long way and injure themselves badly, but if the bees decided to fight while you were up there it could be fatal.

By encouraging the establishment of hives near the village, of course, these safety features were taken into consideration; the bees might still sting as badly but at least you could stand a chance by running away.  The high value honey was also easier to collect from hives and the bees could be important pollinators in the small holdings, fields and fruit trees around the village.

We were shown these hives and then as we headed back into the village, one of the farmers dived into his house and came out with his beekeepers kit.  We watched him do a quick change into his top to toe white coveralls, his wellingtons, his red rubber gloves , and his smoker.  The result was a space age alien living amongst a bunch of Susu farmers.

They wanted to show us more and to stay with them, but we had to thank them for their hospitality and get back in our vehicles.  We had another meeting at the village of Sanya on the border, then cross into Guinea before they closed the border post for the night.

Into the Jungle- A tour of the projects

Which was to tour the STEWARD project activities in the village.  For me it was exceptionally useful to understand what had been done so far, and Kortor, probably because it was closest to the best of the remaining forest, had embraced a lot of the activity.  We wandered down to a large stand of gallery forest and saw how a tree nursery was being developed – various indigenous species being nurtured from seedlings under the canopy.  An area around the village had been demarcated as a community forest – a shared resource managed through the chief for everyone.  While the nurseryman explained the progress, a couple of monkeys watched us from their perches high in the canopy.

Next, we trouped into the community forest itself.  Mainly down in a small stream valley, the vegetation was thick and dense, but in a mature way rather than a scrubby thicket.  The huge buttresses reached up above our heads to support the mammoth tree trunks, the canopy shading out most of the light, but plenty of  vegetation thrived in the space below.  You could hear from the chatter of bird and frogs that there was a lot of fauna here too. We reached an area which had once been cleared but was still part of the community forest and the destination for many of the nursery saplings.  Amongst the natural trees, fruit crops were encouraged and banana and plantain were evident in great numbers.  Out in this more open space we could look back at the huge gallery trees and sense their scale and spread.  It was pointed out to us that you could see denser patches of leaves in the canopy, which were nests pulled together by chimpanzees – barely a kilometre from the centre of the village.  To an outsider this was a draw dropping moment, to come so close to one of the world’s most iconic species, a vanguard for conservation but to the villagers they were a bit of a pest.  It is bad enough having dumb insects and rats coming in to your fields and house to steal your food, but to have as intelligent a creature as a Chimpanzee causing you problems was intolerable.  Another conservation conundrum.