The Gola Rainforest teems with life, so it’s vital that we all work together to protect it. Kathryn Howe and Emily Woodfield report.
“The Gola Rainforest is part of one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world. Action is needed to protect its wildlife, store carbon and support the people who depend on it,” says Martin Harper, Director of Conservation at the RSPB. Although the RSPB has been working with the government, BirdLife International and local communities in Sierra Leone for nearly 30 years, it wasn’t until 2009 that a vision was conceived to create a trans-boundary peace park, covering 250,000 hectares of forest across the Sierra Leone-Liberia border.
The vision statement says it all: “The Greater Gola Landscape will act as a catalyst for peace, prosperity and national pride in Sierra Leone and Liberia, ensuring that its globally important habitats, biodiversity, environmental services and wider landscape are conserved and that neighbouring communities are active environmental stewards of the natural resource base that underpins and enhances their livelihoods.” Today, thanks to the tireless work of BirdLife partner Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia, the legislation is now in place and the Gola Forest National Park government launch took place in April. This new national park forms a contiguous area with the Gola Rainforest National Park over the border in Sierra Leone.
The ambition is to ensure that the forest outside the Park is also well managed to ensure connectivity across the wider landscape. Through an EU grant, the partners involved in the Greater Gola Landscape have been working to establish a Community Forest in an area in Liberia. This has been named GolaMA, which means 'unity' in the local language. The goal is to establish community rights to forest, so that the communities take responsibility for managing their own forest areas.
A team has been training the community in beekeeping, rice, cocoa and groundnut farming. The idea is to improve production so people have enough food without relying on more forest-damaging extractive activities. For example, farmers are being trained to do lowland rice farming, which delivers three harvests a year, rather than one rice harvest on rotation.
The region has a long history of mining for diamonds and the project is looking at how artisanal mining for gold might be an environmentally sustainable alternative form of income. Despite its traumatic recent history of two civil wars and the Ebola epidemic, Liberia has the potential to follow a very different economic development path – one that protects its globally-important biodiversity while also improving prosperity.
Following the success of the Community Forest work in Liberia, a new project funded by USAID, will be replicating the GolaMA model across the Gola landscape in Sierra Leone and at other sites in Liberia.
Working with the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, many significant milestones have been reached. In 2011, the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) was designated – providing better protection from unsustainable logging, mining and other disruptive activities. In 2014, GRNP was established as the first Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) project in West Africa.
As well as conserving the forest, by 2021 this will also conserve nearly 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by keeping it locked in the forest and soils. As 90% of the population of forest edge communities are dependent on subsistence agriculture, project activities are focused on meeting the needs of local people. To date, these include:
- 35 farmer field schools established with 450 members from 32 communities, resulting in the first international export of 13 tonnes of rainforest-friendly cocoa - forecast to reach 50 tonnes this year
- 90 master farmers trained to support cascade training
- 35 community-managed loan schemes established to allow communities to buy equipment and seeds to support farmer field school training. This has seen an increase in crop yields, with ground nut yields rising by 80% within a year
- 42 cocoa farmer groups have now been established with over 1,000 registered farmers.
From carbon credits to chocolate bars
Individuals and businesses can directly support the Gola REDD project through buying carbon credits. The US charity Stand for Trees sells the credits for the project online, giving you the chance to directly support forest protection, local livelihoods and to combat climate change.
With support from Comic Relief and in partnership with Twin and Rainforest Alliance, around 2,500 farmers have formed the Goleagorbu Cocoa Producers Organisation, which markets the farmers’ cocoa. Providing training, equipment and technical support in sustainable agricultural practices has enabled farmers to protect the forest, while improving the productivity and quality of their cocoa. This is giving them better prices and more reliable incomes.
The RSPB is currently working on the development of a chocolate bar, made from Gola Rainforest Cocoa, which will be sold in RSPB shops. The income raised will then be reinvested back into Gola conservation.