Liberia’s Biological Diversity is its Economic Power Horse

By Stephen Rodriques, UNDP Liberia Resident Representative

Liberia prides itself as a nation endowed with a substantial share of global biodiversity. The country is regarded as one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world, and one which contains the highest remaining portion (42%) of the Upper Guinea Forest, which is regarded as one of the three lungs of the world extending from Guinea into eastern Sierra Leone, and eastward through Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana into western Togo. The forest is characterized by high endemism, boasting over 2000 plant species, 600 bird species, 75 reptile species, and 150 mammal species.

This would not have been the case for the wonderful nature-loving people of Liberia, and without recognizing the tradeoffs that come with maintaining such a rich global asset on more than two-thirds of the country’s land area that is equivalent to twice the size of Belgium. Half of the people of Liberia live within 2.5 kilometers of a forest, with each household spending more than three hours daily collecting forest products for subsistence and for sale. With half of the country earning 35% of its income (World Bank, 2020) from forests, this resource is under great threat with reports of rapid decline in the country’s biodiversity. Liberia’s natural resources are critical for economic growth and delivering the pro-poor agenda for development (PAPD) as well as the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The threats to Liberia’s biodiversity include increasing population pressure, competition for biological resources for food, shelter, and energy, plantation crops in areas of high conservation value, the outdated slash and burn shifting cultivation, poaching and hunting, unregulated timber extraction, charcoal burning, artisanal and small-scale mining, invasive species, insufficient public education and awareness, limited national investment in biodiversity conservation and inadequate law enforcement.

The International Day for Biological Diversity, observed on 22 May, presents the government and people of Liberia as well as partners and other stakeholders the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the enormous biodiversity in the country and what it means for Liberia’s future. This year’s theme ‘From Agreement to Action: Build Back Biodiversity’ calls for a whole-of-society approach to implementing Liberia’s national biodiversity strategy goals. This is in line with the historic Kunming-Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework that aims to safeguard the world’s nature, halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, and put nature on a path to recovery by 2050. Liberia is expected to develop its implementation plans for the Conference of the Parties (COP16) in 2024, and UNDP is ready to support this process.

Liberia ratified the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity on 8 November 2000. The then Head of State and Chairman of the then National Transitional Government, H.E. Charles Gyude Bryant noted in the foreword to Liberia’s National Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan (2004): “The achievement of biodiversity conservation must be fully participatory. I call on everyone, including all citizens of Liberia, foreigners within our borders, United Nations and other development partners, and the private sector to work in concert to conserve Liberia’s rich biodiversity … by ensuring that our actions are environmentally friendly, and mitigating adverse effects on our dwindling biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. I have no doubt that Liberia will follow the path on which nations seen as good examples of friends of the environment walk and that we will not be found relenting on this course. However, I wish to stress that the situation is urgent, and the time to act is now, as tomorrow will be too late. Just as we sing the “LONE STAR FOREVER”, let us shout, “DEPLETION OF BIODIVERSITY NEVER.”

Kudos to the current government for creating the space for public discourse and embracing the rich exchange of views on natural resource management in Liberia. While it can be stated that the many fora have been somehow successful in documenting and elevating the concerns for biodiversity conservation at the top level of government, now is the time for national investments that would catalyze and unlock global resources to support the implementation of the national biodiversity action plans, including enforcement of relevant laws and policies.

In 1999 the Government, with support from UNDP, established the National Environmental Commission of Liberia (NECOLIB) to oversee all environmental activities in the country, serve as the coordinating institution for the environment and come up with relevant policies and laws. NECOLIB drafted the National Environmental Policy of Liberia, the Environment Protection and Management Law, and the Environment Protection Agency Act, leading to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) creation in December 2003. The EPA produces State of the Environment (SOE) reports.

In collaboration with civil society, government, and partners, the government of Liberia in 2006 developed a new forestry legal framework with several progressive initiatives, including formal recognition of communities’ rights to their customary forestlands, empowering local populations to participate in forest governance and benefit from forestry revenue, increase participation and access to forestry information and civil society right to independently monitor forestry operations, a complementary land reform reinforcing community rights over forestland through the adoption of a Land Rights Policy in 2013 and the government granting equal legal protection to customary land.

Liberia is preparing for national consultations on the next National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), which UNDP stands ready to support. There is a need to engage all levels of government, forest-dependent people, stakeholders, non-governmental organizations, academia, women, youth, and local communities to ensure that the strategy reflects a broad national perspective and consensus. It is also important to take stock and deeply reflect on the last NBSAP on what has been achieved and what is yet to be realized. For example, while past and current efforts by the government and people of Liberia to conserve biodiversity are commendable, the expected results and deliverables have not been entirely forthcoming.

Going forward, the following recommendations from Liberia’s most recent State of the Environment Report (2007-2018) are worth considering:

  • Ensure that environmental plans and policies, such as the NBSAP are integrated into the overall national development plan so that the whole of government is involved in managing and safeguarding the country’s rich environmental resources which are also vital economic assets.
  • The formulation of the new NBSAP should be backed by a comprehensive enforceable regulatory framework that balances biodiversity conservation with the need to harness the country’s immense natural resources for the implementation of the pro-poor agenda for prosperity and development. This means mechanisms for shared responsibility among Liberia’s ministries, agencies, and commissions must be designed to ensure coordinated planning, control, and implementation of the country’s biodiversity hotspots.
  • The adoption of an economic approach to the valuation of forests and woodlands to ensure that informed decisions on the country’s natural resources are made when signing foreign investment agreements.
  • Tree planting trees outside natural forests to ease pressure on them.

As a leader in regional biodiversity conservation, Liberia is well-positioned to drive global action, but it must ensure that its backyard is in order by halting the depletion of biodiversity and forests. This would further enable the country to rally development partners and the international community to invest in biodiversity conservation and protection in Liberia.

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