Liberia is a biodiversity hotspot, with 35 percent of the country designated as exceptionally high priority for conservation.
The West African nation has seen an expansion of its palm oil sector in recent years, as the government has granted massive concessions to foreign companies to plant palm oil plantations.
Only 1.3 percent of the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget has been designated for checking up on the industry’s environmental impact, which officials say isn’t enough for proper monitoring.
Liberia has seen an expansion of its palm oil sector in recent years, as the government has granted massive concessions to foreign companies to plant palm oil plantations. This often involves clearing local forests. As the expansion of the palm oil sector continues in Liberia, some are concerned that the nation may not have the capacity to protect its environment through the process.
Liberia is a biodiversity hotspot. In 1999, a group of more than 150 scientists met in Accra, Ghana, and identified Liberia as the highest priority country in the region for conservation, with over 35 percent of the entire country identified as exceptionally high priority. But compared to its neighbors, Liberia has the least area under strict protection of nature reserves or natural parks.
The Upper Guinean Forest, of which Liberia has the highest portion of any nation, stretches from western Togo to Sierra Leone. This area has been considered a biodiversity hotspot due to high levels of endemism, species rarity and the extreme, pending threats facing the forest’s survival. It is believed that only 10 percent of what once was the Upper Guinean Forest remains today. Liberia is home to the West African chimpanzee, the forest elephant, the pygmy hippopotamus, the Liberian mongoose, and the endemic and critically endangered Liberian greenbul (Phyllastrephus leucolepis), among other creatures. Liberia receives the most intense rainfall in West Africa, giving the country’s lowland forests a great floral diversity–which are also suspected to harbor endemic plant species, though there has never been an official vegetation survey conducted in these areas.
A primary problem in moving forward with the large-scale concessions is that the country has no idea what they stand to lose, according to Theo Freeman, technical manager of conservation at the Forest Development Authority. A national biodiversity survey has not been conducted in the country for decades, so there isn’t a clear idea on the number of certain species left in specific areas of the country. There have only been small-scale surveys. Because of this, there is a chance that land granted for commercial purposes could contain the habitat of an endangered species. Freeman said that Liberia is in urgent need of funding and research support to help support conservation.
“We need to do a survey to know where [the species] are and their status,” he said. “We expect our partners to come in fully with funding. If this doesn’t happen I am afraid these endangered and threatened species we have now will be wiped away before we know that they existed…. Not many countries in the sub region still have elephants. If we don’t protect it now, our children will only see the pictures.”
The country has about 10.6 million acres of forest, covering about 40 percent of its total land area. The Reformed Forestry Law of 2006 has mandated that 30 percent of this, or about 3.7 million acres, be set aside for conservation. Currently the country has less than 10 percent put aside for conservation, and is currently working on a few more sites around the country that could lift that figure to about 15 percent. The process of setting these sites aside is a slow one, said Freeman. As far as promoting the country as a tourist site, which would both help protect the forests and educate the people about its importance, there has been no political will, he said. One issue is the poor quality of roads. It can take multiple days to travel to some areas of the country, in a small nation of only about 60,000 square miles – about the same size as the U.S. state of Georgia.
In September 2014, the governments of Norway and Liberia announced a $150 million partnership to halt the destruction of Liberian rainforest, primarily from logging. The nation had two brutal civil wars that broke out between 1989 and 2003. Timber revenues were used during that time to fund warlord Charles Taylor’s regime. In response to this agreement, international advocacy organization Global Witness expressed concern that “the deal could open the door to new agriculture investors, like oil palm companies, some of which have a record of felling forests and grabbing community lands.”
The top palm oil producing companies in Liberia – Sime Darby, Golden Veroleum Liberia and Equatorial Palm Oil – are members of an international body, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. In May, the organization announced that it would work on strengthening the voluntary guidelines on deforestation. Indonesia and Malaysia are the top palm oil producers internationally, but they have been criticized for the role they have played in deforestation in those countries.
One of the primary government agencies tasked with monitoring the environmental impact of the new palm oil concessions in Liberia is the Liberian Environmental Protections Agency (EPA). The agency’s budget for the 2013/2014 fiscal year was just $1.2 million. That is just 1.3 percent of the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget of $94.8 million, which is the agency that is pushing for the expansion of the industry. Of the EPA’s budget, $995,000, or 83 percent, goes to compensation of employees.
“It’s woefully inadequate,” said Winsley Nanka, of the Liberian General Auditing Commission. “That underscores that we don’t attach much importance to the environmental issues.”
The EPA plays a role, before the concession is granted to a company, in monitoring the environmental impact assessment process. The company is mandated to conduct this survey before the concession is approved. The company must choose a contractor, trained by the EPA, to conduct the survey. The EPA then reviews the findings. The companies have stated that they aim to avoid High Conservation Value (HCV) areas, such as primary forests. The HCV network identifies areas that are biologically or socially very important to a region, a country, or the world.
The permit process can take typically around 90 days from submitting the application to receiving the permit from the EPA, if all goes smoothly. The agency goes through about 100 surveys per year, with about 12 people working at the EPA dedicated primarily to oversight of the survey process. Then the EPA becomes one of the agencies that monitors whether the companies follow through with the promises they’ve made for environmental preservation in their contract.
There are only about 200 EPA employees to do this job, according to Earl Neblett, assistant manager for Environmental and Social Impact Assessments at the EPA. “If you want to cover an entire country, you can’t with a budget of that size. The government still has to show more interest in the environment,” he said.
Neblett added that the minuscule budget serves as a bottleneck for the agency in its ability to properly monitor the country and provide better training in the surveys.
“Our forests will get depleted and communities will remain impoverished,” said executive director of Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia Thomas Doe Nah. “It makes no sense for our government to be exploiting our forests the way they are doing.”