After Liberia’s civil war ended, the country overhauled its forestry laws, including passing legislation that gave impoverished rural communities the right to manage large tracts of rainforest.The reforms were part of the international community’s postwar reconstruction agenda, and donors have spent millions of dollars helping to implement them.Some of the new “community forests” were set up in the remote northern Nimba county, one of the densest biodiversity hotspots in West Africa.In 2019, a Swiss-Russian mining company arrived in one of them with a dubious exploration permit, exposing cracks in the reforms and raising questions about their future. Liberia’s Nimba county lies about an eight-hour drive north of the capital, Monrovia. In the dry season, the road leading into the far-flung region kicks up swirling clouds of red dust. Once the rains come, stretches turn into a near impassable moat of knee-high mud, enveloped on either side by dense jungles that chirp and buzz with the sounds of wildlife. At the county’s northern edge, the Nimba Range’s jagged green peaks crisscross the horizon before spilling over the border into neighboring Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. Nestled among the mountains are lush valleys with rainforests that contain some of the rarest species of wildlife on the planet, including tool-using western chimpanzees, the diminutive pygmy hippopotamus, and the Nimba toad — the only toad that gives birth to live young. The area is near-mythical for conservationists. In 1981, a sprawling 17,540-hectare (43,340-acre) strict nature reserve on the Guinean and Ivorian side of the border was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. While the Nimba Range is renowned for its biodiversity and pristine forests, it’s also home to a different type of natural wealth. Some of the largest and most lucrative deposits of iron ore are peppered throughout the mountains, making it a magnet for mining companies from around the world. Before Liberia descended into civil war in 1990, Nimba was home to LAMCO, a Swedish-U.S. iron-mining company that was one of Liberia’s flagship foreign investments, bringing in a sizable chunk of the small country’s revenue for decades. The ruins of movie theaters and swimming pools built for its foreign staff’s pseudo-colonial headquarters still stand as monuments to that era. Now, the area where LAMCO once operated is under the control of another mining company, the international steel giant ArcelorMittal, which signed a 25-year deal with the Liberian government in 2005. Liberian towns and villages dot the surrounding area; some large, with a few thousand people in a roadside settlement, others smaller and more remote, requiring foot travel through winding forest paths to reach. Over the past decade, people living in some of those towns have been participating in a progressive experiment in rainforest management that represents a radical break with Liberia’s past. For most of the country’s history, forests were de facto cash machines for well-connected elites in big cities, who handed out logging permits to investors with little thought given to the people who lived inside those forests. But after Liberia’s war ended, a series of laws were passed that gave rural communities the right to apply for permits that empowered them to act as the legal managers of the forests where they’d traditionally hunted, farmed and fished. For the first time, towns that acquired a “community forest” permit would have real decision-making power: any logging company that wanted to extract timber would have to pass through the community first. And a large chunk of the profits, which previously had gone directly into government coffers, would be paid into a fund managed by the community. When it was passed, it was among the most progressive forestry laws in Africa. USAID and other donors poured tens of millions of dollars into the nascent system, believing that with the right support, some communities might be guided toward forest conservation rather than commercial timber extraction. In 2011, one of the first permits was issued to the Blei community, a cluster of towns near the base of the Nimba mountains. Blei was among a handful of community forests that were seen as a laboratory for the new system. For 10 years, the community leaders who’d been elected to manage Blei’s 614-hectare (1,517-acre) forest were trained and supported by USAID consultants, ArcelorMittal’s social engagement division, and government officials in charge of forestry. In exchange, Blei’s residents agreed to a conservation management plan: hunters and farmers would stay out of parts of the forest that were biodiversity hotspots, and donors would fund alternative livelihood programs to offset the income and sustenance losses. On paper, Blei was a success story, signaling that community forestry could work with the right commitment and support. Then, in 2019, a mining company arrived.