I’ve been to Liberia numerous times over the past several years; however, my visit last December promised to be different. I was part of a CI team hosting a workshop on a particular approach to community-level conservation and development that simply would not have been possible until now.
When I started working in Liberia in 2004, the country was focused on recovering from nearly a decade and a half of civil war. Now, the government of Liberia is focused on economic development and jobs for its people, which necessarily involve an emphasis on exploitation of natural resources ranging from mineral ores to land for forestry and commercial plantations. CI is committed to ensuring that the ecosystem value of Liberia’s wealth of biodiversity and forests— almost half of the remaining forest in West Africa’s Upper Guinea Hotspot — is considered in the country’s development planning.
2012 will be a big year for conservation and economic development in Liberia, and CI is poised to play a vital role in shaping the way that these two arenas interact. Our partnerships with the national government, the private sector and civil society allow us to advance cutting-edge thinking on how to maintain healthy ecosystems as the foundation for human well-being.
However, to convince the people of Liberia that this is possible, we will need to turn nature’s value into concrete benefits for families. We need to bridge the gap between abstract mechanisms like forest carbon deals, biodiversity offsets, or spatial planning and people’s everyday lives. CI-Liberia proposes to do so using conservation agreements — an approach developed by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.
Conservation agreements promote sound management of biodiversity and ecosystem services — freshwater provision, pollination and many more — through negotiated arrangements with resource users.
Under such an agreement, a local community commits to conservation actions such as maintaining forest cover in important habitat areas and monitoring to detect illegal poaching. In return, conservation investors (which can be governments, companies or any source of conservation finance) provide funds to address the community’s self-defined needs and priorities, which typically include things like school fees, educational materials and investments to improve agriculture or other livelihoods. NGOs like CI play an important role as brokers that make these agreements possible by engaging communities, designing monitoring systems and generally taking care of the nuts and bolts of the deal.
Back to my December visit: to set the stage for using conservation agreements in Liberia, CI hosted over 20 people from local NGOs, government agencies and private sector partners in a training workshop.
For three days, participants learned about how CI has used conservation agreements in places like China, South Africa and Guatemala, and discussed details of how it could be used in Liberia. To dive into those details, we worked through a series of exercises to become familiar with key steps like using biodiversity threats to define conservation actions, identifying development investments that would make good community benefits, and thinking through ways to monitor project impacts.
Everyone at the workshop quickly embraced the idea of conservation agreements and began to think about how this tool would work in Liberia. Government staff see the model as a way to include local communities in co-management of nature reserves; private sector partners are keen to use conservation agreements to structure their relationships with communities; and local NGOs are eager to use this tool to achieve conservation and development objectives.
On the final day of the workshop we held a panel discussion to reflect on how the conservation agreement approach can be scaled up to the national level following demonstrations planned in Nimba and Grand Bassa counties. The variety of economic activities throughout the country — timber concessions, mining, offshore oil and gas development and commercial plantations, as well as carbon initiatives and landscape conservation — presents an opportunity for many different potential applications for conservation agreements.
The workshop generated much energy and enthusiasm from the participants and the trainers. One participant said, “It gave me a lot to think about … and I learned a lot I can use in my day-to-day to experience with the community.” Another agreed: “The training provided ideas about how to engage communities in designing a simple and satisfactory conservation agreement.”
For my part, I was thrilled to see that more than 20 people of highly varied backgrounds and perspectives were unanimous in their optimism and confidence regarding prospects for a national program of conservation agreements. We are now eager to move to the next phase, which will be to conduct feasibility assessments for conservation agreements with specific communities around the East Nimba Nature Reserve and the region around the port city of Buchanan.
Eduard Niesten is the senior director of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program. Many thanks to Borwen Sayon and Jessica Donovan-Allen of CI-Liberia both for organizing the workshop and contributing to this blog.