Two Distant Countries Face Similar Forest Protection Challenges — and Solutions

This is the second post in Human Nature’s three-part “From the Ground Up” blog series, which spotlights a few of the ways CI is scaling up our work to have the global conservation impact we need. Read the previous post. 

East Nimba Nature Reserve.

CI-Liberia’s Borwen Sayon looking over East Nimba Nature Reserve. (© CI/photo by Bailey Evans)

For the past 17 years, I have been working on land-use planning and protected area management with communities in Guyana, the country I call home.

Over this time I have gained a vast amount of experience, having been involved in the successful design and implementation of the Kanuku Mountain Protected Area and establishment of Guyana’s first community-owned protected area. I have also learned from the many challenges we have faced, such as community access to resources, community capacity, governance and leadership, and indeed our own financial and staff limitations.

I recently had an exciting opportunity to use my experiences and skills to help a sister program on the continent from which my ancestors came: Africa.

The idea for this collaboration first came about in Lima, Peru, during a regional meeting of the Americas division. Dr. David Singh, CI-Guyana’s country director, and I were having a discussion over lunch with a colleague visiting from CI’s headquarters. Our colleague expressed the challenges CI-Liberia was having finding people with sufficient knowledge to plan the sustainable management of a very important region of the country: northern Nimba County.

local girls in Nimba County, Liberia

CI-Liberia’s work in the northern Nimba region with ArcelorMittal includes outreach at the Nimba County Community College and with communities around East Nimba Nature Reserve. (© CI/photo by Heidi Ruffler)

We ended that conversation expressing how great it would be if there was some way to use our experience in Guyana to assist with the Liberia project — with little hope or expectation that it would be realized. A chance follow-up conversation between the directors of CI’s Guyana and Liberia programs sometime later cemented the collaboration.

Although Guyana and Liberia are far from each other — on different continents, home to different groups of people, different species and ecosystems — they have a lot in common.

Both countries are tropical; they lie about the same distance from the equator; and they are still largely covered by forest. Both are home to many rural and indigenous communities who maintain strong connections with and depend on these forests and other natural ecosystems for survival and livelihood. In recent years, both countries have developed economies based largely on agriculture and extraction of timber and minerals. And both are now global advocates for pursuing development in a manner that keeps their forests standing.

Given the expanding role of mining in Liberia, CI recognizes the need to work with extractive companies to protect the most important natural areas and minimize damage. CI-Liberia has a partnership with ArcelorMittal, one of the largest steel companies in the world, to assist the company with its environmental management programs in Liberia — particularly in northern Nimba County, where the company operates a mine. CI-Liberia supports the company in implementing initiatives to protect the unique species in this part of the Upper Guinean Forests Hotspot, such as the Nimba otter shrew and the Nimba flycatcher, and to improve the livelihoods of the local communities.

Central to the strategy is enabling sustainable development within the region, balancing conservation, commercial and community interest and needs. This can be done through the creation of an integrated land-use plan in a manner that includes participation by communities, government officials and business owners in the county, which is Liberia’s second most populous.

To help CI-Liberia meet this challenge, we aim to apply what we learned in Guyana about the best ways to enable collective decision-making on resource management by diverse groups of people.

village in Nimba County, Liberia

A village in Nimba County, Liberia. Communities like this depend heavily on nearby forests for survival. (© CI/photo by Curtis Bernard)

This collaboration goes beyond the mere provision of advice and the sharing of knowledge. To be successful, the collaboration required that I essentially become part of the CI-Liberia team to immerse myself in the work at hand. This is a role for which my ancestry seems to have prepared me well; I had to explain to almost everyone I met in Liberia that my nationality was actually placed across the Atlantic.

This was my first time setting foot in Africa. Though I was eager to share what I have learnt in Guyana, I was worried about being of value to the team and situation in Liberia.

My fears began to disappear quickly as I met with CI partners in Monrovia, and vanished completely upon meeting Borwen and Renee, CI-Liberia’s staff members who work closely with communities in Nimba. My visit had many highlights, including discussing concerns and challenges with community leaders in their villages, sharing with students of the local community college and the general warmth and friendship of the Liberian people I met.

The major concerns and challenges of communities in Nimba are very similar to those of the indigenous communities in Guyana, though the scales are vastly different.

In Guyana, communities that I have had the pleasure to work with often struggle to chart their development in a manner that maintains the ample natural bounty that is still available in many parts of the country. In Nimba, communities are working to secure access to the ever-dwindling natural areas that remain in the county. However, underlying both situations is the need to sustain nature for the daily benefits and services it provides to all people.

CI has great strength in the wealth of experience, talent and expertise we employ around the globe, both within our programs and through our partners. Having participated in several other initiatives involving the exchanging of CI’s experience from one region to another, I am convinced that this level of collaboration presents the organization with a large comparative advantage.

I believe that exchanges such as this are essential for successful realization of our global mission to secure nature for the benefit of people everywhere. I look forward to seeing what’s next for Liberia.

Curtis Bernard is the technical manager of CI-Guyana. Read all posts in our “From the Ground Up” series. 


  1. Borwen Sayon says

    This is awesome!!! Many thanks to the Curtis Bernard and the entire CI communications team. Once more..the need for people to co-exist with nature in a well designed and managed framework from the landscape perspective cannot be over emphasized!!!

    Thanks Curtis and I hope to see you again in the soonest poosible time to continue the impact you have started making in the Liberia Program!!!

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