Environmental Foundation for Africa, Communities Restore Tiwai Island

In Focus, February 2003

While long sought-after peace has arrived in Sierra Leone, reconstruction poses new challenges to a country already ravaged by a decade of civil war. Now, hundreds of thousands are returning home to pick up the pieces. The challenge of reconstruction is obvious and looms large. Less obvious, but at the fore as well, is the need to guard against further environmental damage as individuals, families and the country rebuild.

While there are signs of reconstruction everywhere and therefore hope for a better future, the country's ecosystems and natural resource base, already very much depleted, are now facing further pressure from the growing influx of returnees and refugees.

"In the agriculture sector, thousands of acres of land are being cleared for subsistence farming activities," says Cecilia Utas of the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA), which has worked with refugee and returnee communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as in villages and communities in Sierra Leone to rehabilitate areas damaged by mining and deforestation.

"In the northern, eastern and southern regions, thousands of people are going back to traditional artisanal diamond mining. All the stakeholders—government, civil society, NGOs and donor agencies—need to understand that failure to invest in the environmental sector at this crucial turning point in Sierra Leone's history will undermine all collective effort for sustainable development."

Together with local communities, EFA launched a project in May 2002 to restore Tiwai Island in southern Sierra Leone as a model for protected area management and community development. The three-year project is supported by CEPF as part of its strategy for the Upper Guinean Forest in the Guinean Forests of West Africa biodiversity hotspot. Its also a major part of EFA's strategy to assist communities in promoting conservation and protecting environmentally sensitive areas that are being increasingly threatened by returnee settlements mushrooming across Sierra Leone, particularly in the south and east.

The 12-square-kilometer island is located in the Moa River between the Koya and Barri chiefdoms on either side of the river. The two chiefdoms share the island and include the villages of Kambama and Mapuma, which have direct access to the island. Several returnee communities have also been established in the immediate vicinity of the island.

Prior to the outbreak of civil war in 1990, Tiwai Island had gained recognition for its contribution to ecological research, training, ecotourism opportunities and participatory conservation. Designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1987 and still the country's only official protected area, Tiwai Island was then home to the country's first operational field research station, hosting students from the University of Sierra Leone, City University of New York, the University of Miami, University College London and others.

Tiwai Island, which means Big Island in the local Mende language, was emerging as a successful model of sound conservation management that accommodated human needs and created opportunities to benefit communities, according to EFA. The Tiwai Island Administrative Committee, the main governing body for the island, included representatives of the universities, Forestry Department, a local NGO and the communities. A management plan was completed in 1988 but yet to be implemented when the civil conflict erupted and forced suspension of all research and conservation programs.

EFA first became aware of poaching problems on the island during field visits in 2000. Since then, EFA staff members have worked with the two chiefdoms to revive hopes for restoration of the wildlife sanctuary. Following community meetings, the section chiefs of both chiefdoms imposed a ban on all hunting activities on the island and formed an interim project committee to mobilize the restoration efforts.

Now as part of the CEPF-funded project, EFA, Njala University College and community members are at work reopening trails and reconstructing the research center and a campsite for up to 10 researchers and 30 visitors at a time. The project includes activities to build awareness among returnees and other community members about sustainable resource management and capacity building for community members through literacy programs and skills training for income generation and practical techniques in nature conservation.

However, even as community support grows for the project, day-to-day needs and expectations about the project's benefits pose serious challenges. In a meeting in Kambama village, where many people are poor and relied on the forested island for their daily survival, one man said:

"Tiwai Island is like a ripe banana and we people around this area are very hungry. You are telling us to keep this banana for now and future generations but what would you give us while we are taking care of the banana for you?"

EFA Founder and Director Tommy Garnett says the immediate needs of community members is a major challenge, particularly as farming activities and, more recently, a lot of hunting and even some logging were taking place on the island before the project launched.

"The problem is that only a relatively small percentage of people can get involved at this point while in the future, when the island is restored and people are visiting, a lot more people can get involved and will benefit," Garnett said.

"The solution in between is to continue as best we can to involve community members in every way possible and to keep the promises we make," he said. "We said there would be training for women and we are doing it, we said there would be education and there is. We need to find ways to generate small incentives as outputs from the larger project. And we will continue to talk, educate, raise awareness and hope that in just a few months time, more people will begin to benefit."

In the meantime, the Tiwai Island Administrative Committee has been revived and includes community representation. With proper capacity building during the project, it will be fully responsible for the management of the facilities on Tiwai Island.