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Unity in Action in Sierra Leone

In Focus, May 2006

By Evyenia Wilkins

Sierra Leone contains some of the last remnants of a highly biodiverse forest which once stretched across the whole of West Africa, featuring plant and animal species ranging from rare orchids to animals such as the Vulnerable pygmy hippopotamus (Hexaprotodon liberiensis) and Endangered red colobus monkey (Procolobus badius).

In the twentieth century, however, colonial exploitation of natural resources such as timber, diamonds, iron ore, and rutile, combined with post-independence civil conflict, ravaged vast areas of this part of the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot.

Recognizing the important role that these resources could play in fostering sustainable development and a healthy environment for the people who live there, a coalition of 15 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, and community-based groups combined their expertise to create the Environmental Forum for Action (ENFORAC).

ENFORAC’s founding members believed that through collaboration, local civil society organizations could more effectively impact developmental and environmental issues in Sierra Leone. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), whose strategy in the hotspot includes strengthening the institutional capacity of local civil society groups for conservation, provided funding to support this collaboration.

By bringing members together into one network and speaking with a common voice, ENFORAC has made it possible for national and international environmental organizations to better engage local civil society in conservation efforts. This forum is bringing hope for Sierra Leone’s forests, and is becoming a model for community collaboration throughout Africa and across the globe.

Coming Together

From its beginnings, ENFORAC has made international collaboration a priority. As early as October 2004, ENFORAC convened a conference to raise awareness of Sierra Leone’s environmental problems and identify national priorities for action by all stakeholders.

Sponsors of the conference included CEPF, the Food Security and International Services divisions of Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, a company owned by the German government dedicated to sustainable development, the United Nations Development Programme, the IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (IUCN NL), and others.

During the conference, ENFORAC members overwhelmingly agreed that the single biggest problem threatening not only an important ecosystem but also the people who live there is encroachment into the Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve, which borders Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

Conservation of the forest reserve is an urgent priority for Sierra Leone’s environment and development agenda.

During the war, Sierra Leoneans migrated in masses to Freetown, many settling within the reserve boundaries where they remain today. Coupled with economic growth and a lack of enforcement of forestry laws, the migration has led to intense human pressure on the reserve’s resources. The once-dense forest is quickly being reduced to dirt and stumps.

Deterioration of the Forest

"The forest used to be full of animals," said Edward Sesay, conservation education officer with the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA), a founding member of ENFORAC. "I now walk deep into the forest, up to two miles, and I don’t see any animals." Illegal timber harvesting and encroachment to make room for unplanned expansion of the capital have contributed to the loss of biodiversity.

Sesay, who has been instrumental in helping ENFORAC define priorities in the reserve, trained in conservation education through the CEPF-supported Rare Pride Campaign. He spent the last two and a half years working with local communities, using creative education techniques to explain the importance of the forest. One of his projects involved partnering with a local music academy to compose songs about the reserve.

The local communities are not the only ones affected by the loss of the forest. No one can hide from the repercussions of unsustainable land management on the peninsula.

Because the forest can no longer capture the plentiful rain falling over Freetown Peninsula, the dams in the reserve are rapidly drying up, leaving Freetown’s 1.8 million inhabitants with major water shortages. The forested hills surrounding the city have been reduced to a barren landscape, and dangerous mudslides threaten thousands of homes.

Based on the discussions and recommendations at the conference, a comprehensive action plan was developed for the reserve, identifying priorities for reversing forest destruction and environmental degradation, and empowering ENFORAC to spearhead these activities.

Strengthening ENFORAC

After the conference and with continued support from CEPF, ENFORAC established a secretariat and hired a full-time coordinator for one year. The CEPF grant also provided funding for an Internet café and library resources to support communication and the exchange of information among ENFORAC members.

ENFORAC’s program of work to protect the reserve has identified priority activities such as advocating for a review of law enforcement and policies governing the reserve. Re-demarcating the reserve’s boundaries – long ignored by the government and local communities – is also an urgent priority.

To carry out the work, ENFORAC, with leveraged support from IUCN NL, is building its capacity to create high-quality, powerful communication tools, such as video documentaries, to demonstrate the forest’s importance to government officials and the public. A video-editing lab provided by IUCN NL was set up at EFA’s office alongside the Internet café and resource center.

Finding financial support to protect the forest and alleviate some of the underlying causes of the intense pressure on the reserve is also a top priority.

Two of the ideas that emerged from a collective project development training ENFORAC hosted last year, with support from IUCN NL and the Development Cooperation Ireland (now known as Irish Aid), are providing employment to Freetown’s large youth population through the sustainable harvest of fuel wood and creating a youth conservation corps.

Benefits of Unity in Action

On the national stage, ENFORAC creates a place for local NGOs to engage partners previously beyond their grasp. For example, the executive commissioner of the government of Sierra Leone’s newly formed National Commission for Environment and Forestry (NaCEF) works directly with ENFORAC, sharing ideas and collaborating on key funding opportunities.

For NaCEF, ENFORAC represents a critical body of expertise and knowledge especially when it comes to working in the forest with the local communities.

Chris Squire, executive commissioner of NaCEF, sees the value of the collaboration. "NaCEF really values its open relationship with ENFORAC. By engaging the forum, NaCEF has a direct line to all the major nongovernmental environment players in the country."

It is no surprise that NaCEF sees ENFORAC as a vital ally. When little was being done to address environmental problems in Sierra Leone, the national NGOs, many now members of ENFORAC, were educating communities and protecting the remaining forest.

Beyond strategic planning, ENFORAC has the technical capacity to assist with the direct implementation of environmental projects throughout Sierra Leone such as the rehabilitation of degraded mining areas while generating income for local communities.

IUCN NL is funding a study that is being conducted by ENFORAC members (including EFA and Sierra Leone’s two universities, Njala University and Fourah Bay College) with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the United Kingdom to investigate socially and environmentally responsible bauxite and rutile mining in the country.

The study, which concludes in August 2006, has already leveraged financial support from the Darwin Initiative and Sierra Rutile Limited, the mining company working with the researchers, to implement a 36-month project that promises to revolutionize the way mining is conducted in Sierra Leone well into the future. ENFORAC will continue to play an active role in the implementation of this project.

Meeting Challenges Head On

Working together is not always easy, however. Support for environmental projects can be hard to come by, and individual NGOs initially were concerned that sharing ideas with each other might mean losing out on financing opportunities.

The challenge lies in bringing together previous competitors and demonstrating the value of dedicating time and resources to seek consensus and advocate for the environment from one platform.

ENFORAC has faced these obstacles head on, including holding its first elections in October 2005. EFA was elected chair for two years, and the Union of Environment Journalists was elected vice chair, recognizing the critical need for public awareness raising. The Conservation Society of Sierra Leone was elected treasurer.

The democratic elections and signing of a forum constitution signified ENFORAC’s formal launch, announcing it as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to environmental issues in Sierra Leone.

"I hope that this forum will be a blueprint for other sectors to emulate," said Aisha Josiah, the national coordinator of the Sierra Leone Association of Nongovernmental Organizations, who presided over the elections.

Since the elections, two new members have joined ENFORAC’s ranks, including the Community Advocacy and Development Movement, which brings grassroots environmental and social justice expertise.

Taking Collaboration to a Higher Level

ENFORAC also forms part of a regional network of national coalitions who recognize that if West Africa’s biodiversity and ecosystems are going to survive, they must find common ground and draw international attention to the region now.

In January 2006, with support from IUCN NL, the regional network of environmental NGOs, known as the Green Actors of West Africa (GAWA) met in Ouagadougou to get to know each other’s initiatives and identify regional priorities.

With ENFORAC representatives playing a decisive role in the proceedings, exchanging competencies and undertaking collaborative advocacy campaigns emerged as the key to protecting the environment across West Africa.

"GAWA is like a security guard for West Africa’s nature. To be effective, our efforts must be coordinated. But more importantly, we first have to believe in working together," said Tommy Garnett, director of EFA, chairman of ENFORAC, and GAWA member.

Networks are sometimes criticized as simply venues for talking that rarely demonstrate results. But in West Africa, and especially in Sierra Leone, ENFORAC has presented an opportunity to move beyond differences and conflict to strengthen nationwide civil society efforts to conserve important ecosystems.

Garnett is convinced of the impact of this unity in action: "Civil society, under the umbrella of ENFORAC, is influencing important decisions on environment at the national level and beyond."

For more information:

To find out more about CEPF’s work in this hotspot, visit the Guinean Forests of West Africa section of our site.

Visit the News & Feature Archive for the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot.

Evyenia Wilkins is a project development consultant for the Environmental Foundation for Africa. She is based in Sierra Leone.

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Tell a Friend About CEPF

The Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve borders beautiful beaches just outside Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Illegal logging is just one of the many pressures on the Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve.

A national conference, held in October 2004, was supported by CEPF and others to draw attention to the importance of a healthy environment for Sierra Leone.

ENFORAC played a key role in organizing an assessment workshop in April 2006 that reflected on CEPF's five-year investment in the region. Partners from 17 countries came together in Sierra Leone to assess the portfolio's impact, unresolved threats, and future priorities. IUCN also participated in this workshop and sponsored a separate panel discussion on nature and poverty. Workshop proceedings and reports will be available soon.

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