Liberia is exceptionally biodiverse, with high rates of endemism, recognized as one of the 14 centers of plant endemism globally is an important reservoir of biodiversity as it contains the majority of the remaining Upper Guinean Rainforest in West Africa, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
A landmark agreement, which seeks to protect Liberia’s rich forest biodiversity from threat has been reached between conservationists and community dwellers in forest areas.
The agreement provides legal tools to establish and manage protected areas and commitment to protecting 30% of the country’s forest, which is considered important in meeting the Paris Agreement’s central goal of holding global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times.
According to key actors working on biodiversity conservation and land issues is an essential milestone for promoting a people-centered approach to forest conservation.
Liberia is exceptionally biodiverse, with high rates of endemism, recognized as one of the 14 centers of plant endemism globally and is an important reservoir of biodiversity as it contains the majority of the remaining Upper Guinean Rainforest in West Africa, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
But this rich biodiversity is under constant threats from illegal and quasi-illegal logging, mining, and expansion of agro-industrial crop production. This threat saw more stakeholders interested in forest conservation and land rights coming together to find a rights-based approach to the establishment of protected and conserved areas (PCAs) while ensuring compliance with the Land Rights Act of 2018.
The agreement –known as the Gbehzohn Declaration –since it was signed in the port city of Grand Bassa County recognizes local communities as central to advancing the conservation of Liberia’s biodiversity.
The agreement committed the signatories to helping Liberia protect 30% of its forest beyond the creation of government-controlled protected areas; while respecting the right to free, prior, informed, consent of affected communities before the commencement of any new protected areas.
It also recognizes that community ownership of land designated for conservation within customary areas does not require possession of a separate deed.
The Gbehzohn Declaration comes as the passage of Liberia’s Land Rights Act in 2018 creates differences in opinion on the implementation of this law concerning the role of communities in the protected area establishment.
“We have to have the community at the center of our discussion. Our first responsibility is towards our citizens,” said Liberia Land Authority Chairman of Atty. J. Adams Manobah. “The Land Rights Law took years to pass and any amendments will take time. The best way to handle our differences if there are any is through regulations until such a time when we have the means and support to amend.”
At the signing of the Gbehzohn Declaration, the Managing Director of Forestry Development Authority, Mike Doryen noted that he has observed a paradigm shift, as communities are beginning to shift interests from commercial logging to the possibility of protecting their forests for potential carbon markets.
He added that partners who were skeptical about including other areas as part of the 30% that Liberia is supposed to set aside for conservation are also beginning to change this view.
“We can take this even further – whether private or community [land], once you protect your land and meet certain minimum basic standards, we can add that portion to the commitment we have already made,” Doryen said.
Meanwhile, Gbehzohn Declaration came out of a three-day three-day dialogue organized by Fauna & Flora International, in collaboration with the Forestry Development Authority and the Liberia Land Authority under the Conservation Area and Land Dialogue project which is funded by USAID at a value of US$ 19.5 million.