To a country on the edge of development, what is nature worth?


Editor’s note: Conservation News is exploring the complexities of living in, using and protecting one of the planet’s most valuable types of ecosystems — tropical forests — in a series we’re calling “No forest, no future.”

The intensity of light in the tropics makes everything brighter. In Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, women wear loud printed dresses and carry multicolored packages through crowded marketplaces. Driving from Monrovia to Liberia’s countryside,
city streets transform into dense green vegetation that, if left unchecked, will strangle buildings within months. Further from the city, thick stands of trees crowd the road, punctuated by occasional small villages and garden plots. In some places,
the forest has been replaced by uniform rows of tall, straight trees: rubber plantations. In others, it opens up to a sea of dark green fronds: oil palm.

I was in the small West African country as part of a team tasked with mapping and valuing the country’s “natural capital” — the biodiversity and ecosystems that provide benefits (such as food, water, energy and raw materials) to people and the economy. Due to its
heartbreaking history of civil conflict and the recent Ebola epidemic, very little research on Liberia’s natural ecosystems has been possible since the 1980s. In previous projects mapping important areas in Madagascar, Cambodia and Amazonia,
our team often had to struggle to piece together information from multiple sources. Liberia presented a new set of challenges: To document nature use and loss in a country with little recent data, where do you begin?

A unique conservation opportunity

Here’s what we do know: Liberia holds some of West Africa’s last intact forests, whose diverse vegetation provides some of the continent’s best remaining habitat for threatened species such as the western chimpanzee, forest elephant and pygmy hippo. Liberia is also less densely populated than many of its neighbors. Together, these factors have created an opportunity for conservation unparalleled anywhere in

But Liberia’s people are poor — the country ranks 226th in the world in terms of GDP per capita — and suffer from extremely high levels of food insecurity. The civil war destroyed roads, bridges, the country’s water system and energy infrastructure. Today, 95 percent of people do not have electricity, and 61 percent lack access to
clean water. In Monrovia, hotels, apartments and offices are fueled by diesel generators, at a staggering cost: The price for a hotel room, a restaurant meal or a one-bedroom apartment is on par with Washington, D.C., even though data indicates that
more than 63 percent of Liberians live under the poverty line.

Despite a lot of foreign aid and heroic efforts to rebuild, few paved roads exist. When it rains, dirt roads swallow trucks up to their axles; much of the country is therefore inaccessible for much of the year, cutting off access to markets, emergency
services, schools and the few health centers that remain. The country also has very little agriculture. In the cities, food is imported at astronomical prices. In rural areas, food is grown in small plots, hunted from the forest or fished from the
sea. In summary, the country is desperately in need of development.

Cash-poor Liberia is nature-rich. Over 70 percent of the population is dependent on forests for their food and livelihoods. Bushmeat
— wild-caught meat — is still commonly consumed, even in the city, and is the primary source of protein for many rural people. Without electricity, most Liberians rely on wood or charcoal for cooking. Along the coast, fisheries provide
protein and income for a large proportion of the people. Mangrove ecosystems along Liberia’s coast provide fish nurseries, as well as shrimp, crabs and oysters that sustain local communities. They also stabilize the coastline, reducing erosion
and slowing flood waters.

Liberia’s government is desperately searching for a way to meet the food, income and energy needs of its people. Ideally, this will be done sustainably, in line with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. But the economic, political and social pressure to develop is intense. The question is not “Should Liberia develop?” — because it will — but “Where
should the development be located?” and “Can it be sustainable?”

In this context, Conservation International (CI), the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency, the Forestry Development Authority and other agencies are collaborating to map and account for the value of Liberia’s natural capital. Little information
exists on the economic value of nature in Liberia — the contribution of ecosystems to its fisheries sector, for example, or the income generated by forest products. In order to plan for sustainable development, the Liberian government needs
to know where its most valuable natural areas are, how much of them is left and what they are worth.

Mapping Liberia’s most essential ecosystems

In 2016, I joined a team of scientists and staff from CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and CI Liberia in conducting a pilot project to identify and map which ecosystems are essential for sustaining human well-being and economic activity
in the country.

Because this was a short-term project, we were unable to conduct on-the-ground research. Therefore we had to rely on existing data. Luckily, there is recent data on Liberia’s land cover (forests and other ecosystems); biodiversity (chimpanzees,
large mammals and trees); and hydrology (river discharge and precipitation). Little data exists on recent deforestation, however, or human use and demand for forest products, fisheries or other natural resources. In some cases (deforestation) we were
able to fill gaps with global datasets and computer modeling; in other cases (fisheries), there is no replacement for actual data.

Here are some things we’ve learned:

1. Liberia’s most valuable natural capital is concentrated in the northwest and southeast of the country.

Liberia’s most essential natural capital for forest carbon, freshwater ecosystem services and biodiversity is concentrated in two relatively intact forest regions in the northwest and southeast of the country. According to global estimates, Liberia
has some of the highest above-ground stocks of forest carbon in the world — higher even than in Amazonia. These forests have so far
been spared from development due to their remoteness. However, only 6 percent of Liberia’s closed-canopy forests are currently within designated protected areas.

Liberia’s timber industry employs a large workforce, provide as much as half of export revenues and contributes roughly 11 percent of Liberia’s GDP. Timber concessions overlap with the most intact and biodiversity-rich natural forests in Liberia,
however, so it is important that development in this sector is sustainable.

Proposed protected areas, if enacted, would result in protection of 21 percent of Liberia’s densest forests, which is still below the government goal of 30 percent forest protection. Our results indicate that forested areas in Lofa and Nimba counties
in northern Liberia, which have high carbon stocks as well as high vulnerability to future deforestation, might be good candidates for initiatives that compensate communities for keeping forest standing. Additional research on the ground is needed to validate our findings, however.

2. Many of Liberia’s most important natural areas are unprotected.

We found that designated protected areas capture around 7 percent of Liberia’s essential natural capital for biodiversity, carbon, fresh water and coastal protection. If proposed protected areas were established, they would bring the total to 26
percent. While this would represent tremendous progress, the vast majority — between 74 percent and 93 percent — of Liberia’s essential natural capital would still fall outside of formal protected areas, making it vulnerable to destruction.

Among other impacts, inadequate protection has led to people unsustainably hunting in forests, threatening the future of species even within protected areas. We found that current protected areas only include around 9 percent of Liberia’s biodiversity
priority areas. If proposed protected areas were established, 33 percent of biodiversity priority areas would be preserved; however, this would still collectively only protect 25 percent of Liberia’s chimpanzees and other large mammals. Small-scale
clearing for subsistence agriculture, as well as large-scale timber concessions, also threaten to degrade these forest patches. In some areas, oil palm concessions also overlap with essential areas for biodiversity and fresh water.

3. Expansion of oil palm plantations may pose the biggest threat to Liberia’s remaining natural forests.

The economic opportunity represented by palm oil is huge.
It could bring jobs and income that would contribute to the national economy and transform communities. But developing palm oil sustainably is difficult — perhaps impossible — in a country with so much remaining intact forest. Any new
development requires clearing standing forest, which is in conflict with the palm oil sector’s sustainability standards.

Our maps of recent tree-cover loss highlight palm oil and rubber concessions that have been cleared – on the map below, they appear as red patches surrounded by green forest. Our analyses indicate that areas around existing oil palm and rubber plantations
have the highest vulnerability to future clearing. 

CI is working with the government, the palm oil sector, local communities and partner NGOs to develop alternative production models that seek to balance community development needs with conservation and sustainable management. But if responsible companies
cannot develop palm oil sustainably and profitably, they may choose to leave Liberia. In a country where employment and development is desperately needed, concessions may be turned over to less responsible companies, or cleared for charcoal production,
small-scale agriculture or other uses by communities with no other options. With so many scenarios at play, the future is uncertain.

Next steps

If Liberia is to achieve its sustainable development goals, a multitude of other management strategies such as community conservation agreements, payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes, REDD+ or other creative solutions are needed to ensure the flow of benefits from natural capital is sustained.

In December 2016, we shared our maps and results with representatives from the Liberian government, palm oil companies, civil society organizations and universities — and we all agreed that there’s a lot more to be done.

In the coming years, CI and the Liberian government plan to collaborate on a more complete accounting of Liberia’s natural capital, focusing on coastal ecosystems such as mangrove forests, which are often ignored in decision-making because of their
small size compared with terrestrial forests. But declining to protect these ecosystems is a mistake, given their disproportionate significance in providing food and coastal protection, as well as soil carbon stocks that dwarf those of terrestrial

As one of the world’s most forested countries, Liberia has a choice to make: to view its nature as a resource to be used today or as an investment in the future. These maps, as well as future research, will help ensure that decision-makers make
the best choices possible now and in the future.

Data for the biodiversity component of this study were provided by Jessica Junker, the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and the Government of Liberia.

Rachel Neugarten is the director of conservation priority setting and a Lui-Walton Innovators Fellow in CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science.

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