Liberia is exceptionally biodiverse, with high rates of endemism, recognised as one of the 14 centers of plant endemism globally . The country 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 . This hotspot contains 25% of all mammal species found in the continent of Africa, including 30 species of primates. The forest shelter populations of endangered pygmy hippopotamuses, western chimpanzees, red colobus monkeys, and several other threatened or endangered species .
Liberia has approximately 600,000 hectares of freshwater wetlands, which include habitats for many resident and migratory bird species. Five Liberian wetlands are officially Wetlands of International Importance, or Ramsar sites, though these receive limited or no protection. In addition, six species of mangroves can be found in Liberia, covering about 0.5% of the country’s total area. Wetlands and mangroves in the country provide valuable ecosystem services including flood protection and erosion control. Liberia’s beaches also provide important habitat and nesting grounds for sea turtles and other species .
Liberia’s land surface notably holds the most forested land in West Africa. As of 2015, forests make up 6.5 million hectares, equating to 68% of Liberia’s land surface, including tree crops such as palm oil, rubber, and cocoa. Of this, about 4.3 million hectares are categorized as tropical forest with over 80% of canopy cover. While, about 975,000 hectares are classified as degraded land (that is canopy cover under 30%) . The three types of forest in Liberia are: (i) Evergreen or mixed evergreen/semi-deciduous moist forests in western Liberia, characterized by a distinct dry season, with less than 100mm of rainfall a month (wooded plateaus); (ii) Wet evergreen forests in eastern Liberia, with a very short or absent dry season (tropical forest); and (iii) Sub-montane or montane forests, typically above elevations of 800-1,000 meters .
In the last three decades, more than any other time in Liberia’s history, poorly regulated human activities have significantly degraded most of the country’s ecosystems, resulting in an unprecedented loss of biodiversity . Taking the example of forests, data from the US Geological Survey (USGS) shows that primary tropical forests declined from 43.5% of the land area in 1975 to 36.82% in 2013, and that the annual average rate of deforestation more than doubled from the 1975-2000 period to the 2000-2013 period . From 2001 to 2018, Liberia lost 1.53 million hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 16% decrease since 2000 .
As of 2019, the total forested landscape covered by protected areas is about 449,861 hectares, which is about 10.5% of the total forested area of the country. For proposed protected areas, the estimate is 746,417 hectares or about 17.2% of the total forested area of the country. If the proposed protected areas are declared as protected areas, a total of 1,130,497 hectares or 26.1% of the forested area of Liberia would be under protection. As of 2019, there are five protected areas in Liberia, namely the Sapo National Park, Lake Piso Multiple Use Reserve, the East Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, the Gola Forest National Park and the Grebo-Krahn National Park, and eleven sites proposed for protection . More than 97% of Liberia’s total area falls outside of the country’s existing protected areas, and the status of biodiversity is poorly known .
Although the country’s flora and fauna have not been adequately surveyed , according to the Sixth National Report of Liberia to the CBD, Liberia is home to over 2,900 different vascular plants (including 225 tree species), 600 bird species, 150 mammal species, and 75 reptile species . Of which, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists one amphibian, 46 plants, 17 mammals, 22 birds, two reptiles, and one mollusc species as threatened or endangered . The western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) have generated special international conservation attention because of the precipitous decline in their populations in recent decades. According to a survey by the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (2014), some 7,000 chimps still exist in the wild in Liberia .
Threats to biodiversity in Liberia are generally classified into two types: direct threats and indirect threats .
The main direct threats to biodiversity include hunting, commercial logging, illegal or unregulated chainsaw logging, commercial mining, artisanal mining, shifting cultivation, expansion of agro-industrial crop plantations (palm oil production), charcoal production and invasive species , , . Hunting, shifting cultivation, and logging are considered significant threats to biodiversity in the country, according to a 2020 assessment by USAID .
Hunting continues mostly in large primary forest systems driven by the rising market demand for bushmeat (150,000 tons worth USD $24 million annually) . A survey, published in 2015, investigated the nature of commercial hunting in the Sapo National Park and its impact on wildlife populations. Two commercial hunting camps on the Park’s southern boundary were surveyed for 1 month each and information on the catch of all professional hunters in these camps was documented. The results revealed a high diversity of species, with significant and likely unsustainable bushmeat extraction rates. Most of the bushmeat harvested was destined for Monrovia and other major towns. Of particular concern, was the large number of chimpanzees harvested; 82 chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) including eight live infants, were recorded in the survey. Given the close proximity of the camps to the Sapo National Park, it is likely some aspects of the bushmeat hunting carried out were illegal . Illegal hunting in the country threatens Liberia’s fauna and is compounded by weak enforcement capacity and high levels of corruption at enforcement checkpoints .
Coastal ecosystems are threatened by the overexploitation of demersal fish species and other species (e.g.sea turtles), beach sand mining, beach erosion and mangrove loss. Less is known about the threats to and values of freshwater ecosystems however overfishing is regarded as a potential threat to inland fisheries. Water hyacinth occurs in several waterways however no data exists on its extent and/or its impact on the ecosystem .
Indirect threats include poverty and lack of sustainable sources of income, lack of adequate capacity to enforce laws, lack of technical capacity to manage resources, lack of awareness or appreciation of the long-term value of natural resources, lack of information and data necessary for effective natural resource management, perverse economic incentives, ineffective land use policies, insecure land tenure and property rights, and unmet demands for energy .
Key policies and governance approach
The US-led Liberia Forest Initiative (LFI) was launched in 2004 to restructure and reinvigorate the forestry sector and the Forestry Development Authority (FDA). This process produced the 2006 National Forestry Reform Law and the 2009 Community Rights Law, as well as regulations governing commercial forestry practices, non-timber forest products, artisanal logging for local use, community forestry, protected areas, and wildlife conservation .
The National Wildlife Law of 2012 was approved through an Act Adopting the National Wildlife and Conservation Protected Area Management Law of Liberia on October 5, 2016, amplifying conservation measures in the 2006 National Forestry Reform Law. Significant provisions include the provision of co-operative governance in the establishment of conservation areas and management of wildlife, and provision of a national system of conservation areas in Liberia. It promotes the sustainable utilization of conservation areas for the benefit of people and the participation of local communities in their management. The law permitted the establishment of a protected area management advisory council for each protected area to include representatives of county, district, and community government, as well as NGOs and community-based organizations. The law also sets forward standards for managing wildlife according to international best practices, extends protection to all species, and sets out penalties for infractions of rules governing wildlife and conservation areas , .
The Environmental Protection and Management Law and National Environmental Policy of Liberia provide the legal framework for the protection of the environment outside of the country’s forests. The EPA has the overall responsibility to coordinate natural resources management .
Additionally, the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority, developed the Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Strategy (2014) setting out objectives for strengthening community stewardship of fishery resources and supporting the development of upstream and downstream commercial activities .
Liberia ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2000. The country’s updated National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), covering 2017-2025 , contains five strategic goals: (i) address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society; (ii) reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use; (iii) improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity; (iv) enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services; and (v) enhance implementation through participatory planning, knowledge management and capacity building. In addition, it includes the following four components of the Implementation Plan: (i) capacity development plan and technical capacity needs assessment; (ii) communication strategy which delivers processed education, information and awareness messages; (iii) resource mobilization strategy and financial mechanism; and (iv) an appropriate technology transfer plan , . Liberia is also active in the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) .
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
The effectiveness of natural resource laws in Liberia is extremely limited due to poor capacity, competing mandates of different government agencies, and inconsistent policies. Major gaps in legislation exist in contrary and unreconciled mandates of different government agencies, and there is a lack of clarity on the precedence of mandates (e.g., for forestry, mining, agricultural concessions, conservation areas and community forests). This lack of coordination among government agencies can also create conflicts; conflict between FDA and the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and between the FDA and the Ministry of Agriculture, as well as other agencies have previously been reported. As such, there is an urgent need for the harmonization of land-use policies and of mandates of government agencies in Liberia .
Capacity deficiencies in biodiversity conservation and management are major root causes of biodiversity loss in many countries in the tropics, Liberia among them. Insufficient capacity constrains the country’s ability to effectively respond. In the Liberian case, pertinent capacity deficiencies have been a limiting factor in the preparation and the implementation of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan . Government agencies lack the capacity to monitor biodiversity resources, and to maintain and share data. Although some individual agencies maintain data, there is no national spatial data infrastructure. Data are not shared among government agencies, creating substantial constraints on management of natural resources. There is, therefore, a need for common standards for open data. Further, Liberia should take advantage of a wide range of techniques and technologies available to collect the required data, including citizen-science approaches involving community natural resource monitoring, and the use of ground based and satellite-based remote sensing .
As the NBSAP focuses mainly on the position of the EPA, not addressing the broader political economy of natural resource access and use, the EPA has remained poorly resourced and with little influence over land use decisions made by other ministries. Overall, the capacity of Liberia to implement the convention is weak, with little or no influence on economic policy .
The critical legislation from a conservation perspective, the National Wildlife Law, also lacks sufficient resources for its implementation, particularly for the creation of proposed protected areas. Donor support and partnerships with international conservation organizations provide limited near-term support, but a long-term solution will remain elusive until a long-term sustainable financing plan for biodiversity is implemented that is governed through an independent and appropriately accountable mechanism .
- Build the capacity of the Forestry Development Authority’s Conservation branch.
- Biodiversity concerns need to be incorporated into land-use planning at all levels and integrated into production sectors, sustainable development and poverty reduction plans.
- Secure sustainable financing for the operation of the protected area system.
- Inclusive governance and effective institutions for biodiversity conservation and natural resource management will be required at all levels, including the continuation of on-going activities that promote land tenure, land reform, natural-resource governance, and land tenure and property rights for women.
- Sustainable livelihoods need to be developed in the context of community managed natural resources. Agricultural programs will need to be made more climate-resilient. New and innovative approaches for energy for household and light industrial use will be needed. All of this must take into account the implications of a changing climate.
- Holistic, demand-driven, and evidence-based programming that address multiple development outcomes, including health, nutrition, food security, and sustainable natural resource use will generate resilient communities and better outcomes.
- Build capacity in data and knowledge management and promote the development of common standards for data and an open data culture.
- Build human capacity in the natural resource sector by supporting the Forestry Training Institute, Central Agricultural Research Institute, and other relevant institutes of advanced training and research.
- Support value chain enhancement for nontimber forest products (NTFP).