Liberia: REDD readiness planning on its way
After years of darkness as a failed state, Liberia is rebuilding its state institutions, determined to rejoin the international community. Unfortunately, no amount of reforming zeal of a single small country can overturn the threat of climate breakdown or rising tides.
Liberia is highly vulnerable to environmental instability due to its extreme poverty. The rural economy absorbs over 70% of the population, largely dependent on rain fed subsistence farming, forest produce and fishing. The climate in Liberia is not inherently hostile to these livelihoods but poverty provokes unsustainable land use and low capacity to adapt.
Average temperature across the country has been rising and will continue to do so, creating uncertainty over the fundamentals of agrarian yields - rainfall volume and intensity, optimum timing for planting, and the incidence of pests. A country of low health standards will also be wary of the correlation between temperature and waterborne disease, and the spread of malaria.
The Liberian President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has observed that coastal erosion potentially affects the livelihoods of half of the population. Although unregulated mining of beach areas is a contributory factor, rising sea levels threaten dramatic impacts in the low-lying cities of Monrovia and Buchanan.
Liberia’s network of meteorological monitoring and forecasting centres was completely destroyed during the years of civil war. Adaptation of farming and forestry to climate change will be constrained until this core service is restored.
The National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) for Liberia published in 2008 contains unusual features. Instead of a lengthy list of small scale adaptation projects, it identifies broad national adaptation strategies across a range of rural economic and health sectors.
In identifying agriculture as the priority sector, it suggests exploring how land use could be diversified through a cycle of crop rotation and livestock production. This is a lower cost approach than the more typical drive for higher crop yields through seed varieties and irrigation.
For the coastline, the NAPA proposes a full scale programme of sea defences for the urban regions of Monrovia and Buchanan. This is priced at $60 million, very ambitious in scale for a project within the NAPA template. The only evidence to date of international donor support for Liberia’s coastal defence is a $2.9 million programme from UN funds available for Least Developed Countries.
The Liberia NAPA is also unusual in observing that farming communities already have extensive experience in adapting to climate variability. It draws the conclusion that ideas for climate adaptation should be merged into poverty reduction programmes already targeting the rural economy.
This vision appears to have bypassed development agencies working in Liberia. Neither the Millennium Development Goals progress report published in 2008 nor the UN Development Assistance Framework for 2008-2012 makes a single reference to climate change.
Endowed with magnificent coverage of tropical forest, including over 40% of the Upper Guinea Forest, Liberia is no stranger to international scrutiny of its forestry management. Global sanctions on timber products were imposed in 2003, in protest against the use of revenues to finance civil wars. Concerns now focus on the contribution of deforestation to carbon dioxide emissions.
When sanctions were lifted in 2006, the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf undertook to revoke all timber concessions then in force and to embark on wholesale reform of forest regulations. This commitment has led to the inclusion of timber in the 2009 Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Act which demands disclosure of commercial revenues together with suitable allocation towards social programmes.
Whilst doubts remain as to the capacity of Liberia’s Forest Development Authority (FDA) to enforce regulations in dealing with commercial interests, the process of reform will deepen as Liberia seeks to benefit from international proposals for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). The “Readiness Plan” now in preparation will seek to demonstrate that, in return for generous REDD funding, Liberia can accurately monitor its forest coverage. It must also establish mechanisms which engage and reward local communities for sustainable forest management.
Very considerable pressures stand in the way of the REDD vision. There is no magic wand which can lift the daily threat to Liberia’s forests from industrial mining, logging, rubber and oil palm interests, from small scale farm clearance and from domestic fuel needs. Disputes over incoherent legal rights of tenure are a major impediment.
Even the economics of REDD are uncertain. Strategies developed in 2006 envisaged a three-way division of the forest between protected areas and zones set aside for commercial concessions and for community exploitation.
Logging revenues were projected to contribute significantly to exports and national income. Whether it is possible to conduct logging within strictly sustainable parameters, with REDD revenues making up the difference, remains to be seen.
Furthermore, the economics cannot be viewed purely at national level. Most of the rural population in Liberia depends to some degree on forest produce for subsistence or livelihood. Putting these interests on a sustainable basis without imposing further poverty mirrors the logging dilemma. REDD has to achieve a seamless relationship with both poverty reduction plans and national economic development.
Electricity access provides a core illustration of this quandary. It is very difficult to regulate against the use of forest timber for charcoal and wood fuel in the absence of any alternative for poor households. There is no electricity coverage in Liberia apart from an inadequate supply in Monrovia. Hydro-electric dams were largely destroyed in the fighting.