By Varney Kamara
MONROVIA – Warkolo mountain forest, an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot, overlooks Tosor and Robertsport-two western Liberian towns situated 11 miles away from the Sierra Leonean border. For centuries, this natural vertical high ground has served as a solid flood barricade, preventing the Atlantic Ocean from overrunning these rural settlements. But this God-given buffer faces its greatest challenge spreading from chancy human activities breaking laws of the environment, conservation, risking the lives of hundreds of villagers.
In May, citizens of Tosor signed a 12-year mining agreement that will see the Sam Shawki Fawaz or SSF Entrepreneur Incorporated blast and extract lateral rocks from the Warkolo mountain forest to pave a 44 kilometer road from the city of Robersport to Madena junction. Villagers hoped the agreement will improve transportation infrastructure, thereby increasing commercial activity for their communities, ending decades of frustration over poor infrastructure and underdevelopment.
“We signed this agreement because we want development in our community. Our road is damaged. We want the company to fix it,” says Boima Senwah, Town Chief of Tosor. “Dried dog is sweet, but what thing we will be eating before the dog gets dry”? I am aware that there’s a law on the protection of the reserve, but that law is fake. It is not serving our interest.”
But the deal has backfired, stirring anger and confusion among townspeople. Some locals who oppose it fear its implementation would lead to a disaster for the community.
“This is a national calamity waiting to happen,” Prosperous Fahnbulleh, a popular youth activist in the county, says. “If the company is allowed to start mining, and blasting this mountain, and taking rocks from it, we could just be sleeping one morning and see the ocean overrunning this entire place. We will not allow it.”
Choosing the protected area for lateral rocks poses danger to the environment, experts say.
“Mining and blasting this area could lead to an avalanche, or mudslide, in the case where the forest is exposed to torrential rains,” says Uriah Taylor, a geologist and lecturer at state run University of Liberia.
“This range is capped with igneous rocks (Norite or Nikel) which have a huge potential for attraction within the tech industry,” he adds. Despite its industrial importance, Taylor warns: “I don’t think it will be a suitable place for mining. Blasting in this area would clear vegetation from the landscape.”
Bickering over the reserve mountain forest has also raised red-flag over the safety of wildlife. Conservationists fear mining it would lead to the destruction of biodiversity and the ecosystem as a whole. In the case where the reserve mountain range is blasted, its effects would include fly rock, ground vibration, and air blast, in addition to flooding, corrosion, and sinkholes, ecologists warn.
“This is illegal. It is unacceptable,” says Marcus Garbo, Executive Director of Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SCNL), the country’s oldest and largest conservation group. “We are calling on the government to immediately put a halt to this dangerous activity in the protected area.”
In February 2011, Warkolo mountain forest was officially declared a protected area, forming part of the Lake Piso Multiple Sustainable Use Reserve (LMSUR). Five years later, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the area an Important Bird Site (IBS). LMSUR nature reserve is gifted with different species of birds, including Birds of Prey, All Hornbills, and the White Necked Rockfowl. The naturally endowed park also has endangered, endemic, and protected species. These include West African Dwarf, Giant Forest Hog, Red River Hog, Pangolin, White Breasted Guinea Fowl, Monkeys, All Chimpanzees, among others.
The agreement also violates environmental and wildlife laws. In October 2016, Liberia passed the National Wildlife Conservation and Protected Area Management Act. The law seeks to protect and preserve Liberia’s unique biodiversity, supporting recovery and the sustainable use of wildlife products, by forest-dependent communities. It defines a protected area as a large natural area set aside to protect environmental processes, along with the match of species and ecosystems typical of the area, prescribing fines or imprisonment for a person who has been convicted.
It is also in breach of the Environmental Protection Law of Liberia (EPL), the National Forestry Reform Law (NFRL) of 2006, and the 2017 RAMSAC Convention, an international treaty in which Liberia is a signatory. Enacted in November 2002, the EPL calls for the protection of natural communities and their endemic nature, prohibiting environmental degradation. Notwithstanding, any person convicted of contravening this provision of the law shall pay a fine of US50,000 or go to prison for a period not more than 20 years, says the law. NFRL mandates the creation of conservation corridors, including safeguarding its forest resources, prescribing contraband, search, and seizure for violators. The international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of Ramsar sites, also known as the RAMSAC Convention, bars such activity in protected areas. SSF faces a huge risk of facing the wrath of these vital legal instruments.
When contacted, a representative of SSF who volunteered to answer our queries claimed the group is ignorant of the law protecting the reserve.
“We did not know that that place was a reserve forest. The community people did not tell us this,” says Richard Boamah, Deputy Team Leader, SSF’s Engineering Department. “We are investigating whether this area is actually a reserve area. If that happens to be the case, we will be on the right side. Whatever the law says is what we will do.”
Meantime, this reporter saw a front-loader packed by a newly grittered road heading into the Warkolo mountain forest. The sounds of heavy power saw machines could also be heard coming from the direction of the thick reserved forest.
On 15 August 2022, Liberia’s forestry authorities (FDA) halted road construction work in the reserve forest. The agency vowed to halt mining in the reserve.
“We will take court action and arrest people for breaking environmental laws,” says C. Mike Doyen, Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA). “Mining in this area is a serious disaster. FDA will not take this lightly.”
In spite of the agency’s action, the construction company is still holding consultations with key community members in a final push to have it resume work in the park, according to persons familiar with SSF’s ongoing road construction work in the country.
The controversial agreement has also sparked confusion among local leaders and citizens in the affected area. In Tosor and elsewhere, opinion remains split over whether or not to allow the company to resume operation in the forest.
“I support the issue of building our roads, but I did not sign this agreement,” says Haji Sombah, Paramount Chief of Commonwealth District which covers both Tosor and Robersport. “I was not entirely educated about it. And, from the way I am now learning about the harms that it might bring to our community, I am going back to my people for consultation on this matter.”
“We want development, but we cannot get it and then everyone dies the next day. Let this whole thing be squashed,” Mohammed Kemokai, a resident of Robertsport, recommends in an interview with The Liberian Network.