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    Tuesday, June 27, 2023

    Liberia: Illegal Mining, Limited Logistics Threaten Conservation At Sapo National Park

    Siaway T. Miapue

    Sapo National Park, Liberia's largest protected area, is one of the most biologically rich and endangered terrestrial eco regions in the world. It is home to many rare and endangered species, including the West African chimpanzee, pygmy hippopotamus, and African forest elephant.

    Located in the southeastern region, the Sapo National Park is Liberia's oldest protected area established in 1983, covering 1,804 km2. It is managed by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) of Liberia and is exceptionally biodiverse and provides refuge to many rare and endemic species.

    Sadly, the Sapo National Park is under threat from human activities including illegal hunting and artisanal gold mining; hence the need to effectively manage this area cannot be overemphasized.

    There are approximately 5,000 illegal miners in several parts of the park comprising citizens from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast, as well as Liberians from Nimba, Maryland, Grand Gedeh, Grand Bassa, River Gee, Rivercess, and Sinoe Counties, who live within the Park.

    There are reportedly over 50 illegal mining sites in the Sapo national Park at different locations. These illegal miners named their respective mining sites after wealthy and powerful countries and places including America, Dubai, China, and Philadelphia, among others. These names indicate the lifestyle of the people who have settled in the middle of the forest to seek greener pastures.

    However, following negotiations with the government of Liberia through the FDA along with the traditional leaders of the surrounding towns and villages, over 3,000 illegal occupants were removed from the park on May 2, 2023.

    Samuel Toweh, an illegal miner in the Park who hails from Nimba disclosed that the lack of employment opportunities prompted him to join his colleagues in search of a livelihood at the park.

    Toweh acknowledged that the park is a protected area, but said it is only the government that is benefiting from the area's resources and not the communities and their inhabitants around the Park.

    "The government is benefiting and not the citizens. So, that is the reason we entered the park to benefit, but with jobs, we will not go in the park," Toweh said.

    The forest dependents want the FDA and partners to institute measures to provide livelihood development programs for them.

    Stanley Smith, a resident of Korjayee-1 and former head at one of the illegal mining sites, welcomed the move by the FDA through the traditional leaders to remove illegal miners at the Sapo National Park, but blamed the FDA for the continuous illegal mining activities in the area.

    He said after the Park was raided in 2017 by authorities to clear it of illegal miners and unwanted inhabitants, two persons each from the surrounding communities were recruited and trained to work closely with the FDA to protect the Park.

    But three years later, those recruited by the FDA were declared redundant and replaced with non-residents, which, according to him, created mixed feelings among the residents of the Park area leaving them with no alternative but to re-enter the Park to sustain themselves.

    He said if the government of Liberia through the FDA refused to work with residents of the surrounding towns, illegal mining will continue to "be the order of the day."

    "When these entry points are well protected, nobody will go into the park; but if not, people from surrounding communities will continue to invade the protected area because the promises made to them by the government are not forthcoming," Smith added.

    Steven Wiayan, Clan Chief of Korjayee buttressed Smith. He said despite their involvement in helping to remove illegal miners from the Park, the government has not been helping their towns.

    Chief Weon named safe drinking water, schools, and health facilities as some of the amenities lacking in their communities. He wants the government and its partners to introduce vocational schools, and agriculture activities to help empower residents of the area, or else they will return to the forest.

    "We give the Park to them long ago, since 1983 and nothing has been done. So, they must change their mind to bring development in this area, to bring development around the park and to empower our children to get work so we can put hands together and mind this Park," Chief Wiayan said.

    Mining is not only the illegal activities going on in the Sapo National Park. The illicit artisanal mining activities have attracted several people, mostly women who are engage in all sort of business including food, beverages gasoline and narcotic substances.

    "I am stranded. I don't have five dollars. That's what making me to go there to sell my little market to get something to help my children to go to school, said Winnie Wolo, a mother of three.

    Ms. Wolo said she is stranded and does not have money to send her children to school. She wants the government to introduce loans for women to be empowered.

    FDA launches effort

    Communities play a major role in protecting the forest. This was recognized by the government when it passed the Community Rights Law of 2009, giving the community residents the right to manage portion of the forest.

    The FDA through its Park Warden at the Sapo National Park, Burton Kawa acknowledged the efforts by surrounding communities in protecting its forest. He lauded the efforts of the traditional leaders to aid the government in evicting the over 3,000 illegal miners from the park. Kawa said the government of Liberia through FDA will continue to seek the involvement of communities to protect the forest from illegal mining which speaks against conservation.

    However, he said the lack of logistics is impending him and his men from effectively monitoring.

    Currently, at the Park, there is only one Toyota pickup for operations. However, Mr. Kawa noted that with more logistics and more manpower, the institution's monitoring arm will be strengthened.

    He revealed that on several occasions, the few park rangers have met stiff resistance from illegal miners who are often seen with firearms.

    "Around West Africa, this is the only park that her rangers are not armed, but my men can manage sometimes to arrest people with arms, so that's one of the constraints," he said.

    "We have only one petty car... and all the motorbikes are down... you see us sitting down, we don't want to sit down but no motorbikes to go around and engage the communities," Mr. Kawa added.

    'We are not aware'

    On the issue of the illegal mining activities, the Assistant Director of Mines at the Ministry of Mines and Energy Ben S. Yoejaeh said the Ministry is not aware of any report about illegal mining at the Sapo National Park.

    Yoejaeh said the Ministry has not given permit to any individual to extract minerals from the area as it is a protected area that exempted from mining activities.

    "We are not aware of any mining at the Park. If we were, we would have intervened as we have been doing to other places" Yoejaeh said.

    He said despite limited logistics, the Ministry continues to ensure that mining done in the country is in line with the mining law.

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