Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war led to a complete collapse of environmental management in the country, according to Oli Brown, an environmental affairs officer with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Speaking at the Wilson Center last month, Brown highlighted the country’s current environmental conditions and how they have evolved since the war ended in 2002, while also outlining UNEP’s support
for rebuilding the country’s natural resource governance.
Despite its wealth of natural resources, Sierra Leone is plagued by high unemployment, a massive gap between the poor and wealthy, and extreme poverty – 70 percent of the population lives on $1.00 a day. The country is still “very fragile,” said Brown; the poor distribution of resources is partly responsible for the current problems facing the country.
Sierra Leone’s environmental future and prospects for improving its natural resource governance depend on the answers to three key questions, said Brown:
The first 5 to 10 years after a civil war are a critical time for peacebuilding efforts, Brown emphasized. Natural resources can help in this peace building process, but countries must recognize the value of their natural resources, and establish policies that are sustainable – environmentally, economically, and socially.
- How can the countries bountiful natural resources be shared more equitably?
- How can the countries natural resources improve local livelihoods and provide jobs?
- How can the war’s legacies be properly addressed while minimizing their negative impact?
Potential in Abundance: Agriculture, Minerals, Fisheries, and Tourism
Today, agriculture – including rice, palm oil, and sugar cane – accounts for 50 percent of Sierra Leone’s GDP, but current production methods are extremely inefficient, said Brown. Farmers use slash-and-burn clearing techniques to grow crops with zero consideration for the environmental effects, a practice which has led to a high level of deforestation. Only four percent of the country’s original forest cover remains, he said.
As part of its plan, Sierra Leone’s government is actively seeking large-scale investment in agricultural products for export. However, access to land development is complicated by the fact that more than 100 different chiefs control land and leasing rights around the country.
Additionally, some fear that companies investing in Sierra Leone may be exploiting the situation to achieve maximum profit without providing local development benefits, such as employment.
Water is also crucial to agriculture development, but Sierra Leone’s government does not know how much they have, said Brown, so they cannot properly plan for addressing the needs of their people. Reforming the sector is critical, as palm oil and sugar cane in particular have great potential for increasing the country’s GDP.
Sierra Leone also has an abundant supply of minerals: Diamonds, iron, rutile, gold, and oil currently account for about 20 percent of GDP and approximately 250,000 jobs, said Brown.
The planned Tonkolili iron mine will be the largest of its type built over the past 20 years anywhere in the world. If successful, the mine could double Sierra Leone’s GDP, he said. But the government must monitor these mining operations to ensure that the environmental damage does not undermine the economic benefits, said Brown. For example, rutile mining without proper safety precautions has produced acid lakes, he said, some of which have been measure with a PH level of 3.7 or greater.
While fishing operations in Sierra Leone make up only 10 percent of GDP, fish provide 80 percent of the animal protein consumed in the country’s households. However, lack of regulation and enforcement has left the door open for rampant illegal and unregulated fishing, said Brown, which has depleted local fish stocks and reduced the size of fish that are caught threatening the country’s food security.
On a more positive note, environmental tourism could be a potential source of sustainable revenue. The large chimpanzee population and the national parks could be strong tourist draws. However, the country must overcome its “blood diamonds” stigma in order to take advantage of its potential.
UNEP is seeking to help Sierra Leone’s government develop its environmental regulations and planning, said Brown, such as ways to measure and regulate water usage. The regulation of agriculture, minerals, fisheries, and tourism industries will be vital steps toward helping Sierra Leone build a sustainable economy and a sustainable peace.
Sources: Awoko Newspaper, Delegation of the European Union to Sierra Leone, Infinity Business Media, The Oakland Institute, UNDP, USAID.
Photo Credit: “mining57,” courtesy of flickr user thehunter1184.