Did Sierra Leone's mudslide uncover a forgotten conservation promise?
The Western Area National Park is a forest reserve in Sierra Leone that still holds one of the last strongholds of pristine forest in the country and represents a significant portion of the remaining forest cover in the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot. The park is rich in diverse species, with a range of hills and steep mountains that border the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean.
This unique forest reserve was identified by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) as one of the four key biodiversity areas in Sierra Leone for their investment in the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot through BirdLife International as regional implementation team.
This national park, located just outside Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, covers 17 square kilometres of land with about 60% of the forest vegetation still intact. It is located at the centre of the Western Area Peninsula, an area that is home to an estimated 1.5million people. These people benefit from the ecosystem services that the park offers, while many plants and animal species, especially birds depend on this forest for their survival.
“It is a forest that has valuable plant species, it helps to regulate the local micro climate. It is a forest that provides home to some of the few endangered animal species that we have left,” said Tommy Garnett, Team Leader of the CEPF regional implementation team in the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot.
Development is however posing a major threat to the future of the vital habitats and species found in this forest. As Freetown expands outwards, the rainforests that surround it are slowly being lost to development.
“What remains is very small, and even the small remainder is under severe threat,” said Tommy.
Pressure from the city’s growing population has exposed the rich biodiversity of this forest to many threats that are increasing in intensity. People have encroached the protected forest for arable land and farmers have cleared patches of secondary bush in the periphery. Deforestation and stone mining activities often carried out illegally, are also threatening the ecosystem services from the forest. Also, pressure on land has caused people to build on shallow and easily eroded hillsides, exposing the lives of thousands of people to natural disasters.
“Housing development within the protected area is a very huge challenge for us now. The Western Area Peninsula National Park is very close to the city and everybody wants to stay in the city,” said Kate Karemo-Garnett, Acting Executive Director of Sierra Leone’s National Protected Area Authority.
As the city pushes up into the mountains of the forested national park, pressure from the population is damaging the forest. Trees have been cut down by people who want land for housing and those who cut for fuelwood. The trees prevent run-off and the forest holds water – but cutting has increased the risk of mudslides. When there is prolonged or intense rainfall in places with no trees, the soil becomes saturated and erodes.
Calls to stop the extension of settlements into the peninsula’s hills and properly manage development have been largely ignored. In August 2017, a hillside in the Western Area National Park collapsed, causing a mudslide on the outskirts of Freetown that overran communities, killed hundreds of people and buried more than a thousand others who were trapped in their homes.
“The hills are very steep. So, whenever there is this kind of flash floods, a lot of water settles which cannot be soaked down because it is also a rocky area, and we have a saturation which we think may have resulted to the mass movement of the soil after we had the heavy downpours of rain,” explained Dr. Sheku Kamara, Executive Director of BirdLife's Partner in Sierra Leone, the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL).
A forgotten promise
Mudslides are a rare occurrence in Sierra Leone, but conservation experts say it was not surprising.
“We saw this coming, we talked about it. There have been conferences and workshops. There was even a project ‘conservation of the Western Area forest and its watersheds’ which was supposed to demarcate the boundary of the forest and identify the watersheds, and create awareness about their protection. That project ended, we were supposed to have a clear indication that there is this boundary but that was not respected,” stressed Tommy.
The landslide occurred in the mountain town of Regent, 16km away from Freetown, after three days of torrential rain. Many people in Regent live in informal settlements constructed on hillsides, close to the national park.Several communities residing near the national park were seriously affected by the disaster.
The forests of the Western Area National Park are important ecosystems and their destruction should concern all conservation groups and everyone who lives in or near the capital of this West African country. Local conservation groups on the ground like the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone and the Environmental Foundation for Africa are working to preserve this paradise of biodiversity but are confronted by several challenges that include insufficient resources.
“We have done a lot of advocacy work with the government and the people to make sure that we avoid some of those places because it is also a catchment area where the whole city relies on for water supply. We keep on shifting even the boundaries. We have done boundary demarcations, people encroach and we have to re-demarcate. We try to work with people to see reasons not to cut the forest,” said Dr. Sheku.
The August 14 mudslide reminded stakeholders of the need to create and maintain effective frameworks for environmental protection in the country. Conservationists are keen on emerging opportunities that support a more inclusive and coordinated multi-stakeholder approach to find lasting solutions to these growing problems, and save the Western Area National Park.
"At the moment, we are preparing to have a national conference on the Western Area Peninsula alone. Through a planning grant from CEPF we [Conservation Society of Sierra Leone] are trying to bring together some actors, so that we can work together as a united front to address challenges that we are facing and stop the recurrence of this kind of disaster," said Dr Sheku.