Saving the forest and improving livelihoods through innovative conservation interventions in Liberia
Zwedru National Forest measuring 64,458 hectares is located about 600 kilometers from Liberia’s capital Monrovia. The forest is home to a number of endemics and endangered species. In addition, Zwedru has numerous river systems, valuable timber species, non-timber forest products and medicinal plants that provide ecological and socioeconomic services to thousands of community dwellers living in towns and villages nearby.
Like many other sites in Liberia, Zwedru’s biodiversity and tropical forests are threatened by various factors including overexploitation of natural resources, ecosystem degradation due to unsustainable agricultural practices, fuel wood and charcoal demands, mining, and pollution.
Consequently, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Birdlife International, Society for Environmental Conservation (SEC), a local organization, together with the local community, have rolled out a unique project to conserve biodiversity and promote community forest management of Zwedru Forest through awareness creation, land use planning and diversification of livelihoods.
SEC in consultation with local communities has piloted the implementation of a Village Loan and Saving Account (VLSA) concept, a mechanism to empower communities living around Zwedru through affordable loans. “The loans are giving at small interest rate (5%), payable within a six months period. The interest earned is used to incorporate new borrowers, ensure continuous growth of existing members’ savings and provide small operational support for the leadership of the VSLA”, explains Jerry Quoi, SEC field officer.
Since the beginning of this project, VSLA has empowered about 51 locals enabling them earn additional income through boosting their businesses. Beneficiaries of the VSA can comfortably feed their families, educate their children and save money for future needs.
“When our children complete their studies from the small elementary school here, that marks the end to their education, especially for majority of us here who are not from a wealthy background. VSLA as a direct benefit of our involvement in forest conservation has given us hope. I got $5,000 Liberian Dollars (about US$25) and started a business of buying and reselling plantains and snail to huge quantity buyers. Within a short time, my business has grown to $40,000.Liberian Dollars (about US$220). I am now one of the huge buyers. I still save some money with the VSLA and I can better take care of my family now,” says Comfort Grady, a local farmer and chairlady of Garley Town, Grand Gedeh County.
Incorporation of the VSLA approach to forest resources management is beneficial in two ways. Local communities are directly engaged in the conservation of Zwedru Forest landscape and access credit for agricultural and forestry enterprises startups. Secondly, this innovative approach to conservation encourages diversification of livelihoods thus reducing pressure on the forest’s biodiversity. Buoyed by the success of this initiative, SEC and partners are working to scale up the program in other communities in Liberia.