RSPB Scientists, Juliet Vickery, Fiona Sanderson and Richard Bradbury reflect on a recent trip to the Gola Rainforest Project

In a tiny, remote village buried within an impenetrable landscape of tropical forest and subsistence farmland, a young woman pounds rice and cassava leaves in a giant mortar with a pestle so heavy it takes two hands to lift. It is something she does for hours, day-in day-out. Her calloused and cracked palms are often sore and her shoulders ache. She has worked hard to cultivate this rice in a small area of cleared and swampy land 2km from the village and it’s almost all she and her family will eat every day. It’s a scene typical of life in forest edge communities around Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP).

Juliet has a go at pounding rice & cassava - unsuccessfully (but not as unsuccessfully as Richard…)

One of the key aims of a new three-year RSPB project, generously funded by the UK Darwin Initiative, is to help women like this to improve both their food security and diet diversity, especially during the ‘hungry season’ in July-September, when food all but runs out. The project will work in partnership with Gola Rainforest Conservation (GRC), the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) and the villagers themselves, to provide agricultural assistance in these target forest edge communities (FECs). Crucially, this assistance will be in return for assurance that they will protect the ‘community forest’ on their land in the so-called ‘buffer zone’ around the GRNP. For tiny and desperately poor villages, these community forests represent an important source of subsistence and income. Standing, they provide things like wildmeat (bushmeat) and plants like rattan from which they weave baskets and chairs; felled, they provide timber and make way for further cultivation. But they also provide vital habitat for rare forest species like chimps, pygmy hippos and specialist forest birds like Yellow-casqued hornbill. Some of them may serve as corridors between forests in Sierra Leone and Liberia, connecting populations of species like forest elephant. They store huge amounts of carbon, and preventing their loss is a condition of REDD payments (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation); a key source of finance for protecting the forest and improving local livelihoods.

The red star marks the project location, nestled between the northern and central fragments of GRNP and the forest on the Liberian side of the border.

Baseline surveys in 14 target villages in Malema Chiefdom (in the buffer zone, between the national park and the Liberian border) and 14 control villages outside the buffer zone have already gathered information about food security and diet diversity in the hungry season. Repeating this survey at the end of the project, after providing different forms of agricultural assistance in the target villages, will reveal what does and does not work. Now these baseline surveys are complete, we joined GRNP staff on the first community visits, to introduce the project and seek approval from the village chiefs to conduct follow-up social surveys and biodiversity surveys in their community forest.

Fiona uses a densiometer instrument to measure forest density, as part of the assessment of community forest patch quality

For four days we walked in sweltering heat through a complex landscape of forest patches surrounded by cocoa, cassava, rice and farm bush. We waded across brown, sediment-laden streams, or travelled on rafts of logs strapped together with lianas, camped in village ‘barres’ (a meeting space usually covered with a rudimentary tin roof) and ate rice, cassava leaves and dried fish three times a day. The introductory meetings involved the entire community – every man, woman and child – and started with both an Islamic prayer and the Lord’s prayer, followed by introductions of people and projects, questions and, in all cases, approval for access being granted.

Somehow, no-one took a plunge during the many river crossings!

The communities were vocal about the value of the benefits they had already received from their relationship with GRC and the GRNP. “I used to work all day in my cocoa farm and get small, small price - now I get the same price as people in Jojoima (the ‘capital’ of Malema) and I thank Gola Forest for this,” said one woman in the village of Congo, recognising the investment GRC has made in improving the yield and guaranteeing the market for their cocoa. School scholarships (>600 to date) have enabled children to access secondary education that they would never have had otherwise - several told us, “thanks to Gola, my child now goes to school”. Maybe this explains why we received such warm welcomes in all four project villages we visited - and none of us will forget the dusk river crossing to Makpoima, to the sound of the whole village singing a lively and joyous greeting from the bank the other side (https://bit.ly/33rTDKN).

For us, it was an extraordinary expedition and we felt privileged to have experienced it. But it also brought us face to face with the harsh reality of life in these communities. The last Darwin project (alongside work funded by Comic Relief, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change funded by USAID, the International Eco Fund, and REDD+ itself) has transformed the ‘cocoa economy’ for many of these communities, helping them develop the crop behind Gola Chocolate and providing them with vital income. If this project is as successful, it could be another step change for the wonderful people and extraordinary wildlife in this remarkable part of the world.

@juliet_vickery, @FionaJSanderson & @Rich_B_Bradbury

Vast trees like this are vital for carbon and biodiversity. This brilliant team is vital for protecting them!

Anonymous