‘If people cannot eat, we will never succeed’: How integrated development is saving Liberia’s forests

April 10, 2017

Nearly every morning in the yard beside her small thatched mud house, Yorh Brown starts a low-burning fire. She blends ingredients over just the right heat, then pours the thick mixture into a wide, shallow cooling pan.

As her creation hardens, she uses a handmade wire inlay to cut it into rectangles, each about the size of a deck of cards.

“People say I make really good soap,” Brown says.

As she loads fragrant, pale green bars into a metal bowl and heads for her village’s small market, she smiles and adds, “I think it’s true.”

On its face, Brown’s soap business, which she started last year in a remote community in Nimba County, may not seem like part of an international effort to save Liberia’s forests. Until you ask what Brown and her neighbors used to do to earn a living.

“We were cutting the trees all the time to grow rice,” Brown explains. “We were hunting. We were always in the forests. We burned them.”

At the market, her friends are selling cooking oil, spices and other items they bought in bulk in the nearest big town to resell here for a profit. Like Brown, they started their businesses after joining WORTH, a global Pact program that reduces poverty and empowers women through village banking and entrepreneurship.

In Liberia, Pact is implementing WORTH with funding from USAID as part of the FIFES project, or Forest Incomes for Environmental Sustainability, which is working to preserve the West African nation’s trees and biodiversity. Through WORTH, Liberian forest communities that once survived by hunting and clearing land instead are developing alternative livelihoods that don’t destroy forests.

But WORTH is only one piece of FIFES. Led by the international organization ACDI/VOCA, the project is using a distinctly integrated approach, strategically combining interventions in governance, livelihoods and economic and capacity development to improve the environment in Liberia as well as people’s lives.

Under FIFES, Pact is also building the capacity of local governance committees charged with overseeing the sustainable management of community forests, and ACDI/VOCA is helping Liberians to develop selected forest and agricultural value chains and to gain farming skills that boost production while saving trees. Another FIFES partner, the Center for International Forestry Research, is helping to develop a bio-monitoring handbook so communities can inventory and track plant and animal species in their forests.

“Liberia’s forests are some of the most bio-diverse in the world, and there is no one thing that will preserve them,” says Lebah Bingo, Pact’s Senior Capacity Development Officer with the FIFES project. “It is an issue that has to be addressed from all angles. No matter how strong our laws and policies are, if people cannot eat without harming the forests, we will never succeed. People have to understand why protecting the forest is important, and they need to have the means to do it in the form of alternative livelihood options.”

Liberia is the most densely forested country in West Africa, with rich biodiversity. 

Brown, the soap maker, became involved in FIFES in the summer of 2016 when Pact was forming new WORTH groups in Nimba. A trained volunteer called an empowerment worker explained how WORTH works. In groups of about 20, women come together to save money, access credit and start businesses. Unlike micro-lending, WORTH gives its members no capital or seed money; instead it provides groups with ledgers for recordkeeping and training books including “The Road to Wealth” and “Successful Selling.”

Members are required to make small savings deposits at weekly meetings, and when groups’ funds grow large enough, members may begin taking low-interest loans, which they use to start small businesses.

Groups elect officers, receive literacy and numeracy training, and learn the fundamentals of running a small business. WORTH also provides technical training, such as farming skills and soap making.

Brown’s WORTH group, which has 18 members and chose the group name “Love,” has been together less than a year. Already they have about 25,000 Liberian dollars in collective savings – about US$250 – with another 10,000 Liberian dollars out in loans.

WORTH members in Zolowee, Liberia.

Brown, 41, was doing subsistence farming before joining WORTH, making almost no income and growing just enough rice and cassava for her family of five to scrape by. She took a loan of 1,000 Liberian dollars from her WORTH group to start her soap business and now brings in roughly that much in profit each month.

She says her husband is no longer hunting in the Blei Community Forest, a dense, lush swath of green that touches their villages and was formally placed under the community’s control in 2011 as a means of conservation. And Brown and her neighbors are no longer clearing trees to grow food; with new agricultural techniques they’ve learned through FIFES, they’re getting a good yield from previously planted land.

“We know our children won’t live a good life if we cut all the forests,” Brown says.

Patricia Wantoe, 32, another member of the Love group, is learning to read and write through WORTH. She took a loan of 3,000 Liberian dollars last year to start a business buying and selling cooking oil. Today, it is thriving, along with her four children, who she can now afford to send to school.

“Before,” Wantoe says, “I had no income. We were cutting the forest to grow rice because we thought it was the only choice. Being in this group has put many new ideas in our minds. We know we need the forest for our future. We are thinking different now.”

Since FIFES began last year, it has launched 49 WORTH groups in forest communities across Liberia, with 67 more now forming.

Matilda Zuweh, a member of Brown's WORTH group, sells food items at her local market.

In many of the forest communities where Pact is implementing WORTH, ACDI/VOCA is helping other residents to run successful group farming enterprises. Each group includes several dozen farmers who work together to grow and sell crops on a larger scale – all using forest-friendly techniques.

Karkerzah Morris, a father of nine who lives in Sehzueplay, Liberia, was working in paper production before joining a 25-member enterprise group that cultivates peanuts on two acres.

“They gathered us and gave us tools and knowledge,” Morris says. “To not go back into the forests, we needed this.”

And all of FIFES’ livelihoods efforts are complementing the project’s governance component, in which Pact is building the capacity of local governance committees that help communities gain legal control over their forests and oversee them once “community forest” status is granted by national authorities.

“These committees are made up of volunteers, and they get very little training and resources from the government, but their purpose could not be more important,” says Bingo. “They are on the front line of protecting Liberia’s community forests and making sure they are sustainably managed according to plans. FIFES is supporting them with hands-on guidance and mentorship, strengthening them to make sure they can be successful.”

Building the capacity of local organizations is a Pact signature. For Liberia’s forest committees, the process starts with an in-depth assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, with a tool called the ITOCA, or Integrated Technical Organizational Capacity Assessment. With Pact’s help, forest committees use their results to create detailed, individualized strengthening plans to improve their performance, and as they progress, Pact objectively measures their capacity growth.

The committees also learn to understand and negotiate the complexities of agreements with international extractive and logging companies so communities’ natural resource wealth is not unfairly exploited.

WORTH members in Sehzueplay, Liberia, reconcile their ledgers at the end of a banking cycle. 

FIFES is currently working with 11 forest committees, with plans to expand.

Emmanuel Boahn, head of the five-member forest committee that oversees the Gblor Community Forest, in eastern Liberia near the Cote d’Ivoire border, says his committee was struggling before FIFES’ support. Besides not knowing how to engage and educate community members, the committee lacked basic skills such as how to hold proper meetings and keep records.

“There’s been a great positive impact,” Boahn says – one that enabled his committee to build public support for forest preservation and finish the long process of gaining community forest status for Gblor.

“People understand now that community forestry is not against us, it is for us,” Boahn says.

“We are benefiting from the forest, but now it will also stay with us for the future, so it will benefit us for a long time.”

Liberia is the most densely forested country in West Africa, and it is home to about 40 percent of the remaining tropical Upper Guinean forests. Despite Liberia’s small size, biodiversity in its forests ranks among the world’s greatest. The country harbors thousands of plant, insect, bird and reptile species. Its mammals – many of which are endangered and rarely seen – include chimpanzees, elephants, mongooses, bats, pygmy hippos and zebra duikers. Bushmeat consumption and habitat loss are among their top threats.


Video and photography by Brian J. Clark for Pact.

The FIFES project (Forest Incomes for Environmental Sustainability) is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by ACDI/VOCA and Pact. The project is conserving biodiversity in Liberia’s community forests by improving forest governance and management capacity, reducing pressure on forests through new economic opportunities and improved agriculture methods, expanding the number of hectares under improved forest management, building local capacity to conduct bio monitoring of forests, and increasing public knowledge about forest conservation and enterprises and the importance of biodiversity.