Illegal Mining, Limited Logistics Threaten Conservation at Sapo National Park
Sinoe, Wacaba District- Sapo National Park, Liberia’s largest protected area, is one of the most biologically rich and endangered terrestrial ecoregions in the world. It is home to many rare and endangered species, including the West African chimpanzee, pygmy hippopotamus, and African forest elephant.
Located in the southeastern region, the Sapo National Park is Liberia’s oldest protected area established in 1983, covering 1,804 km2. It is managed by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) of Liberia and is exceptionally biodiverse and provides refuge to many rare and endemic species.
Sadly, the Sapo National Park is under threat from human activities including illegal hunting and artisanal gold mining; hence the need to effectively manage this area cannot be overemphasized.
There are approximately 5,000 illegal miners in several parts of the park comprising citizens from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast, as well as Liberians from Nimba, Maryland, Grand Gedeh, Grand Bassa, River Gee, Rivercess, and Sinoe Counties, who live within the Park. There are reportedly over 50 illegal mining sites in the Sapo National Park at different locations. People who live within the Park give their localities the names of wealthy and powerful countries and places such as America, Dubai, China, and Philadelphia, among others. These names indicate the lifestyle of the people who have settled in the middle of the forest to seek greener pastures.
However, following negotiations with the government of Liberia through the FDA along with the traditional leaders of the surrounding towns and villages, over 3,000 of the illegal occupants were removed from the park on May 2023.
Samuel Toweh is an illegal miner in the Park. He is a carpenter from Nimba County. He disclosed that the lack of employment opportunities prompted him to join his colleagues in search of a livelihood at the park. Toweh acknowledged that the park is a protected area but noted that it is only the government that is benefiting from the area resources and not the communities and their inhabitants around the Park.
“The government is benefiting and not the citizens, so that is the reason we entered the park to benefit, but with jobs, we will not go in the park”, Samuel Toweh said.
The forest dependents want the authority of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and partners to see the need to institute measures to provide livelihood development programs for them.
Stanley Smith, a resident of Korjayee 1 and former head at one of the illegal mining sites, welcomed the move by the FDA through the traditional leaders to remove illegal miners at the Sapo National Park but blamed the FDA for the continuous illegal mining activities in the area. He narrated that after the Park was raided in 2017 by authorities to clear it of illegal miners and unwanted inhabitants, two persons each from the surrounding communities were recruited and trained to work closely with the FDA to protect the Park.
But three years later, according to Stanley Smith, those recruited by the FDA were declared redundant and replaced with non-residents, which, according to him, created mixed feelings among the residents of the Park area leaving them with no alternative but to re-enter Park to sustain themselves.
He said if the government of Liberia through the FDA refused to work with residents of the surrounding towns, illegal mining will continue to be the order of the day.
“When these entry points are well protected, nobody will go into the park; but if not, people from surrounding communities will continue to invade the protected area because the promises made to them by the government are not forthcoming”, Smith added.
Like Stanley Smith, Steven Wiayan, Clan Chief of Korjayee said despite their involvement in helping to remove illegal miners from the Park, the government has not been helping their towns. Chief Weon named the lack of basic services such as safe drinking water, schools, and health facilities as some of the amenities lacking in their communities. He wants the government and its partners to introduce vocational schools, and agriculture activities to help empower residents of the area, or else they will return to the forest.
“We give the Park to them long ago, since 1983 and nothing has been done; so they must change their mind to bring development in this area, to bring development around the park and to empower our children to get work so we can put hands together and mind this Park,” Chief Wiayan said.
The Sapo National Park is not only being used as a mining site but it has also encouraged the transaction of several businesses including narcotic substances, food, and gasoline, among other commodities.
Winnie Wolo is a mother of three. According to her, she is stranded and does not have money to send her children to school. Madam Wolo wants the government to introduce loans for women to be empowered.
“I am stranded, I don’t have five dollars, that’s what making me to go there to sell my little market to get something to help my children to go to school,” Madam Wolo lamented.
The site of the illegal mining in the park is a nine-hour walk away from Korjayee, a major entry point. One will have to walk from the town and cross the Sinoe River using a stick that falls over the river. Prince Wrato is a 10th-grade student. He transports all sorts of loads from the town to the park. On each trip, he makes LD$ 2,800.
Like Stanley Smith, and Steven Wiayan, Clan Chief of Korjayee, Wrato is urging the government through FDA to create job opportunities for the community dwellers which he believes will help greatly in safe-guiding the park.
“If the people can bring job, we that are around the Park, we will be here and people will not enter the Park, but if this is not done, people will still enter the Park because it is what we are depending on,” Prince Wrato said.
Forestry Development Authority (FDA) Latest Efforts to Protect Sapo National Park from illegal mining
Communities play a major role in protecting its forest. In October 2009, a law was passed by the government of Liberia that enables them to take legal ownership and management of the natural resources that can be found in some parts of the forest. The law is titled: ‘An Act to establish the community rights law of 2009 concerning forest land’.
The FDA through its Park Warden at the Sapo National Park, Burton Kawa acknowledged the efforts by surrounding communities in protecting its forest. He lauded the efforts of the traditional leaders to aid the government and evict the over 3,000 illegal miners from the park. Kawa said the government of Liberia through FDA will continue to seek the involvement of communities to help protect the forest from illegal mining which speaks against conservation.
Limited Logistic Hindering FDA Monitoring at Sapo National Park
Warden Kawa disclosed that despite the FDA’s plans to work with communities, the lack of logistics to carry out its monitoring activities remains a major challenge to the institution. Currently, at the Park, there is only one Toyota pickup for operations. However, Mr. Kawa noted that with more logistics and more manpower, the institution’s monitoring arm will be strengthened, and noted that on several occasions, the few park rangers have met stiff resistance from illegal miners who are often seen with firearms.
“Around West Africa, this is the only park that her rangers are not armed, but my men can manage sometimes to arrest people with arms, so that’s one of the constraints,” he said. “We have only one petty car… and all the motorbikes are down… you see us sitting down, we don’t want to sit down but no motorbikes to go around and engage the communities,” Mr. Kawa added.
Ministry of Mines and Energy
Sect 1.1 of the new Forestry Law, Part 2, Title 23 defines “National Park” as an area of sufficient size to form a complete ecological unit, legally set aside for the preservation and enjoyment of features that have outstanding natural beauty, cultural or biological significance”.
According to the Law, the Ministry of Mines and Energy which has the responsibility to authorize mining, shall not issue a permit to any individual to operate in said area. The Ministry has the responsibility to evaluate applications and grant mineral rights, promote geo-scientific collection and dissemination about the nation’s mineral and water resources, and engage in scientific investigations for the proper assessment of mineral and water resources.
The Assistant Director of the Bureau of Mines at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Ben S. Yoejaeh said it is not aware of any report about illegal mining at the Sapo National Park. Yoejaeh said the Ministry has not given a permit to any individual to extract minerals from the area as it is a protected area exempted from mining activities.
“We are not aware of any mining at the Park, if we were, we would have intervened as we have been doing to other places,” Yoejaeh said.
He said despite limited logistics, the Ministry continues to ensure that mining done in the country is in line with the mining law.
His assertion runs contrary to reports about the increase of illegal mining at the Sapo National Park which calls for concrete efforts to evict the illegal occupants from the area.
On February 2, 2023, FDA commenced consultation to raise awareness among the local people ahead of the removal exercise. According to FDA, there are over 5,000 illegal miners, including farmers and aliens residing in the Park.