Liberia emerged from 14 years of civil war in 2003 as one of the poorest countries in the world with unemployment estimated to be 86 percent. Although the country has made progress, access to basic services continues to be limited and almost two-thirds of Liberians live below the poverty line. The recent Ebola epidemic dealt another devastating blow to the people and the economy.
While Liberia’s mining sector has the potential to become a significant engine for growth, reconstruction and broader-based development, it also poses a threat to the last extensive forest areas of West Africa. The Upper Guinean Forest that runs through Liberia originally covered an estimated 1,265,000 square kilometers, but only one-tenth of the original vegetation remains.
Pervasive poverty and competition for commercial land contracts for palm oil, mining and forestry are major threats. The challenge is to protect the rich biodiversity that remains, while striking a balance between economic interests and respecting the legal and customary rights of local people.
“Mining is of growing importance for Liberia’s welfare, but the rich biodiversity of our forests also presents us with a responsibility to balance economic growth and conservation through strong governance, coordination and a regulatory framework,” said Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources of Liberia, Sam Russ at the recent launch of a World Bank Group study entitled “A National Biodiversity Offset Scheme: A Road Map for Liberia´s Mining Sector.” Russ emphasized that “Liberia urgently needs financial and technical assistance to put these biodiversity plans in place.”
The World Bank hosted a panel discussion to launch the study on March 26, 2015 that brought together experts from the Liberian government, the World Bank, conservation NGOs and mining companies active in Liberia. Biodiversity offsets are designed to compensate for the amount, type and quality of habitat that is likely to be affected by a proposed project by making improvements of the same amount, type and quality of habitat at new locations.
The study recommends the application of a common methodology by all mining companies working in biodiverse areas to ensure that conservation offsets are coordinated at the national level so their cumulative impact is greater and follows the national interest.
“This research has concluded that beyond doing no harm – the development of mineral resources in Liberia, accompanied by national biodiversity offsets, can help secure the long-term protection of biodiversity resources on which the poor and vulnerable are so dependent”, said Inguna Dobraja, Country Manager of Liberia for the World Bank.
Liberia is already taking the progressive step of legally requiring mining companies to implement biodiversity offsets to compensate for impacts arising from project development. However, this approach could result in a number of small ad hoc offsets that do not necessarily respond to the conservation priorities in Liberia and lack the necessary protection to ensure long term sustainability. A key challenge is that the capacity of mining companies to implement offsets effectively is often limited.
Both the Liberian government and the various mining companies expressed their support for working together on the development of a nationally coordinated biodiversity offsets scheme.
“After working on biodiversity offsets in Liberia for some years, we’re starting to demonstrate that they can benefit both biodiversity and people but there needs to be long term commitment from communities, government, companies and development agencies. This World Bank report is only the beginning; and we look forward to engaging on next steps”, said John Howell, environmental manager of ArcelorMittal Liberia Ltd, a mining company that has been mining iron ore in northern Nimba County for nearly four years.
Many challenges remain, both in terms of capacity and methodology but in close coordination with the government, the World Bank is working to develop a methodology and capacity building for implementation of the roadmap. One of the first steps will be the establishment of a Conservation Trust Fund that will function as an investment vehicle through which mining companies can offset their impacts, in return for biodiversity credits, dedicated to the expansion and support of a protected areas network.
“This biodiversity work is key to the livelihoods of the rural poor that are often dependent on natural ecosystems and features such as forests, oceans, soils, freshwater and wildlife,” said Bilal Rahill, Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice at the World Bank.
At the same time the World Bank has been increasing its focus on environmental performance and conservation efforts in coordination with the mining industry. Given the industry´s potential to generate jobs and revenue that support growth in Africa, the World Bank is working with governments to strengthen governance of the extractive industries so that the benefits of growth are equitable while respecting both the environment and communities.
This work was made possible by the support of the Extractives 4 Development trust fund and The Program for Forests (PROFOR).