Chebioh Town, Sinoe County – It is mid-July just midway into the rainy season. Sunday Blayee and six other residents here are working on a patch of a major route that leads to Grand Gedeh.
Blayee and friends charge LD$1,000 to help vehicles pass through thick layers of red mud, triggered by a heavy downpour.
It is a major source of livelihood for young men of communities bordering the Sapo National Park during this part of the year.
Blayee, 38, was one of several men rounded up by the Liberian National Police and jailed in Greenville over the killing of a forest ranger, Friday Paiyn, at the park in February earlier this year. Blayee says the killing was a mistake.
“We did not mean it to kill Friday, that was the riot,” says Blayee.
“They (rangers) went in the bush with looting. They were chopping people. Through the riot…Friday got hurt and they tried to carry the man to the hospital but there was no way,” adds Blayee.
The death of Paiyn is yet another chapter in the hostility between the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and communities along the park in Sinoe, River Gee and Grand Gedeh.
The Sapo National Park is one of 35 international biodiversity hotspots. It is home to a lot of endangered plant and animal species, including the West African elephant, the Pygmy hippopotamus and the West African chimpanzee.
A 2009 survey found six new plant species in the park. This has attracted global conservation groups such as Fauna and Flora International (FFI), World Chimpanzee Foundation and Conservation International.
During the Liberian civil war (1989 - 2003), many illicit miners, loggers and poachers occupied the park.
The United Nations and the government of Liberia conducted a successful resettlement program that saw more than 5,000 displaced people leave the park.
In 2010, more than 18,000, mainly illegal artisanal miners occupied the park, according to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
In July this year the FDA and affected communities held a conference on the park in Greenville and adopted a resolution, giving a one-month ultimatum to illegal occupants to vacate the park as of August 31, 2017.
The resolution also addresses issues surrounding the park—livelihood, employment of locals and decentralization of the FDA in affected communities, just to name few.
However, all is not well. The death of Paiyn dealt a blow to the morale—as well as the safety—of 83 park rangers, who live in some of these affected communities.
In a place like Jalay Town, where the rangers have their station and where the FFI-run Sapo Conservation Centre is located, rangers live in peaceful coexistence with locals.
But it is a different story in a place like Chebioh Town. A vandalized, mud hut rangers’ station aloft atop of a hill is perhaps evidence of a frosty relationship between the FDA and locals.
“It is risky to go into the park unarmed,” says Ranger Albert Saydee, a 54-year-old father of 13.“I want for FDA to give us arm because there are notorious rogues that are in the bush. We need arm to protect ourselves.”
Arming rangers is not a priority for the FDA as Liberia recovers from a 14 year bloodbath that killed 250,000 people. Saydee may have to wait a little longer.
“We know what arms did to us. We’ve had bitter past,” says Managing Director Darlington Tuagben.
“Rangers are armed in different parts of the world but for rangers to be armed they need a lot of training, not just physical training but psychological training,” says Dr.
Mary Molokwu-Odozi, Country and Operations Manager of FFI, has worked with the FDA on the park for the last 20 years.
“So, it is something that is quite sensitive and a move that requires a lot of thought.”
Just as rangers are concerned about their security so are affected communities about their livelihood.
The 697-square mile park cuts across Sinoe, Grand Gedeh and Sinoe, affecting scores of towns and villages in several districts across the three counties.
Some say the park gives them limited land for farming and bush for hunting. They break the law to survive.
“The hard time [is] too much,” laments Elizabeth Challer, 62, of Putu Town in Jaodee District, Grand Gedeh County.”
“ “If those boys don’t dig that gold, they will not get L$5 and the criminal rate will be [high]. So, they have to hustle for themselves, no company, no money,” she reveals.
“We are suffering - Nowhere to hunt. That is where meat is, those big, big animals. That’s where those boys used to go hunting. Now they’ve put stop to it. Nothing we can do.”
The area covering the Sapo National park was demarcated and families relocated when it was established in 1983. An extension of the park from 505 square miles to 697 square miles was signed in 2003 but has not been re-demarcated.
Affected communities are unhappy about the extension and oppose relocation.
“When I was coming here, our elders called me and told me ‘As you are going tell all the big, big people that are coming, for us we don’t embarrass the park,” explains E. Tulay Nyan, Clan Chief of Killepo Chiefdom, River Gee County in a message at the Greenville conference.
“What we experience every day is that they are cutting and coming into us… We do not like it, so go and tell them. The first line they drew must remain the same’.”
“They [relocated] people from there and brought them home before they could establish the park,” recalls Emmanuel Nah, resident of Chebioh Town.
“This time around if they want to come and increase park, it has to be social agreement between them and the people.”
Molokwu-Odozi says the FDA and partners are turning a new page on Sapo, agreeing with Senator Milton Teahjay of Sinoe that authorities in the past did not foster a good relationship with affected communities by getting them involved in the management of the park.
“We have learned from the past,” admits Molokwu-Odozi.
“In the last one year FFI conducted a social assessment for protected areas (SAPA). We visited 50 communities to talk to them, to ask for their views, their perceptions of the park. We presented our results to the FDA and part of it is what has resulted to this conference today.
“We have learned from the past and we are hoping that the future will be very bright not just for the park or the government but also for the communities.”
Illegal occupants have twice been relocated from the park. The first was after the civil war in 2003, where an estimated 5,000 illegal occupants were relocated, and the second in 2010, where about 18,000 voluntary relocated.
There are currently that same number of illegal occupants in the park, the FDA says, including Ivoirians, Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians.
In addition to the August 31 deadline for illegal occupants, the resolution from the Greenville conference mandates affected communities to assist the FDA in relocating illegal occupants, to make awareness on their rehabilitation—especially Liberians—and to set up a vigilante against illegal occupation of the park.
The resolution also prohibits any local from taking food or merchandise into the park.
But some campaigners say the pact should have given more benefits to the communities rather than assign them with many responsibilities.
“Policing wouldn't help,” says Jonathan Yiah of Sustainable Development Institute (SDI).
“Since the crisis has resulted into death the communities should be at the receiving side on moving forward with the park management,” he continues.
“The management issues should be accomplished in a more participatory way, listening more to communities than instructing them.”
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives with funding from Australian Aid. The funder had no say in its content.
Report by James Harding Giahyue, FPA Contributor