Balli Island: To Build or Not To Build?
In 2012, when former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf proposed relocating the capital to Zekepa, her announcement did not go without scrutiny. There were those who saw the pronouncement as yet another empty-promise. She had waged war on corruption but later surrendered. Allegedly corrupt officials enjoyed impunity and, in some cases, were shielded by her. She was later accused of doing little to stand up for women despite being Africa’s first elected female president. These plus many more contributed to little faith that the lofty plan would be realized. Indeed, the Zekepa vision fizzled as the critics had imagined. Nothing was heard about the dream city by 2014.
And now comes President George M. Weah. Touring the Balli Island on March 26, 2018, the President voiced his intentions of transforming the island into ‘new Monrovia’ with a state-of-the-art conference center, skyscrapers, shopping malls, office buildings, banks etc. Despite the prospects, critiques and counter-critiques have emerged. Such exchanges must certainly be welcomed in a democratic space. Yes, we must disagree to agree. Regarding the proposal, some have argued that the current city needs the most urgent attention. Others argue that the island has been designated as a wetland under the Ramsar Convention and must not be touched. For some, developing the island may have implications for flooding and could place would-be property owners and surrounding property owners at risk. Others push for the Unity Conference Center to be restored rather than build a new structure on the wetland. In this piece, I provide my perspective on the project. I will attempt to examine the arguments and address issues identified.
In 2002, Liberia officially signed up for the protection of the environment through the promulgation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Act and the Environmental Protection and Management Law. The following year, the Ramsar Convention came into effect in Liberia. The Mesurado wetlands were among those designated for protection because of its ecological importance. Wetlands regulate water regimes and provide habitats for flora and fauna alike. For example, waterfowls (locally known as water birds) are dependent on wetlands though they seasonally migrate. Hence, when the Mesurado wetlands (encompassing the Balli Island) were designated in 2006, Liberia joined global conservation efforts. We agreed to protect mangroves, birds, and crocodiles of different species on the Balli Island. We recognized the interdependence of man and his environment, pledging to promote productive and enjoyable harmony. We promised to guard against damage to the environment and biosphere. But if recent developments are anything to go by, then our commitment must be reexamined.
The Ramsar convention legally binds Liberia having been ratified by the Legislature. Of course, this does not mean that the country has been subjugated to the convention. The convention itself provides that designating a wetland does not prejudice the exclusive sovereign rights of a state party (Art. 2; Sec. 3). In other words, Ramsar recognizes that Liberia has the full right and power of governing itself without any interference from outside bodies. At the same time, the convention does not support arbitrary and capricious decisions. It puts forth standards that must be met in order for a wetland to be converted. Firstly, there must be an urgent national interest. Secondly, the state party should as far as possible compensate for any loss of wetland resources. And thirdly and further to standard two, the state party should create additional nature reserves for waterfowl and for the protection, either in the same area or elsewhere, of an adequate portion of the original habitat (Article 4).
With the above-stated conditions, and given that the government has neither intimated that it will delist all wetlands under Ramsar nor denounced the convention in toto, our inquiry must be narrowed to the test enumerated above. Is there an urgent national interest to build a new city on the wetland? Will the government compensate for loss of wetland resources if the area is converted? Have additional nature reserves been created to provide habitat for waterfowl and other species? These are the questions I will now endeavor to address.
Urgent national interest
Participants of the convention were cognizant that the phrase “urgent national interest” could be subject to varying interpretations, especially as determination lies solely with state parties. Thus, in order to cure any such confusion, a general guidance for interpreting “urgent national interests” was issued. The guidance construes the phrase to mean that, when converting wetlands, state parties should take into account the national benefits of the wetland; whether maintaining the status quo threatens a national interest; whether the proposed change is consistent with national policies; whether there are reasonable alternatives to the proposed action; whether, over the long term, the proposed action offers greater benefits etc. Now, having crystallized the concept, the question at bottom is whether or not the conversion of a nature reserve (i.e. Bali Island) into a modern city is in Liberia’s urgent national interest. To begin with, we ask if the proposed project has met all benchmarks so as to render it consistent with Liberian law. As a student of environmental law, my learning is that an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) must be conducted in order for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to sanction the proposed action. An ESIA is a systematic process to identify, predict and evaluate the potential environmental and socio-economic effects of proposed projects. It is applied prior to issuance of environmental permits (ESIA Procedural Guidelines). Thus, the ESIA must be conducted and an environmental permit issued before any work can be undertaken on the island. Anything to the contrary will be against the law. There have been media reports of late that the government, through the Ministry of Public Works, is engaging with the EPA to ensure that requisites are complied with. If the information is true, then such step is in the right direction. But will the EPA grant the permit? To answer we look to recent happenings at the entity. The youthful Deputy Executive Director of the EPA, Randall Dobayou, has recently engaged in sensitization around wetlands. Appearing on local radio shows and at wetland sites, Hon. Dobayou has re-echoed the mantra: “wetlands are not wastelands”. He has called on the public not to fill wetlands because of the harmful consequences of said act on the environment. But given that the current EPA administration was recently appointed by the Weah administration, observers doubt the EPA will assert its independence, uphold its stance on wetlands, and refuse to issue permit for the project. For an attempt to block the much-heralded new Monrovia may be seen as undercutting the President’s agenda.
Could the prospects of a booming city meet the urgency test? Of course, yes, proponents might argue. They posit that nothing significant can be done to transform the aesthetics, layout, and infrastructure of Monrovia. Hence, they submit that a new site presents the opportunity to build a 21st century city. As plausible as the argument may seem, even if we agree that there is a need for a new city, we still fall short of the justification required to occupy the Balli Island. Both Ramsar and national environmental laws require that there must be a showing that no reasonable alternative exists. Therefore, the government has the burden of proving that all alternative sites available are unfit or unreasonable for the purpose of the ‘city project’ and that Bali Island is the best available location to undertake the proposed action. This, too, might seem a hard nut to crack. For instance, there is no shortage of public land. In recent times, the National Housing Authority (NHA) built estates in Brewerville and Marshall with each built upon twenty (20) and thirty (30) acres of land respectively. Presidential Press Secretary, Sam Mannah, recently stated on a local radio show that survey puts the Balli Island at approximately One Hundred and Ten (110) acres. When considered in light of the NHA projects, the variance is not so vast especially considering that resource constraint and other factors might have hampered the NHA’s ability to use more land. To cut long matter short, the government must show why amidst instances of available land proximitous to Monrovia, only the wet island that is home to variety of protected animal and plant species is suitable. The justification cannot be that President Weah has admired the island since childhood and dreamt about it being a modern city. It has to be more than that. The criteria have to be met.
In the event where the government justifies its proposal, the next step will be to designate an additional nature reserve while protecting an adequate portion of the original habitat (Article 4). This means that the entire 110-acre island cannot be used if the project is approved. An adequate portion must be reserved for the plant and animal life on the island. And in the unlikely event that a permit is issued, another question springs forth: Who owns the land? The natural response is that government will own the land. But will it remain public? The government has lamented its ‘brokeness’. Indeed, it does not have funds required to build a city with state-of-the-art infrastructure. If the permit is granted, the Indian government will undertake the first project on the island (Note that India has only requested the government of Liberia to provide the land on which to build the Mahatma Ghandi Conference Center. It did not earmark the island). It is also possible that donor funding or possibly loans might help to develop the island further. Yet, such assistance cannot develop the island as expected. Given this reality, who will build the “city”? Will the government turn to private investors? If so, will this entail lease or sale of public land? If the answer is affirmative, then, the Balli debate is far from over.
A recent report released by the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL) states that the public land sale procedure lends itself to corruption with the President signing all deeds. According to the Land and Corruption Liberia Report, this act creates room for manifestations of patronage, clientelism, favouritism, etc. By giving the President such power, citizens run the risk of limited opportunities to purchase public land if the President does not desire to sell to particular individuals. It also means that the President can sell public land to whomsoever he pleases. For instance, according to the report, the former Land Commission found deeds in the office of the President that had not been signed—something which begs the question of whether the President (at the time the application was made) did not have interest in the proposed holders of those deeds or whether there was a presidential aide who failed to do what could have expedited the process of signing. Considering this report, converting the wetland to a public land may create opportunities for corruption as associates of the President might be granted land at low prices void of any transparency and competition. On the other hand, those not closer to the regime but willing and able to purchase land in the area could be refused.
Finally, as we summon a spirit of state building, it is important to consider various facets, implications, or consequences of our actions. We live in an age where sustainable development is a top priority, and the world is joining efforts to tackle climate change. Countries are taking steps to reduce pollution, enhance air and water quality, and protect endangered species at the verge of extinction. It is, therefore, important that our approach to development does not undermine gains made in these areas.
About the Author: Gerald Dan Yeakula is a writer and researcher based at the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia. He is an LPAC Scholar at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law.