Balancing economic needs with environmental protection in the Nimba Mountains

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit the breathtaking Nimba Mountains. This ancient landscape is home to a vital remnant of Upper Guinean forest. Only 10% of the original forest ecosystem is thought to survive today – though the forest once stretched across West Africa from western Togo to eastern Sierra Leone.

The high levels of endemism, diversity, species rarity and immediate threats from deforestation make Nimba a global conservation priority. Its World Heritage Site further underlines its importance.

Valuable commodities under the forests

The mountains are also extremely rich in minerals, in particular iron ore, which makes the area a potentially huge source of wealth for Liberia, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire, all of which are in need of funds for healthcare, education and other basic public goods.

But how do you get the balance right between economic development and environmental protection? That is the hard question facing the governments of these countries.

A stunning array of wildlife relies on the Nimba Mountains for survival.

Loss of biodiversity has serious implications for provision of ecosystem services on which local people rely, such as freshwater. My trip to the area has further strengthened my resolve to protect the mountains’ stunning wildlife.

Bringing people together

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been working in West Africa for over a decade and has long recognised the importance of the Nimba Mountains.
The Darwin Nimba Project, so named because it is funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Fund, aims to help the three governments, local communities, civil society and mining companies to come together to manage the mountains’ biodiversity. In essence it strives to minimise the impact of any mining that takes place there.
This is no easy task given the civil wars that have ravaged the area over the past few decades. Communication channels are not as open or developed as they would be otherwise. A governance system needs to be established that builds mutual trust, ensures accountability and leads to equitable benefit sharing.

Building up the knowledge base

The project is now in its second year and is making good progress towards its objectives. We have established partnerships with key organisations that are already active in the area such as the Manu River Union (MRU) and Sustainable Thriving Environments for West African Resource Development (STEWARD).

We have also finished mapping the area’s stakeholders – a crucial component in any governance system. This process required the Darwin project officer for Guinea and Cote D’ivoire, Gondo Gbanyangbe, to make many trips to different communities across the mountain range.

The mapping report identifies issues of boundary demarcation, challenges of achieving sustainable management with community involvement, and consensus about conservation management in a tight timeframe, along with other issues.

Creating a multi-stakeholder platform

The project staff presented the proposed Transboundary Cross-Sector Environmental Governance Platform for Nimba at the same workshop. This is a first draft of a mechanism for stakeholders to participate in the use and protection of the Nimba Mountain’s natural resources.

A mining pit in the Nimba Mountains

Creating this platform was a complex process, as it needed to take into account the different national laws and create a Memorandum of Understanding between the three governments.

What lies ahead

There is still more yet to do but we are optimistic for the future. A further meeting is planned in January in Guinea to start developing a Collaborative Management Strategy. This will contribute towards revision of relevant World Heritage Site Management Plans.

The Darwin Nimba Project is an ambitious initiative bringing together many different sectors of society from local communities up to multi-national mining companies. The governance platform is just one aspect of the project, which also encompasses biodiversity data sharing and capacity building.

I believe this project can create a model for best practice in transboundary environmental governance. It will take time and perseverance to make it work but I am confident that, if we work together, we can save the Nimba Mountains’ spectacular wilderness.