The climate conference in Glasgow is in full swing. Decisions taken at COP26 will have repercussions for every single person on the planet. While the world’s leaders are busy posturing, pontificating and procrastinating, the people on the front lines of the climate and nature crises from Guinea to the Grenadines are in danger of being excluded from the discussions that will determine their fate.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been banging this particular drum for decades. Long experience has taught us that our in-country partners around the globe are the ones best placed to tackle the twin challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change. But the so-called developed nations need to fulfil their part of the bargain by supporting and investing in the local initiatives that will ultimately dictate how successful we are in protecting our one home.

Addressing gender inequality is a vital facet of FFI’s community-led approach to our work, so we’re delighted to see that today’s programme at the climate summit is devoted to ‘progressing gender equality and the full and meaningful participation of women and children in climate action’.

To mark the occasion, we’re handing the metaphorical microphone to Mary Molokwu-Odozi, FFI’s Country Manager in Liberia, to provide a West African perspective on what this climate conference means to her and why protecting the forests on her own doorstep is such a crucial part of the bigger picture.

How did you first become interested in conservation?

Growing up in Nigeria I remember feeling inspired by campaigns raising awareness about deforestation. I had originally planned to become a medical doctor, but a lecture on environmental conservation during my BSc in Zoology sparked my interest. After completing my doctorate, I applied for a Research and Education role with FFI in Liberia – I shared the organisation’s belief in a community-based approach to protecting species and ecosystems.

Zebra duiker, just one of the many threatened species benefiting from FFI’s community-led forest protection initiatives in Liberia. Credit: FFI

Did you have any female mentors?

Professor Georgina Mwansat (founding director of APLORI – the only field station dedicated to ornithological research in West Africa) has been a real inspiration. During a field ornithology course, I was struggling with astigmatism. She called me to her office and said: ‘Mary, if you can’t see the birds, hear them.’ I learned over 40 bird calls within a week.

What barriers have you encountered as a woman working in conservation?

The initial difficulty was that conservation was absent from university curricula. Once I was working in the profession, the challenge was more about the way people looked at you: ‘As a woman, what are you doing in the bush?’ But, honestly, this merely fuelled my passion and motivated me to make a real impact.

What advice do you have for young women contemplating a conservation career?

I would advise them to pursue their passion and not let stereotypes stop them, especially young African women. Look out for a leading female role model. Also, don’t be discouraged by the dwindling state of Africa’s biodiversity. Conservation is a noble profession and one small change makes it all worthwhile.

As leader of the Liberia programme, what are the most rewarding aspects of your role?

Coordinating a large multidisciplinary and multicultural team is not so easy, but I take joy in the fact that we have the most dedicated people who have that strong passion and drive to continue to save the country’s biodiversity even in the most challenging conditions. One of the amazing women I work with is Janet Kerkulah. Currently our Communication Coordinator, she is a Mass Communication graduate and has driven a lot of our activities in the conservation and environmental sector. She was project coordinator for FFI’s RSPO [Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil] work some years back and also coordinated the development of Liberia’s REDD+ communications strategy. She co-developed and featured in a REDD+ themed song which she sang with a popular Liberian music artiste.

Mary Molokwu-Odozi (middle row, white top) with Janet Kerkulah (back row) and the rest of FFI’s Liberia team. Credit: Shadrach Kerwillain/FFI

What achievement at FFI are you most proud of?

Due to our capacity-building efforts we are seeing more Liberians, especially women, taking the lead in conservation. A female ranger won the Paradise Ranger Award in 2019, three women have bagged international master’s degrees in conservation biology and forest management, and an all-women group, Eco-Champions, is raising environmental awareness among local communities around Sapo National Park. That’s a big change from when I joined FFI a decade ago.

What is so special about Liberia’s biodiversity and why is it important to protect it?

Liberia has the largest portion of the remaining intact forest blocks of the Upper Guinea Rainforest in West Africa. These forests are rich in threatened and endemic species, but they also play a globally important role in helping to store carbon and preventing more of the emissions that are causing the climate crisis.

Liberia’s forests harbour key populations of the critically endangered western chimpanzee. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

What is the best way to engage communities in conservation?

If local people sense that a project has the potential to create lasting impacts and that it genuinely takes account of their priorities, challenges and strengths, then they will be more supportive. This is vital for the long-term sustainability of any climate and conservation initiatives.

If given a platform at COP26, what would be your message to decision-makers in Glasgow?

The more we think about nature in tandem with those living closest to it, and ensure that the public and private sector commit to the protection of forests and the rights of local people, the better our world would be. Most forests remain intact today because of historical traditional practices. Communities have done this in the past; we can learn from them, but the grassroots needs more support. And that support includes honouring the long-standing commitment to mobilise $100 billion per year to support climate action in developing countries such as Liberia.

Canoe on river Binoe, Sapo National Park. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Sapo National Park is a crucial carbon sink and a haven of biodiversity. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

If you could bring COP26 delegates to just one place that epitomised the importance of our work in West Africa, where would it be, and why?

I would point them to Sapo National Park, Liberia’s oldest national park and the country’s largest protected area. It’s a stronghold for amazing wildlife including the critically endangered western chimpanzee and African forest elephant, and for the endangered pygmy hippopotamus. It is also very rich in carbon. We estimate that the park is storing a massive 58 megatonnes of carbon in its vegetation and soil. Sapo is just one of the many FFI project sites making a vital contribution in the fight against climate change, but these forests will be lost if urgent action is not taken.