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Sierra Leone and Liberia Create Vast Transboundary Peace Park
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, May 18, 2009 (ENS) - The presidents of Sierra Leone and Liberia met Friday in the Gola Forest of Sierra Leone to announce the establishment of a new Transboundary Peace Park that will unite the Gola forests in both countries. The transboundary park will protect about 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles), one of the largest remaining stretches of intact rainforest in the Upper Guinea area of West Africa.

The Peace Park welcome center will be built in Leilahun in the Kenema District in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, which borders Liberia to the south. Residents of Kenema District, government officials of both countries and international partners gathered in the forest for the announcement of the new park.

President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia said the park will stand as a memorial to the long years of conflict in both Liberia and Sierra Leone.

From left: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone at a meeting of the Mano River Union in December 2008 (Photo by Adama Thompson courtesy Office of President Johnson Sirleaf)

It will provide security zones through which no armed conflict can be waged, the leaders said. The transboundary park will facilitate a strategy for cross border movement to prevent illegal activities and bring civil society groups and communities to protect the interest of both countries, they said.

Control of Sierra Leone's diamond industry was a primary cause of the conflict that raged throughout the 1990s and into 2003.

President Koroma said, "The long-term benefits of the conservation of the Gola forests far outweigh the short-term benefits of extraction and destruction. As I have said since I was elected in 2007, the Gola forests will become a national park in Sierra Leone and mining will not be permitted."

President Johnson Sirleaf said the project must be "a symbol of our renewed commitment to peace, stability and biodiversity conservation in this region."

She said the government of Liberia has set aside 30 percent of its forests to be included a network of forest areas, which includes the Gola Forest.

President Koroma emphasized that the project needs the collaboration of both governments. He said the launching of the park sends a strong signal to skeptics that the project will be successful.

The local communities in Sierra Leone, through their traditional chiefs and Members of Parliament, have expressed their support for the conservation of the Gola Forest and its designation as a national park.

The Mano River forms the boundary between Liberia and Sierra Leone in the newly designated peace park. (Photo by Guy Shorrock courtesy RSPB)

BirdLife International’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Hazell Shokellu Thompson, who has worked for more than 20 years on the protection of Gola forest said, “The establishment of the Transboundary Peace Park is a tribute to the success of the governments of both countries in putting their recent history of civil war behind them."

Congratulating both presidents, Thompson said, "In the run up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this year, they have shown their wholehearted commitment to taking the measures needed to reduce the threats of climate change and increase collaboration in the conservation of their nation’s natural resources."

Both governments have expressed interest in carbon trading and in the process of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, or REDD.

The REDD process of offering credits to developed countries that fund forest protection in developing countries may become part of the climate change agreement expected to emerge from the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December.

The Peace Park will provide the potential to raise tens of millions of dollars over coming decades, ensuring sustained funding for protected area management and community development.

The work to establish the Peace Park has involved several conservation organizations in the BirdLife International Partnership. They include the two national BirdLife Partners - Conservation Society of Sierra Leone and Society for the Conservation of Nature in Liberia - the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is the BirdLife partner in the UK and Vogelbescherming, which is the BirdLife partner in The Netherlands. These organizations have been working together with the Forest Development Authority of Liberia and the Forestry Division in Sierra Leone.

The BirdLife Partnership, which is already working on a 4.2 million euro project to protect Sierra Leone’s Gola Forest funded by the European Union and the French Government, has secured an additional 3.2 million euros from the EU to fund the four-year project to establish the protected area.

A red-billed dwarf hornbill in the Gola Forest of Sierra Leone. (Photo by Jon Hornbuckle)

The balance of the funding will be made up from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, and the Sustainable & Thriving Environments for West African Regional Development Program of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Forest Service, International Programs.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of Conservation International, the French Development Agency, the government of Japan, the Global Environment Facility, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank.

The Upper Guinea Forest Ecosystem, which extends from Guinea to Togo, is one of the world’s most biodiversity-rich ecosystems. But centuries of human activities have led to the loss of more than 70 percent of the overall forest cover, which was initially estimated at 420,000 square kilometers (162,163 square miles).

The remaining forest is fragmented, restricting habitats to isolated patches and threatening unique plants and animals.

Of the 250 forest-dependent birds in the region, more than 25 are threatened or restricted-range species, says BirdLife International. The forest is also inhabited by more than 50 mammal species, such as forest elephant, pygmy hippo, and 10 species of primates, including the threatened chimpanzee.

Alistair Gammell, manager of the Gola Forest Project, said scientists and tourists flock to Sierra Leone every year to visit the forest. Through the launch of the peace park, he said, Presidents Johnson Sirleaf and Koroma have shown their commitment to helping alleviate climate change.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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