The Sustainable and Thriving Environment for West African Regional Development (STEWARD) is a recent initiative conceptualized by USAID and the US Forest Service to increase collaboration, improve regional natural resource management, promote transfer of knowledge among countries, and initiate transboundary development projects at select sites within the Upper Guinean forest region of West Africa. The Upper Guinean forest includes the countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana; this region is a high global priority for biodiversity conservation, and is of strategic importance in terms of peace building, extractive industries, and other key global commodities such as rubber, cocoa and oil palm.
The Upper Guinean forest is part of the larger Guinean Forest, which is considered a world biodiversity “hotspot” and a priority conservation area because of its high species endemism. The forest also borders one of the world’s most productive marine areas; the Guinea Current Large Marine Ecosystem is rich in fishery resources, petroleum production, and is an important global region of marine biological diversity with mangrove forests, turtle nesting beaches, wetlands, and coastal lagoons.
As an early step in determining STEWARD activities, this assessment was undertaken to gather background information, identify potential partners and provide strategic direction. As required under Sections 118 and 119 of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA), this assessment identifies key threats and issues related to tropical forests and biodiversity within the region, as well as opportunities and recommendations for action.
Presently, the Upper Guinean forest is a highly fragmented system; it is estimated that only 20 percent of the original closed canopy forest remains today. Direct threats to the forest and aquatic ecosystems in this area include: agriculture, mining, logging, bushmeat hunting, water pollution, coastal development, and fishing practices. Indirect threats to these ecosystems include: poverty, migration and urbanization, political instability, unprotected borders (both land and water), inadequate and uneven policies, limited institutional capacity, and lack of regional conservation planning.
Given the transnational character of most forest and aquatic threats, trends in natural resource management and sites of existing conservation activities, there is a tremendous opportunity for USAID and the US Forest Service to bridge the gap in regional coordination and connectivity – not only ecological but also political, social, and administrative coordination. Additionally, organizations already working in the region are capable of bringing significant amounts of public and private funding as well as networks of professionals, scientists, and dedicated field researchers in support of sustainable development and conservation. It is important to recognize that differences in language, culture, interests, and priorities can be obstacles to cross-border collaboration. However, there is a large “knowledge-shed” in which STEWARD can draw lessons learned and best practices from that goes beyond the Upper Guinean region. For example, the Sahelian countries have substantial experience and knowledge in regards to sustainable development and conservation activities. This body of knowledge can help guide the development and implementation of future STEWARD activities.
Finally, this assessment recommends five potential pilot sites for natural resource management and conservation action. These sites offer the greatest potential for integrating conservation, livelihoods and natural resource management, based on biodiversity patterns and political, economic and social significance:
- Nimba Highlands (Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Liberia)
- Grebo-Taï Forests (Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia)
- Abi Lagoon-Cape Three Points Complex (Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana)
- Gola and Lofa-Mano Forests (Liberia and Sierra Leone)
- Outamba-Kilimi (Guinea/Sierra Leone)
In general, STEWARD can emphasize economic growth activities in these areas because providing communities with alternative livelihoods could reduce the threat that poverty poses on the environment. Similarly, democracy and civil society objectives should also be considered as they help to organize communities, raise awareness of rights, and build capacity to manage communal resources. These activities contribute to biodiversity conservation by improving a community’s capacity to organize themselves around natural resources, including the ability to create institutions for managing natural resources. Before designing or implementing any specific activities, it is recommended that STEWARD first 1) develop a transboundary conservation agreement that describes the mission, goals, and objectives for the area, as well as participants and stakeholders, and 2) develop an action plan for each site.