Securing the rainforest – one map at a time

Modern mapping is helping Upper Guinea communities to establish land rights and arrest the destruction of the rainforest
General view of the landscape near the town of Koidu in eastern Sierra Leone, April 22, 2012.
REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

The communities living around Outamba-Kilimi National Park near Sierra Leone’s northern border with Guinea have survived off of the region’s lush rainforest for generations. But rapid deforestation, slash and burn agricultural practices, and bush fires are ravaging the area and other parts of the Upper Guinean Rainforest, which once covered much of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast and parts of Ghana.

Even as less than ten percent of the original rainforest remains, people continue to destroy the rainforest by the hunting and poaching of endangered wildlife and logging – often illegally – as they struggle to make a living by feeding the rising demand for bush meat and timber in West Africa’s burgeoning cities. Others cash in on whatever gold they can dig out of the ground through small-scale, illegal artisanal mining operations that pollute local streams and cause other environmental damage.

But now, local communities have been presented with other options for their livelihoods with help from the Sustainable and Thriving Environments for West African Regional Development (STEWARD), a regional program funded by the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) West Africa, and through the United States Forest Service’s International Program (USFS-IP) since 2011. STEWARD teaches sustenance farmers and local communities in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Liberia to sustainably manage community forests and find environmentally-friendly ways to make a living. 

The hope is that the program will lift rural communities out of poverty, while also saving what remains of the Upper Guinean Rainforest.

The region is home to 220 species of birds, at least nine species of primates, and many other endangered animals, including the pygmy hippopotamus.


Conflicts over mango trees

When STEWARD was first launched in Sierra Leone in 2011, there were no accurate maps of how much forest remained to be conserved. It’s far from an unusual problem in Sierra Leone, where records of land use and ownership were too often destroyed during a bloody civil war that ended in 2002. Twelve years later, Sierra Leoneans struggle to get land titles and prove their right to pieces of land that may have been in their families for generations. In Freetown, the country’s capital, multiple people often have titles to the same plot of land as a result of corruption and fraud. In other cases, people cannot obtain a title at all. But in remote areas, such as the Upper Guinean Forest, there was never a full cadastre – an official register denoting what rights and responsibilities people in the community had to specific plots of land.

Instead, the land and resources, which are owned by local chiefs, are leased to the population by word of mouth. The rights that people have to parcels of land and resources in the local forests are determined by complex relationships between a variety of clans living in the region, as well as immigrants from other neighboring countries and regions. Until recently, these customs were never recorded in any formal documents and the boundaries of community forests, which provide clean water, forest resources and hunting grounds for local communities, had never been mapped. The surrounding communities did not know how much of the forests had been destroyed by farming, logging, mining and other activities. Meanwhile, conflicts festered because of the unclear property system.

Local communities traditionally define the boundaries of parcels of land with natural landmarks, such as big trees or streams. A family might be given the right to farm a piece of land between two mango trees. But if the trees are chopped down decades later, such families struggle to prove what is theirs when others lay claim to the same area.

Without clear maps, it’s easier for everyone, especially the powerful, to fudge the boundaries.

As Sierra Leone opens up to foreign investment in the logging, mining and agri-business sectors, swaths of rural land have been leased or sold to companies from under the community’s feet. In some cases, lease agreements are signed with companies without consulting communities who used the land or providing any form of compensation. Caught by surprise and unaware of their property rights, those communities have been left with nothing. In other cases, it is possible for chiefs who don’t have accurate maps to promise companies a certain amount of land without knowing whether they have that much territory to sign away in the first place.

To make matters worse, there is no government infrastructure to survey land or resolve land disputes near Outamba-Kilimi National Park. The closest government official resides in a larger settlement about 200 kilometres away. There’s no electricity or running water. Illegal logging, artisanal mining and poaching of endangered animals are rampant. In this ungoverned and isolated territory, poor communities have few means to obtain property records or maps of community forests. Typically, someone who wants official documentation outlining land rights in Sierra Leone has to hire professional surveyors who charge far more than an average Sierra Leonean can afford.

Communities get mapping

With the help of Thomson Reuters, 19 communities in northern Sierra Leone and the nearby region overcame many of their challenges by surveying and mapping almost 325 hectares of land themselves. From 2012 to 2015, Thomson Reuters established a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) center in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as well as three mini GIS centers in communities throughout the area (one in each partner country of Liberia, Guinea, and Ivory Coast) and used GIS to determine target areas for documenting local land and property rights. USFS then provided training to the communities on the concept of land and property rights, while Thomson Reuters provided training on the use of Aumentum OpenTitle – embedding ESRI ArcGIS technology and can be used by people with little technological know-how to build maps and record information about land rights.

Once trained, the volunteers spoke to members of their community about the importance of recording their land use agreements on paper. Then they administered surveys to each household, asking about the size of their plots and the resources that they could access. Where neighbors disagreed on the boundary between their lands, the volunteers helped them work it out and noted down their agreement. Then they snapped photographs of people with their plots, as well as the landmarks on them, and used hand-held GPS devices to map the boundaries of household land and community forests.

The data, along with satellite images and information from conversations with community elders, was aggregated at the mini-GIS centers with ArcGIS to produce maps detailing the land and resource rights of members of each community and the individual households within it. At the end of the process, each household received a set of papers with maps and pictures outlining their land rights and each village knew the size of its community forest. Now, disputes can be resolved by turning back to records, rather than relying on word of mouth, and the evidence of land rights can be passed down through generations. While these documents are not “official government documentation,” the government agencies whose mandate falls within land and forestry were involved in developing the methodology used, and the data was formatted to fit the official formats used by the government, lending real legitimacy to the documents.

It’s also the first time that the government has a complete record of the local forest and what belongs to the community.

Now that it knows what forest is there, it can design policies to save it. Together with maps that Thomson Reuters is producing for communities and governments in Guinea, Liberia and Ivory Coast, this data will play an important role in preserving the West African rainforest.

Building community forests

Perhaps most importantly for conservation, now that communities know the size of their land, what it contains and the value of their natural resources, they can plan how to use it sustainably. Historically, community forests in northern Sierra Leone had been managed by male elders or chiefs who enacted rules that prohibited activities, such as logging and hunting in certain areas, but their ideas and knowledge of sustainable practices were limited until STEWARD and partners introduced Forest Co-management. Community members are taking time to adjust to the new knowledge and ideas introduced by Thomson Reuters and STEWARD, along with the concept of managing the forest together. 

Now communities make decisions through Forest Management Committees (FMCs) that include men and women of all ages. These FMCs were formed by STEWARD to collectively manage the forest as a shared resource and responsibility, and have proven more successful than previous models of managing resources and preventing forest fires. They meet regularly to discuss how to use their land sustainably and, little by little, the community forests are coming alive with environmentally-friendly activities, ranging from honey production to the cultivation of medicinal plants. Members of the community are also farming more sustainably by using crop rotation and other techniques that keep land fertile, in addition to cutting back on and managing slash-and-burn agriculture, a traditional practice that leads to uncontrollable bush fires that damage huge swathes of land. 

It’s possible for local communities to keep track of these things and to make sure that they don’t gradually destroy their only resource – the community forest – because of maps that make their customary rights clear. Local communities are beginning to have serious conversations about preserving the forest for their children and their children’s children in great part because the maps have given them an idea of what they need to save and what different people are responsible for. And when logging or mining companies come around to invest in the region, local communities can hold up their documents as proof of their rights. No matter how poor they are, it gives them a chance to say, “This is my land and you can’t just come in and take it from me.” Hectare by hectare, the community members are standing up for themselves and becoming agents of change. 

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