By Emma Black

Hassan Sesay, 31, is amongst the fourth generation to live and work on the side of
the hill overlooking the Royanka village in northern Sierra Leone. “The land was
passed down to me and my two brothers and three sisters from my mother, who got
it from her grandmother and she from her parents,” he said. “My grandfather and his
father before him maintained the forest and used the bush for the family. They made
a good life here but now things are very different. We can’t earn enough or grow
enough food to feed our families. So, we turn to cutting the trees to make money.”
Sesay’s ancestral land is now scrubland without a single tree over 5-metres tall.
Small bushes, bare, scorched earth and a few sticks of cassava leaf are all that
remain of a once lush, canopy-covered hillside. “We began cutting the bigger trees
because a friend said he’d give us Le3 million (approximately $300 USD),” Sesay
said. “We were desperate for money for food and to reroof our unfinished house. So,
we cut and sold trees.”
Sierra Leone ranked 182 out of 188 countries on the United Nations 2020 Human
Development Index and the poverty rate is 57% with almost 11% of the population
living in extreme poverty. Over 72% of the “extremely poor” population live in rural
areas and poverty is highest in the northern region. (GoSL, 2019)
Sesay recalled being a small boy and what the land looked like when he’d harvest
cassava, plant rice in swampy areas and climb trees for mangos and bananas with
his grandparents. “The land was full of green… lush and plentiful. We were living off
the land and we had food to eat,” he said.
The land around Royanka sits in what’s known as the woody savanna ecoregion,
characterized by a “fairly closed canopy of trees up to 15-metres tall with an
undergrowth of tall grasses up to three-metres in height.” The woody savanna of
Kasseh Chiefdom also covers large areas of northern Sierra Leone and is within a
short drive to the Koinadugu and Kono Plateaus (KKP) ecoregion, which extends
southward from Guinea. The plateau is mostly covered by a mosaic of woodland and
savannas, interspersed with cropland.
In 2017, the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF)
estimated that less than five percent of the country’s original cover in 1990 was still
intact. This has continued to decrease at a rate of around 100,000 ha every year,
mainly through large-scale and subsistence agriculture, commercial logging and
logging for charcoal for energy (Office of the Chief Minister, GoSL, 2019). Much of
that forest cover has been converted to agricultural lands, savannas and other
secondary vegetation. Decreases in forest cover are the result of multiple factors
including clearing for agriculture, logging (both legal and illegal), mining,
construction, fuelwood, and charcoal production.” But, they add, “There is a serious
deficit of information about the existing biological diversity and resources of Sierra
Leone’s forests. Timber and other resource inventories have not been conducted for
the Forest Reserves. Existing timber inventory data is scarce and most information is
derived from small area sample plots carried out by investors in anticipation of
commercial extraction.”
Amos V. Kamara, a Forest Conservator at the Ministry of the Environment, said,
deforestation is a big concern to every Sierra Leonean. “We’re finding problems with
water supply as wells dry up and rivers run dry, changes in rainfall levels and an
increasing risk of flooding… all from the indiscriminate logging of forests. We see the
effects of cutting trees all over Freetown, where forests are cut away to make room
for private construction projects.”
Isatu Conteh, Sesay’s first wife, said their hand-dug well runs dry for several months
during the dry season. She said, “We struggle for water. The place is so hot now and
the heavy winds threaten our house. We are also afraid of the fires that farmers light
to clear the grasses.”
In Sierra Leone’s overarching National Adaptation Plan, 2021, they identify
environmental risks. “Unregulated overexploitation of land and marine environments
has resulted in substantial degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity, air and water
pollution and their related social and public health impacts.” They also note some of
the challenges including “a weak regulatory and legal framework, policy incoherence,
conflicting government mandates, low management capacity, inadequate
coordination, and limited public awareness and education, data, and finance.” There
is also little awareness among the rural population of the importance of forest
management, knowledge and awareness of laws, rules and regulations (where they
exist) and the long term effects of clearcut logging.
Osman Kamara Bah owns four, gas-powered chainsaws. He operates in a
neighbouring Chiefdom from Sesay. He said, “I used to cut trees for the Chinese,
who were represented in the area by a local authority. We would pay the local chief,
the landowner and the forest guards to get the logs from the bush to the city for
export.” Bah said he switched from selling logs to the Chinese to cutting trees and
milling boards for local sales. “I hire chainsaw operators from the area. I feed them
twice a day and then leave them with several boards of their own so they can sell
and make money. My boards, I take to Freetown to sell to timber yards, who then
sell to construction companies and individuals.”
In an article published in the journal “Land”, in 2019, called, “What Happened to the
Forests of Sierra Leone?”, written by Njala University professors Richard A.
Wadsworth and Aiah R. Lebbie, they state, “According to the 2015 Sierra Leone
Country Report prepared as part of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations) Global Forest Assessment there has been no national forest
inventory since 1975.” The article also highlights the “accepted wisdom” that
the huge forest loss in Sierra Leone is recent, rapid and drastic. Due to a lack of data
the amount of forested area in the country remains unknown.
Outside of the Western Area, including Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, land
tenure and ownership is often ambiguous. For example, the Paramount Chiefs have
jurisdiction over the land in their Chiefdoms as “custodians” of the land, but
recognise and acknowledge community claims, ancestral family lands and individual
claims to land. The resulting ambiguity presents significant challenges to the
development and improvement of forestland management. The District Councils and
other traditional authorities tend to assume the rights of management but they often
lack the capacity and clarity to protect lands from commercial use.
In September 2018, the Government announced a complete suspension of timber
cutting and said, “The public should notify the Ministry through the Director of
Forestry of any illegal logging activities within their communities.” But, as with the
several laws governing forests, environment and protected areas, the government
dictate has had little to no effect on logging in areas around the country. That official
ban was rescinded less than a year later and a sole timber exporter, Babadi Kamara,
continued to load containers with logs and ship to China.
Of specific interest to loggers and timber exporters is the African mahogany tree
or Khaya anthotheca. But, because of habitat loss and degradation, along with
selective cutting, K. anthotheca is listed as “vulnerable”, just shy of endangered on
the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened
Species (IUCN Red List). The IUCN Red List was established in 1964, and
has become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global
extinction risk status of animal, fungus and plant species.
The Tigerwood or Lovoa trichilioides, sometimes called the African Walnut tree is
also listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List, yet it is harvested and exported
freely from Sierra Leone and Guinea ports.
Amongst the major threats is the unregulated harvesting of African
Rosewood or Pterocarpus erinaceus for export to China. Rosewood is a hardwood
used for furniture, flooring, decorative panels, etc. and is valued for its fine grain and
pink-brown colours.
Sierra Leone is a land of laws and government oversight institutions. The forests of
Royanka and other parts of Sierra Leone fall under the protection and purview of the
Ministry of Environment, created in 2019. Other agencies, such as the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), the National Protected Area Authority (NPAA), and the
forestry division have now been placed under the management of the Ministry of
Environment. The National Tourist Board, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Country
Planning and the Municipality and district councils all have their fingers in the mix of
laws and implementation/enforcement of the laws.
Sierra Leone has a system for logging concessions, tracking logs and monitoring
forest reserves. Kamara, the Forest Conservator, said, “Our Ministry roadside
checkpoints operate around the country looking for illegally cut logs. We have patrols
that are supposed to monitor the logging stock to promote sustainable logging.”
The Paramount Chief of the District, Kanda Kargbo III, said he tries to stop people
from cutting so many trees. He said he has reported the matter to the Police but he
doesn’t have the support of the government. He said, “The people here are very poor
and they see quick money from timber cutters and tree buyers. We used to rely on
the trees and bush for everything but that has all gone with the wind.”
Paramount Chief Kargbo noted the weak laws and lack of implementation or
enforcement of the laws as barriers to his authority and government intervention. He
quotes from the Constitution of the Republic of Sierra Leone, in Section 7(1)a, “The
State shall harness all the natural resources of the nation to promote national
prosperity and an efficient, dynamic and self-reliant economy.”
Section 28 of the Forestry Act, 1988 was amended by repealing and replacing the
following new section, in 2022. 28.(1) A person who, without lawful authority, cuts,
burns, uproots, damages or destroys a tree, removes timber or other forest produce,
clears land… or conducts forest operation, in a national, commercial or community
forest, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not less than
Le15,000,000 (approximately $1,500 USD) or to a term of imprisonment not
exceeding 12 months or to both such fine and imprisonment.
(2) A person who, without lawful authority, cuts, burns, up-roots, damages, or
destroys vegetation… commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not
less than Le10,000,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or to
both such fine and imprisonment.
(9) A person who, obstructs or hinders a forest officer in the exercise of his powers
and duties under this Act, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not
less than Le10,000,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 3 months or to
both such fine and imprisonment.”
Chief Pa Alimamy Kamara of Bureh Chiefdom, in the Port Loko District, said most of
the chiefdoms across the country are being logged. “If you stand up and resist the
deforestation, the community will band together against you. They are starving,
desperate for money and the bush and forests are the only sources of money. So
they have no choice.”
Green Scenery is a local NGO working on environmental and land rights. Joseph
Rahall, the Executive Director, said, “Our trees are our hearts and lungs. The
importance of our forests cannot be overstated. From oxygen, water, food, climate,
habitat and beyond. Each tree cut affects our whole eco-system and we are slowly
but massively reducing our very lives… we are making our own deathbeds.” He
noted the shortsighted, poverty-driven and illegal logging. “We only see the shortterm monetary gain but we have our futures to think about,” Rahall said.
Tommy Garnett is Director of the NGO, Environmental Foundation for Africa, that’s
been working in Sierra Leone for the past 25-years. He said, “Not having enough
information about the status of our forests means that we are taking decisions in the
dark that could come back to haunt us. Every action we take to destroy the
environment is an action taken against ourselves.” He said if the land continues to be
degraded and deforested, people will have no choice but to migrate into the city. “I
think we are sleepwalking into a very difficult future, because of the fact that we are
not managing our forests the way we should

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