Slowly Slipping Into The Sea

By: Grainne Rhuad

Liberia could be considered a mini-“Great Experiment.”

Settled by free slaves from American and backed by American dollars this colony was meant to be a the Back to Africa initiative that would give slaves a land of their own, and remove their subversive influence on the still owned slaves in the U.S.

The making of Liberia was a troublesome one, unable to initially find land, much like their American example they ended up making deals they never kept with the Native peoples in Africa.

This disenfranchisement of the Native Africans or Countrymen as they came to be called derogatorily by the ruling Liberians who in turn received the derogatory name Congo’s, led directly to the current instability and infighting Liberia has experienced since the early 1980’s

Many troubles have beset the country due to its policy of inequality.  In a country which had no middle class an uprising was bound to occur.   Loss of economic solvency, withdrawal of world support, loss of trade.  However most recently climate change has become an issue that an unstable government has no tools to deal with.

Currently Liberia has a population estimated at 2.9 million with an annual growth rate of 3%. (EPA study 2007)  

Liberia can be divided into three major geological belts; the coastline, the plateau and steep hill. The rolling hills extend from the coastline to 130 kilometers inland rising gradually in elevation from sea level to 100 meters. The second belt is a plateau that is characterized by escarpments with the elevation varying between 100 to 200 meters. For the last geographical belt, the land is steeper and hilly from 200m to 600m of altitude. These belts correspond to three ecological zones:

a. The coastal Mosaic of mangroves, wetlands, and lowland tropical forest

b. The upland tropical forest of the escarpments, and

c. The Upper Guinea forest on the plateau.

Liberia’s economy is largely dependent on extractive industries, namely, rubber, timber, diamonds and gold. In the 1970’s and 1980 iron ore accounted for more than half of the country’s export earning and it was the world’s fifth largest exporter of iron ore on the world market. About 75% of the country’s population depends on subsistence agriculture for living.

One of the problems posed by post conflict Liberia is one that has been experienced in many other troubled countries around the world;  unregulated timber exploitation.  Liberia was a land of great trees; it was in fact at one time the rubber export capitol of the world.  When the government was stable trees were managed.  However for many reasons instability causes loss of timber.  This is partially due to the fact that richer, Congo’s mostly owned the Rubber Plantations or at least managed them.  Countrymen were the peasant class, working for a pittance which invariably made them feel the rubber plantations were a prime target for striking back.  Timber is always an excellent money maker and there will ever be someone at hand to buy it.  Timber has been exploited both for money to fuel the war machine of Liberia’s oppositions but also unscrupulous agencies have just slipped in and clear cut the land. In 2003 the UN was compelled to place timber sanctions on Liberia as what was resulting was a “blood timber” situation comparable to the “blood diamond” issue besetting most of Africa.

Because of this and the massive heat waves in an already hot area of the world erosion is beginning to affect the country to the point where food can no longer be grown.  Sand is slipping away into the sea and Liberia has lost coastline at an alarming rate.  Another factor in the eroding of Liberia is the rising of sea levels over the past few years sea levels in the area have raised which speeds up the rate at which the coastline is eaten up.  Liberia is a mainly coastal country with most of its cities close to the coast and the mountain and country regions being less developed even before they began their civil strife.

Liberia is fast losing land to the sea; many of the poorest of an already poor country live in shanties on the outskirts of the cities.  In Monrovia the rainy storm season literally brings the sea into the homes of these people.  Yearly homes simply wash away.  However most families stay in their homes by the sea, stacking their belongings up and letting it wash into their homes because they have no choice.  In Buchanan, the sea has moved 250 metres in almost 40 years. The government’s answer to this is to build a series of sea walls however they have no money for such an endeavour. 

Also attributable to the rising ocean levels is salt water poisoning of livestock, freshwater fish, crops and even people.  Salt water is going much further inland and along with other African coastal countries, the fresh water sources are dwindling because of it. 

Liberia has submitted a request to a fund set up by the United Nations after the Kyoto Protocol was agreed by the majority of the world’s countries a decade ago, and were granted the help requested.  The idea is that industrialized countries pay money into the Least Developed Countries Fund. That cash is then given to those countries which have an “urgent and immediate” need to adapt to the changing climate.  Liberia has asked the fund for $3.3m to run pilot projects in these two areas.  Under the auspices of the UN Development Programme, a breakwater would be built at Monrovia and “natural” programmes, such as mangrove planting, would reduce sand erosion.

The problem many have with this is Liberia’s problems are largely their own making.  They were an economically rich country 30 years ago and through their own treatment of the least of their people, lost everything.  The question that arises is what should Liberia be responsible for and with so many of us facing unavoidable changes in the future, what should be required of all of us?  Is it okay for a country to ignore its own needs to its detriment and then ask the world to fix it? 

Another Problem facing Liberia is its destroyed infrastructure and its effect on the environment.  As a result of 14 years of civil crisis, the entire electrical grid of Liberia is destroyed. About 97% of Liberian households are without state generated electricity. Power is produced from individual generators, which uses gasoline and diesel.

Also facing Liberia is weather pattern changes, the rainy seasons have been longer, and due to this more land is being swept away as discussed before, but also unexpected problems are cropping up like overgrowth in insect populations. 

Last year the rainy season resulted in Liberia has experiencing its worst caterpillar plague in three decades. Tens of millions of the black-haired creatures have swarmed farms, devastated crops and contaminated several major waterways with their feces.   Waterways which also have not been managed by the government and pose a health hazard to the population through drinking as a result. 

The effected food-producing area, already strained from a tenuous recovery following years of civil war, could stand to lose a substantial sum of its coffee and cocoa crop if the crisis continues to loom without significant aid. Furthermore, there is growing concern that the plague could spread to neighboring Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire.

The government called for widespread aerial spraying of pesticides but again the type and quantity being used offer harm to both the already besieged soil and waterways.  It is a quick fix that will result in long term problems. 

“Working in close collaboration with the EPA and the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) commissioned the first State of the Environment report (SoE) for Liberia. The report was launched by government during the observance of World Environment Day in the port city of Buchanan. The report attributes the environmental problems to the existence of weak laws and the lack of enforceability of those that exist on the books. The State of the Environment Report examines Liberia’s environment in both the natural and human development context in order to provide an early warning system. “

Priority areas identified in the NBSAP are:

1. Land rehabilitation
2. Forestry sector reform
3. Timber management
4. Poverty alleviation through appropriate and equitable use of natural resources
5. Food security
6. Addressing the bush meat trade
7. Provision of alternative sources of protein to bush meat
8. Restoration of electricity
9. Environmental impact assessment
10. Land- use planning


Those who would speak for Liberia like Vice President, Ambassador Joseph N. Boakai have stated “Liberia has not contributed in any significant way to global warming.”  This statement is hard to quantify, of course they have not contributed as much as continuously industrial countries, however they have clearly not managed their own resources, nor have they seen to infrastructure that would help with some of their problems.  In addition as discussed before they have blanketed pesticide over the nation and largely use petroleum products for cooking and heating. 

Yet these countries are largely poorer and through nobody’s “fault’ at all they happen to be in the area of the world that is naturally experiencing a lot of invasive problems due to climate change.  We cannot tilt the world in order to reward those who either are poorer or have not polluted. 

What we can do is two- fold.  We can do something about ourselves.  Beyond sending aid to countries we can make an impact on our own pollution and carbon footprint.  We seldom think of working harder on “us” rather than sending money and workers.

We also can make plans because like it or not the world is on a course.  Human migration is eminent it’s no longer a matter of if but when.  How we will deal with this and where people will go will be the test of the next generation I fear.  We need to help prepare for that.  We can no longer afford to say “My country love it or leave it.” We must begin to think in terms of how to manage resources like food and housing.  Make no mistake, there is enough to go around, we need to rethink our largess.  We need to consider Wants vs. Needs, and practice better husbandry.  Good husbandry does not mean big cattle lots and huge grain operations that do not feed people. 

To be fair Liberia has been making some effort to effect change recently.  They recently joined with Sierra Leone to protect the Goba forest a tract of forest that spans both countries.  The protected land will be known as The Peace Park and will provide the potential to raise tens of millions of dollars over coming decades, ensuring sustained funding for protected area management and community development.  Some of this funding will be dependent on outside interests hoping to secure safety for wildlife that will also be protected within the area.  Both countries are hoping to capture the goodwill of other countries and the UN by administering this project.  Whether they can afford to develop and enforce this protection remains to be seen. 

What we do know is Liberia cannot afford to ignore the shifts in climate or they will be migrating along with other countries.  Neither can any of us afford to ignore any country’s efforts because they will be migrating towards more established countries who will have to deal with the influx in some capacity. 

Liberia also seems to have learned the well earned lesson of humanity from all their own problems in amazing solidarity.  The 20th poorest country in the world pulled together $3000 USD for aid to Haiti.  This in a country where the average annual income is $362 per person (USD).  Liberians at the fundraising concert in Monrovia were quotes as saying “we who are the poorest of the poor well understand displacement.” And “We cannot afford not to give when we are receiving so much help. “ 

Because Liberia is in essence a “Mini Me” of the United States”, we need to take note.  The disallowance of a viable middle class landed them in the civil unrest they are in.  Turning a blind eye to the poor, or patting each other on the back for employing the poor as houseboys created the climate that induced one of the most violent coup we have seen recently.  Ignoring infrastructure in favour of entertaining dignitaries and building McMansions is directly related to the rate at which they are experiencing troubles from climate change. 

Yes, we should take note and we should work not to repeat their history on a larger scale.