Africa Rising: Carbon credits save Sierra Leone's Gola Rainforest

Turning down mining offers, Sierra Leone has set aside the Gola Rainforest as a new national park in the hopes of collecting carbon credits from abroad. 

Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Fifteen years ago, Sierra Leone’s Gola Rainforest was at the heart of this West African nation’s brutal, decade-long civil war. Five years ago, the forest was under threat from mining companies that were looking for diamonds and iron ore beneath the fertile soil. 

But as of Saturday, the Gola Rainforest, which lies within one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, is now a national park. And it could soon bring Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, a new income stream from the sale of carbon credits.

“We wanted to make Gola a conservation area, not a production area,” says Kate Garnett, an assistant director in Sierra Leone’s Forestry Division.

The government’s Ministry of Mines issued two mining licenses inside the Gola Forest between 2005 and 2007, but Ms. Garnett says those licenses are not valid because they did not receive the Forestry Division’s approval.

“Whatever licenses that were given have been canceled,” she says.

Instead, the government hopes to generate some revenue from the forest by cashing in on the carbon that’s locked up inside all of those trees. They have calculated that, beginning in January 2013, the sale of carbon credits could generate about $1 million per year, which would be enough to cover the park’s annual operating costs.

Carbon financing “is a win-win for the environment and for economic development,” Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Koroma, said on Saturday at the official opening of the national park in Lalehun, 15 miles from the Liberian border.

“By protecting our forest we can generate substantial income while retaining all of the natural benefits that a living, breathing forest provides,” he said.

Scientists estimate that nearly one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation. Schemes selling carbon credits for “reduced” or “avoided” deforestation have cropped up around the world in recent years, although many of those projects have come under fire for shoddy accounting or lax enforcement.

But carbon financing in the Gola Rainforest will be “a gold standard project,” says Jonathan Barnard, the head of the tropical forests unit at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a British conservation group that has long supported Sierra Leone’s conservation work in Gola.

“The government has set the bar very high here. They’re aiming for what are currently the best standards out there for these sorts of projects,” Mr. Barnard says.

Carbon dollars aside, the Gola Rainforest has plenty of value. The park’s 175,000 acres are home to some 500 species of butterfly, 300 species of bird, and 45 mammal species, including chimpanzees and the endangered pygmy hippo.

The Gola Rainforest is also Sierra Leone’s largest remaining tract of forest within the Upper Guinea Forest ecosystem, which Conservation International has deemed one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots. Locally, the rainforest is an important source of water purification for the residents of the nearly 500 villages that lie near the park’s boundaries.

“The costs of losing what’s there are absolutely enormous,” Barnard says.

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