Dr Monde I presume?
Tucked away on a side alley off Congo Cross, an exceptionally busy intersection to the west of central Freetown, the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) offices are pretty tricky to find. After I’d pushed through a halo of red dust thrown up in the wake of my motorcycle taxi I wormed my way into a quiet residential area of tin-roofed houses till I noticed a crack in a steel gate revealing the Society’s logo and an aggressive mongrel guard dog.
The bespectacled Doctor and Director sat behind his desk in a spartan office, welcoming me in warmly and not batting an eyelid when I asked if he wouldn’t mind conducting the interview in front of his desk, having just discovered my microphone lead wouldn’t quite stretch.
“Of course, I shall sit in the plastic chair” he laughed, leaving the leather backed swivel chair behind and scooping up a flimsy replacement, “but now you will see just how tall I really am!”
The Society was established in 1986 and had a major hand, alongside the RSPB and Birdlife International, in finally establishing the Gola Rainforest as a National Park in 2011. The Gola makes up a significant clump of what they hope will one day become the ‘Peace Park’, a giant National Park conjoining Sierra Leone and Liberia’s portions of the Upper Guinean forest belt and very much the object of my desire for this entire expedition. Needless to say I was interested in what the Doctor had to say.
“We are here to promote the best use of Sierra Leone’s natural resources and national pride in the country’s rich biodiversity.”
Dr Monde spoke throughout in lilting Creole-accented English, his neat notes balanced on his knee, his eyes fixed firmly on the microphone. I could have listened to him all day.
“The Gola forest was under extreme pressure: mining, logging, land grabbing, bio fuel projects, agricultural encroachment. The people were not able to stem this tide alone. We are trying to bring sanity for the wise use of resources and also make sure that those people living in the forest areas are provided with the means to improve their livelihoods.”
A balance has to be struck. The days of fencing off and guarding National Parks by force are through. Dr. Monde explained that communities need to be involved directly in the benefits of conservation, everything from improvements in infrastructure, education and healthcare to aid and advice in the improvement of their agricultural practices. Without community support a meaningful National Park that protects and conserves the ecosystem within its boundary is simply not possible. “Local people must find meaning in conservation and not continue to live off exploitation of the forest. The Gola is the best example of our efforts.”
Huge challenges remain but if Dr.Monde and his partners can find success in the Gola then the project could be a model for conserving the remaining patches of forest right across Africa. The implications for the preservation of forest wildlife and their communities would be massive.
I flicked the recorder off and Dr. Monde relaxed. He told me he had spent time being educated at Aberystwyth University in mid-Wales before working his way through local and national politics in Sierra Leone to become a Security Minister and the Minister for Agriculture in the last Government. He has held high positions within several Non Governmental organisations and taught Genetics at the University in Freetown. I couldn’t help but wonder what had drawn him towards the position of Executive Director at CSSL, when his previous experience could be making him a small fortune in the rapidly commercialising capital.
“I have many options” he answered, “but here I see direct results, I can see the relationship between my efforts and the benefit for humankind.”
I asked him about his time in Aber, a town I knew well enough from my time working in Cardiff, he told me he had been there in the early 70s, his eyes gleaming as he recalled his days punting a VW beetle around the Welsh countryside.
“You must have been quite the local celebrity” I nudged.
“I was very popular” he replied, with a sparkle.