…a packrafting journey into the heart of Sierra Leone and Liberia's Peace Park…supported by the RGS Journey of a Lifetime grant

On the brink

22nd April 2013IMG_2517

10:30pm, Medina Village, Gola Rainforest

My hammock is on the ground. There is nowhere to hang it in this mud-brick village but it doesn’t matter. I’m knackered.

My plans had just changed dramatically. I thought I had a couple of days grace before the jungle hauling started but, in fact, I’ll be heading out at dawn.

Medina village spreads out on a gentle slope. A large mango tree casts a gentle late evening shadow onto the doorstep of the local imam and disco beats from a battered PA hum out from a covered concrete square.

Behind it all the forest waits.

‘I’ll be in that tomorrow’, I thought to myself, trying to force out the music and weld my eyes shut.

Originally my plan had been to get a lift a little further up the Park, at least to a spot where I might be able to get my gear and guide on motorbikes, before setting out on foot a day later in pursuit of the most easterly point on the river.

At sundown Sakpa, my guide, approached me with the news that there was in fact a smaller forest track leading direct from this village north in the direction of a deserted settlement called Peyama. “From there the river is close” he explained, “the locals here talk of an old abandoned fishing hole on the Moro.”

It sounded great, no need to mess around with bikes or stay in another village outside the park, we could get going immediately on this hidden pathway and the fishing hole was bang on the point the river forms the border: the exact starting position I was hoping for.

Any plan that simplifies travelling logistics on an expedition is a good one and by the looks of the maps it would only add a couple of miles of extra walking, yet save us an entire day of faffing around with vehicles on unreliable roads. I was more than happy, doubly so when Sakpa revealed he’d also found a man to help carry my supplies. On introduction I couldn’t help but notice the additional member to our party was missing an arm, but he demonstrated his superior power by fluidly flicking my 30-kilo backpack onto his head. “Too easy”, he added with a smile. He was going to be fine.

A tiny puppy nuzzles the edge of my hammock, barely able to co-ordinate its paws it flops forwards, face planting on my enormous bag of food and falls asleep. I wish it was that easy for me. I check and recheck the mixer and microphone, acutely aware that I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I’m a photo and video journalist, a writer at a stretch, this kit is totally alien to me. I could easily press the wrong button and mute the entire recording without even realising it.

Focus on the positives Will.

I had immediately liked my guide Sakpa. He had come highly recommended from the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP). He was bright, funny, a supreme conversationalist and had an excellent knowledge of the forest born from his days as a bush meat hunter. Crucially though he completely understood what I was trying to do and what I needed to succeed. He had investigated the possibility of quicker forward tracks to the Moro independently and days later would be pushing me on upstream to ensure I made it to the furthest possible point on the river. Regardless of the weight of kit he carried, the terrain, or our accommodation, he never once complained. “No problem” was always his answer in the face of any adversity.

Finding good guides is something I have struggled with in the past. I always pay above the going rate and try to foster a positive and inclusive environment, but expeditions, by their nature, are intense, and building the sort of instant relationships of trust you need is tricky when you are asking people to carry heavy weights in extreme environments and have, in their eyes, totally nonsensical reasons for conducting your project in the first place. It was refreshing to have someone on board who seemed so positive and switched on.

People seemed clued up in general in this area. I had sat in the wings of the GRNP Community Development Roadshow watching as groups of children enacted plays in English describing the carbon cycle and the process of punishment for an illegal bush-meat hunter. It was incredible. How many nine year olds in the UK could speak with such knowledge on the effects of global warming in a second language?

Afterwards the elders took over the mantle and harangued the Gola Rainforest representatives: “what happens if your conservation causes the number of chimps to quadruple and they eat all our cocoa?” shouted one elderly gentleman, “can I shoot animals that stray outside the park?” retorted another, following with “what do I do if a forest buffalo (a protected species) is destroying my crops?”

“You must exercise patience!” exhorted Fumba over the melee. He clasped the microphone with intent. Fumba was a former teacher working with the National Park community department, ferociously intellectual and confident enough to command the attention of the entire room in spite of his slight build. “You cannot shoot animals in the park, you cannot even carry a shotgun in Sierra Leone – it is completely prohibited to hunt the chimpanzee, if you have a problem with a buffalo take your complaint immediately to the local government authority or the forest guards and you will receive an immediate response but you can not, you must not, take matters into your own hands with protected species!”

As a starry-eyed animal lover I found it hard to see chimps as a pest, but if I was a poor cocoa farmer who had just had his crop destroyed by a marauding family of apes I’d want justice too, and I would be unlikely to file a complaint with a government body first. I collared Fumba afterwards.

“People need to realise that the forest rangers we are employing are here not just to enforce laws and arrest local populations” he spoke quickly, emphasising every other word, crowbarring his opinions onto my recorder, “we are working on a plan to plant the crop that the chimpanzee love all around the park boundary, so instead of going into the community the chimpanzee will feed on the crop far away from people, but no one likes people who are there to enforce the law!”

The Gola Rainforest National Park had only been established in 2011 and this was the first time this community development department had organised road shows of this nature to visit these forest edge communities.

“If the community follows the rules they will realise some serious benefits, which will be better than just killing animals – you can not survive on just eating elephant for a year, a month or even a week, but you can survive on the forest forever. Even with things like freshwater, the removal of trees in West Africa is now directly affecting the communities access to drinking water. This stream over here…” Fumba pointed out in the darkness to a brook hidden behind the mango tree “…is drying up! For the first time ever!”

“The community gets money directly from the National Park and the Community Development Fund for infrastructure, education initiatives and sustainable farming. Forget about killing animals, protect the forest and you will get even bigger benefits in the future!”

Perhaps it seems too good to be true for these people. With local populations swelling in number any restriction on access to bush resources was always going to be contentious. The Gola Rainforest National Park is not without funding issues and a large portion of the finances for their plans remain tied up in a carbon credit scheme that is pending payment. It could take months, if not years, to implement schemes such as the crop buffer zones, by which point these communities may have already lost patience. The government talks a good game but in 2011 two associates of the Vice President were filmed taking corrupt payments in exchange for timber concessions in protected areas, it looks as bad as it sounds, and helped feed a prevailing feeling that the government could change its mind over the level of protection afforded to its National Parks, redraw boundaries, and allow the resumption of commercial logging and mining. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Fumba or the aims of the GRNP for a second, perhaps those in power will continue to support conservation, but without money and meaningful policy the GRNP won’t be able to deliver on their promises and will quickly lose any trust they have fostered between themselves and the villages.

Many of the GRNP employees have come from the communities around the Park’s borders, received an education of sorts, and found employment in the town. Off the record I was told an uncomfortable truth: “many of the new generation in these villages aren’t looking to actually better their lives here in the forest, they want access to the sorts of resources that will help get them and their families out of this area for good. No one will care what the chimp eats when you are living in the town and people will have far fewer children when they don’t need the manpower to continue to farm these fields.” Then you’ve solved your conservation problem as well: the people who are in conflict with the aims of the GRNP will have largely moved on and the remaining population would be small enough to be completely self sufficient without ever needing to enter the National Park’s portion of forest, but that costs far more money and takes more time than this critically endangered environment actually has: elsewhere in West Africa up to 90% of the Upper Guinean Forest belt is already gone.

It’s a tough argument. You can’t fence off a National Park and enforce the rule of law with an iron fist, but equally is it right to protect our perception of the rights of forest people to the extent that you are effectively imprisoning them in a life of rural poverty? In the West we like the idea of the tribal idyll, but when you’ve already choked their food supply with the removal of 90% of a forest environment it is hard to justify the maintenance of an ineffective human zoo. At least humans have a choice to move on, the animals that come increasingly into contact with the forest edge communities don’t and are being persecuted to the brink of extinction as a result.

The music stops at 4am and is replaced immediately by the crowing village cockerels. Soon I can make out Sakpa walking across the courtyard towards my hammock.

This is the beginning of another massive adventure.

Tune in 11am on the 13th and 20th September for the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of the live recordings from the expedition – http://bbc.in/1dSo54b 

Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/

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