Protecting People and Forests in Liberia – Emmanuel G. Smith’s Fascinating Conservation Journey
Emmanuel G. Smith’s role as Project Coordinator working for the Society for Conservation of Nature in Liberia (SCNL) has been key in promoting alternative livelihood programmes such as beekeeping and sustainable cocoa farming to support local communities and protect the Gola forest of Liberia.
His work has been central in helping with the establishment of a community forest, which will function as an important biodiversity corridor, linking the Gola Forest National Park in Liberia to the Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone.
But did Emmanuel always know conservation would be his passion? And what challenges has he faced along the way? Read on to find out!
Why do you work in conservation?
Initially I did not plan to work in conservation. Growing up as a child I first thought I wanted to become a nurse, then an administrator and then a forester.
After my high school graduation, I did not have the money or a sponsor to go to University to study nursing, so I had to drop my first choice. In 2009 I entered University to study public administration, I spent a semester there, but again because I did not have the support (it is a private University, so the tuition is a little high), I had to leave.
I then entered the University of Liberia in 2010 to study forestry. When I thought of forestry before, everything was about logging. But then at the University I was fortunate to come across Professor John Woods, who first introduced me to conservation activities.
In 2012, we established a Forest Biodiversity and Conservation Club to promote forest conservation through awareness. Through the club I got linked to SCNL, where I started to volunteer in 2013. Since 2013 I have transitioned from an intern to different positions within SCNL.
What key steps have you taken in your conservation career?
I have taken a number of steps! After being an intern at SCNL, I first got employed there as Membership and Site Support Group Coordinator in 2016. That was my first official position.
During that time, I was able to manage a conservation agreement project supporting three communities to protect sea turtles and mangroves in exchange for sustainable fishing materials, training and jobs. The project was implemented by SCNL and sponsored by Conservation International.
We successfully implemented that project and based on the result SCNL promoted me to Local Community Empowerment Officer for the GolaMA project; a project funded by the EU to help establish a community forest and develop alternative livelihood strategies whilst reducing bushmeat hunting.
At the same time, I also coordinated the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund project, which was complementing the GolaMA project. Currently I am also a coordinator of a Rainforest Trust project, which is also supporting community forestry in Liberia.
What are the main activities in your current role?
My current role as Project Coordinator is to ensure that the day to day activities of the project are ongoing. First, we have to start by preparing an annual and quarterly plan, and then I have to develop that plan in the field.
I engage with communities, with our staff in the field, with the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and internally with SCNL to make sure that project activities are being implemented correctly for the successful establishment of the community forest. For example, I organise and conducted trainings and workshops and organise exchange visits between communities. Basically, my role as a project coordinator is to ensure accurate planning and execution.
What’s the best part of the job?
What I really like about this job is that I’m in a position to meet lots of people at different levels. I meet internally with my bosses in the office, I meet the field staff in the field, I meet the government agency FDA, I meet the communities, I meet the local authorities and when we are having external guests, I get to meet them too.
The interaction with different groups is really what I love about this job.
What’s the worst part of the job?
The bad road conditions! I have to drive on them every week, almost 10 hours each way to the field site by car. To reach some communities you have to ride a motorcycle for hours, to reach others you have to walk as they are so remote.
I think this is the only thing I don’t like; the people are amazing at the community level and the field staff.
What lessons have you learnt so far?
I’ve learnt a lot of lessons, but I just want to share two of those. One is that making decisions at the rural community level is difficult and challenging, but it is possible.
To make it possible you have to put yourself in the position of the community people and become their friends. Another important thing is to organise exchange visits with other communities that have made a similar decision so they can see it is working elsewhere.
Another lesson I have learnt has to do with sustainability of livelihood activities. If you are training a group of 10 for a particular activity, it is important to give special training to two or three who can be leaders for that particular activity (e.g. lead farmers).
That way it is sustainable because when you are gone, everyone has the skill but at least two people have a broader skillset so they can operate and work independently.
What are you most proud of so far?
The first thing I am proud of as a conservationist is having had the opportunity to organise and lead two communities, the Nomo and Tonglay clan, through the nine-step process of acquiring an authorised community forest status. This will allow the communities to manage the forest sustainably to meet their needs.
Being awarded the Biodiversity Hotspot Hero Award by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund on the 22nd of May this year is another thing I am really proud of, I did not expect it but they saw it fit to give that award to me.
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Whatever you find yourself doing you have to do it with passion, you have to do it with commitment, and you need to give yourself to it totally. It is only passion and commitment that would keep you in some of the remote locations we work in, with bad roads, no internet and no telecommunication.
If you want to work as a conservationist you need to make yourself available, whatever job you find yourself doing, don’t do it because you want to please your bosses, you should do it to the fullest!
What are your next steps?
Since I graduated with a BSc in General Forestry in 2016, I have always wanted to further my education. I was fortunate to apply for a scholarship for a Masters in Landscape Ecology and Nature Conservation at Greifswald University in Germany and was awarded it.
The next step is to get back to school, try to equip myself further and then return to Liberia to continue to work in the conservation sector.
To find out more about the amazing work that Emmanuel and his colleagues do visit scnlliberia.org.