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Faculty member Elizabeth King facilitates a workshop at Liberia’s Forestry Training Institute on soft skills in the forest industry.

Warnell faculty assist in $5M grant for forest conservation in Liberia

Nestled in the heart of West Africa’s rainforests, the Republic of Liberia holds a rich history in the region. It also is home to millions of acres of forests, some of the last remaining West African rainforests on the continent.


As the country recovers and rebuilds after more than a decade of civil war, a team of researchers, including faculty from the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, are working alongside Liberian colleagues in higher education to strengthen conservation and forest management there. A $5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development will implement a new program, Higher Education for Conservation Activity, to provide education, training and technical assistance to forestry professionals in Liberia.


The project is a large, collaborative effort; partner institutions on the project include Alabama A&M University, Tuskegee University, Wellesley College, the University Consortium for Liberia in the United States, the University of Liberia and the Forestry Training Institute in Liberia. The team will establish a Center for Excellence in Forestry, Biodiversity, Conservation and Green Enterprise Development, otherwise known as the FBC Center. Warnell faculty members Jesse Abrams, Kris Irwin and Elizabeth King are part of the collaboration; Matt Auer, dean of the UGA School of Public and International Affairs, is the principal investigator on the grant.


Warnell faculty will work with educators in Liberia to develop a forestry curriculum and best practices that can be used to improve forests and promote sustainable livelihoods throughout the country. Already limited in its size, Liberia’s forests were mismanaged during its years of civil war. As the ruling party sold timber to pay for its war, trees weren’t replanted and a source of the country’s income was lost.


This project, Abrams said, will help set Liberians back on a path to righting those wrongs through education, training and community support for one of Liberia’s main natural resources.


“A lot of the rainforest has been degraded by not very good logging practices, but they didn’t reach every corner of the country,” said Abrams, an associate professor of natural resource policy and sustainability. “And so, forests are, interestingly I think, more of a political discussion than you might expect, given that they’re one of the sources of wealth that the country has.”


Because of the civil war, there’s now a gap in educational capacity in Liberia. Some older forestry experts who worked in higher education either left the country or were killed in the war, while the next generation of forestry professionals missed out on that education during years of tumult.


Now, Liberia’s leaders are looking to their forests as a. source of sustainable wealth—but understand the need for better management. The grant project aims to provide support to help the country get back on track.


Liberian forestry experts have developed a “three Cs approach” to forest management: conservation, community and commercial. More recently, they developed a fourth “C,” carbon. Colleagues from Warnell and other partners on the grant are working to support this framework.


“Because Liberia does have these stocks of somewhat intact tropical forest, as well as a lot of opportunity, potentially, for reforestation,” said Abrams. “So, there could be opportunities to benefit from some of these global carbon payment programs.”


But beyond forest economics and conservation, the team wants to help lay the groundwork for leveraging Liberia’s existing capacity and helping to rebuild where the team finds opportunities. Nobody knows Liberian forests better than Liberians, so it’s important that any curricula development and programming be rooted in schools and organizations in the country.


During a visit last winter, Abrams, Irwin and King toured schools and locations adjacent to forests to begin to understand Liberians’ challenges and opportunities. The project, said Abrams, is more than curriculum development. Rather, he considered it an exchange of training and capacity building.


“It’s helping to develop the institutional infrastructure for higher education, and in forestry and biodiversity conservation,” he said. The team will also embed in this infrastructure a soft-skills curriculum to further develop cultural competencies, communication skills and more. “These skills are needed to understand forest-based communities, working with people from different backgrounds, religious tolerance, access—all these things are key to making this successful.”


This social inclusion strategy will help empower women and young people in the Liberian forestry sector. The team will design a social inclusion strategy to empower women and young people in the Liberian forestry sector. This strategy will also benefit people with disabilities, crisis- and conflict-affected individuals, first-generation post-secondary students, people from minority religious communities, and rural, forest-dwelling and forest-dependent people.


Higher Education Conservation Activity “is built on the premise that sustainable development must be inclusive development,” said Layli Maparyan, the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College. “We are thrilled to have this opportunity to advance environmental and social equality goals at the same time, in creative and synergistic ways.”


The project will also create connections between Liberian and American colleges and universities. Ideally, these efforts will combine to improve Liberia’s capacity to train the next generation of forestry professionals, while encouraging the country’s experts to stay in the country—or return, if they left for an international education.


“Hopefully, eventually the best will want to either return to Liberia or stay in Liberia—and that’s already happening,” said Abrams, recalling one recent doctoral graduate from Kansas State University who has returned to Liberia to teach. “Our role is just to support them as much as possible in making that happen.”

Slide/Banner Caption:
Faculty member Elizabeth King facilitates a workshop at Liberia’s Forestry Training Institute on soft skills in the forest industry.


Associate Professor, Natural Resource Policy and Sustainability
Associate Professor, Ecosystem Ecology & Management

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