Natural Capital Accounting and Mapping in Liberia

This blog post is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Conservation International's Human Nature blog written by Rachel Neugarten.

As a GDSA member country, Liberia has committed to incorporating the value of natural capital into decision-making. A big achievement towards making this a reality happened at the close of 2016, when Conservation International and the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency closed out a pilot program on natural capital mapping and accounting. This initiative, which has been featured on the GDSA blog in the past, highlighted some interesting lessons learned.

Liberia’s most valuable natural capital is concentrated in the northwest and southeast of the country.

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Liberia’s most essential natural capital for forest carbon, freshwater ecosystem services and biodiversity is concentrated in two relatively intact forest regions in the northwest and southeast of the country. According to global estimates, Liberia has some of the highest above-ground stocks of forest carbon in the world — higher even than in Amazonia. These forests have so far been spared from development due to their remoteness. However, only 6 percent of Liberia’s closed-canopy forests are currently within designated protected areas.

Liberia’s timber industry employs a large workforce, provide as much as half of export revenues and contributes roughly 11 percent of Liberia’s GDP. Timber concessions overlap with the most intact and biodiversity-rich natural forests in Liberia, however, so it is important that development in this sector is sustainable.

Proposed protected areas, if enacted, would result in protection of 21 percent of Liberia’s densest forests, which is still below the government goal of 30 percent forest protection. The results of the analysis indicate that forested areas in Lofa and Nimba counties in northern Liberia, which have high carbon stocks as well as high vulnerability to future deforestation, might be good candidates for initiatives that compensate communities for keeping forest standing. Additional research on the ground is needed to validate the findings, however.

Many of Liberia’s most important natural areas are unprotected.

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The analysis found that designated protected areas capture around 7 percent of Liberia’s essential natural capital for biodiversity, carbon, fresh water and coastal protection. If proposed protected areas were established, they would bring the total to 26 percent. While this would represent tremendous progress, the vast majority — between 74 percent and 93 percent — of Liberia’s essential natural capital would still fall outside of formal protected areas, making it vulnerable to destruction.

Among other impacts, inadequate protection has led to people unsustainably hunting in forests, threatening the future of species even within protected areas. The analysis found that current protected areas only include around 9 percent of Liberia’s biodiversity priority areas. If proposed protected areas were established, 33 percent of biodiversity priority areas would be preserved; however, this would still collectively only protect 25 percent of Liberia’s chimpanzees and other large mammals. Small-scale clearing for subsistence agriculture, as well as large-scale timber concessions, also threaten to degrade these forest patches. In some areas, oil palm concessions also overlap with essential areas for biodiversity and fresh water.

Expansion of oil palm plantations may pose the biggest threat to Liberia’s remaining natural forests.

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The economic opportunity represented by palm oil is huge. It could bring jobs and income that would contribute to the national economy and transform communities. But developing palm oil sustainably is difficult — perhaps impossible — in a country with so much remaining intact forest. Any new development requires clearing standing forest, which is in conflict with the palm oil sector’s sustainability standards. However, the analyses of areas that have been cleared, indicate that areas around existing oil palm and rubber plantations have the highest vulnerability to future clearing.

For more information, please visit the Conservation International blog Human Nature or read the final technical report and the map atlas!