Ahead of COP26, highly vulnerable countries like Sierra Leone must commit to robust climate action

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati Sierra Leone

When parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change meet later this month in Glasgow, Scotland, the focus will be on the whether the biggest emitter States are doing enough to cut back on emissions and stave off a possible climate meltdown. Industrialised countries bear the biggest responsibility for the current state of the world’s climate. They must take bold action to roll back harmful practices and support countries like Sierra Leone, vulnerable to the effects of climate change, to adapt to the new reality.

Yet to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change on their populations, States like Sierra Leone need to do more than simply rely on the provisions of international instruments. In 2019, while addressing the UN General Assembly during the Climate Action Summit, President Bio noted that “Sierra Leone…is rated as the third most vulnerable [country] to the effects of climate change.” He complained that the country is a “victim of actions we have not contributed to” and thus is unfairly and unacceptably paying the price both in terms of human lives and lack of development. He highlighted actions his government was taking to address climate change including planting over 100,000 trees as part of a five-year plan to plant two million trees.

Sadly though, 2019 turned out to be one of the worst years for Sierra Leone’s climate fight and the president’s words at the UN appear to have been mere lip service. The country’s 2020 public finance audit report shows that in 2019 more than 10 million slow-growing, rosewood trees were shipped off to Asia. Approximately two hundred thousand acres of old-growth forest was destroyed in the process- with the Outamba-Kilimi National Park, a protected forest in the north of the country, being the hardest hit.  Effectively, in a single year the government nullified its five-year reforestation plan, five times over.

Despite calls from environmental activists and civil society organisations to ban timber export, the government has steadfastly resisted. It plans to continue in the coming dry season after a pause brought about by the rains. Fifty years ago, Sierra Leone had a forest cover of 60%. Today, it is below 5%. At the current rate of exploitation, our vulnerable country will hit rock-bottom in a few short years- a victim of its own actions.

The impacts of this assault on our forests are already being felt. Rainfall this season has been shorter and more violent. Clean, fresh water is in short supply across the country.  Farm yields have dropped considerably because of poor soil quality and food insecurity affects almost 50% of the population. The 2017 landslide in Freetown that killed over a thousand people is a haunting reminder of how deadly the absence of forests can become. Yet the government is failing to course correct.

So as the country delegation prepares to show up at Glasgow, they should resist the temptation of promising what they will ultimately undermine or not deliver on. Instead, they need to honestly acknowledge that not only have they failed to do as much as they could to counter the effects of climate change in our backyard, but they have also worsened its impact. 

The Government needs to take responsibility for this failure and recognise the long term danger that it portends for the people if things are not done differently, quickly.  And there are a few things that our precious nation could start doing to ward off the worst of the impacts.

For starters, an unequivocal ban on the export of timber from protected areas and old growth forests will make a quick and decisive difference. It will be a definitive statement of intent to the world that we take the climate crisis seriously. This can be complemented by effective forest conservation and regeneration programmes led by and targeting communities. By banning the export of timber, we will save 10 million trees annually, countless number of lives and most importantly, save a country.

Another action government could take is to conduct proper due diligence for any development project or investment likely to cause damage to our environment. From fish habours to mining concessions, where the net impact of a project or investment is negative, they should not be pursued. The longevity and health of a nation should not be sacrificed for short term revenue generation.

Finally, communities that bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change should be part of decision-making processes relating to conservation and protection of nature as well as the approval of development projects or investments. 

We can and must do more internally to mitigate the impacts that climate change will continue to have on the people of Sierra Leone.

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