Liberia has some of the richest deposits of iron ore in Africa. Extracting these resources is seen as a key factor in developing the country's economy, and lifting its people out of poverty after years of civil war. However, some of the most accessible reserves of ore are in the remote Nimba mountain range, which is one of the few remaining West African wet-zone forests, and home to many unique species and ecosystems. The most viable ores in the region are usually the shallowest, which has the advantage of making them easier to extract, but on the other hand they tend to occur in areas of open forest which are important to the animals that are an integral part of the diet for local people. Our challenge was to establish an operation to extract the ore without destroying these special habitats or fragile local livelihoods.
The first step was to build a solid basis for decision-making, which meant carrying out a large-scale year-long ecological study in both the wet and dry seasons. Nothing like this had been possible during the civil war, so there was very little knowledge about local biodiversity. We assembled a large team of specialists and partners from Liberia and other neighbouring countries, including the Liberian Forestry Development Authority, the Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) Conservation International and Fauna and Flora International, and the Côte d'Ivoire-based Afrique Nature.
By listening to the NGOs, we discovered that there's a huge part we can play in safeguarding the environment. We also realised that we didn't need to be defensive about the environmental damage that can come from mining - no one disputed that the iron ore had to be mined - the question was whether we would do it responsibly, and our challenge was to prove that we would.
We soon found that we had valuable partners in the NGOs and government agencies, who needed us as much as we needed them. By developing untapped mineral resources, we bring in the potential for good, carefully targeted investment that would not otherwise be available. In other words, we were playing the role of aid agency, as well as developer. That brings a responsibility to work together on shared objectives that are in everyone's interests.
Our top priority now is to complete a comprehensive Environmental Management Plan that takes biodiversity conservation fully into account. This will also formalise our commitment to mitigate the inevitable damage caused by mining over the next years. In fact, our aim is to leave these forests in a better condition than we found them, which will only be possible by pooling our resources with other stakeholders.
The study proved that the forests close to the proposed mine sites did indeed show high levels of biodiversity, but it also revealed that this was under threat from long-term degradation and decline. We had an opportunity not only to mitigate damage from mining, but to start reversing that trend.
One of the positive but unexpected consequences of the work we've done has been the establishment of an energetic national stakeholder group, which brings together all the different NGOs working in the area. It meets every two months and develops shared plans for the management of forest-based sustainable community development activities. The group has also helped the government agencies to focus their efforts, and make conservation their priority rather than commercial logging.