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The fragile state of Freetown ’s Western Peninsular Forest Reserve (WPFRP) is in many ways representative of Sierra Leone itself. A relatively small but vital patch of forest, the reserve covers some 17,000 hectares along a narrow chain of forested hills. Various catchments within the reserve supply water to Freetown and its outlying areas. Governance and application of laws in this area have been progressively weakened by events during and since the country’s decade-long civil war.

Intense demographic change resulting from the conflict led to the influx of up to one million displaced people to the Freetown area. The breakdown in order after the 1999 rebel offensive on Freetown pushed many displaced people into the hills of the WPFR. Over time, many people came to rely not only on the forest to extract basic resources, such as firewood and bush meat, but also for land on which to settle and farm.

The pressures of war, unplanned development, land clearing, encroachment and fuel wood extraction have dramatically accelerated deforestation in the forest reserve. Limited areas for growth around a densely settled urban area have pushed development into the steep slopes above Freetown area. Local sources claim that as much as 20-25% of the area’s forest cover has been lost. The deforestation is not evenly distributed across the reserve, with the most significant and destructive forest loss near Freetown and on the slopes adjacent to coastal area communities. The interior of the reserve has been much less affected, perhaps due to limited road access. The reserve’s biodiversity, which includes some 300 bird species and wild populations of chimpanzees, has also come under intense pressure. Academic sources estimate that up to 45% of native faunal species have been extirpated since the early 1990’s. There is also a linkage between illegal resource collection and bush meat hunting. Over 80% of Sierra Leoneans rely on fuel wood as primary energy source, and firewood collectors spend considerable amounts of time in the forest. These collectors, along with armed poachers, often take game spontaneously when in forest areas, including monkeys, duikers and bushbuck from the reserve, exerting pressure on what are thought to be very small remaining mammal populations in core forest areas.

Perhaps the most alarming effects of increasing deforestation have been changes to the water catchment itself. As the water catchment forest cover shrinks, the inter-relationship of surface runoff, groundwater recharge and dry season water supplies has changed; this is particularly a concern where adequate water storage facilities do not exist. A study of the Bambara stream found that its water level has declined by one-third in just the past decade. Similarly, the Kongo Dam, for the first time in memory, dried up almost completely in Fall 2004. Erosion from exposed slopes has become so severe that plumes of brown sediment are found in the ocean up to 20km south of Freetown. As a result of this erosion, the Sierra Leone Ports Authority spends large sums of money to dredge coastal areas to keep the city’s ports operational. The rapid pace of land clearing has overwhelmed local authorities and an already fragile legal system, making law enforcement difficult. And even if local forest guards and police officers were present in the reserve and were enforcing laws, the fines and measures stipulated by outdated forestry codes are so weak that they would not be a deterrent. Similarly, demarcation of the reserve area, which has been contested, is a major challenge to effectively managing forest resources.

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US Forest Service Technical Assistance
In response to the environmental challenges facing Sierra Leonean population in Freetown, the US Forest Service conducted a two-week consultative and training mission at the request of the US Embassy Freetown, in June 2005. The request was initially prompted by encroaching urban sprawl on the WPFR. However, once in country, the Forest Service team obtained information from local natural resource management and law enforcement officers suggesting that there are varying factors to the degradation of the WPFR, such as unregulated hunting, stone mining, increasing fuel wood demands, medicinal plant collection, and illegal timber harvesting.

During the 2005 mission the US Forest Service sought to provide the Sierra Leonean natural resource management stakeholders with targeted technical assistance to help achieve the goal of protecting the WPFR. Information on technical assistance needs was obtained through participatory dialogue between the field-based staff of the US Forest Service and the Sierra Leoneans natural resource managers and law enforcement officers. Once the critical management issues and needs were identified, the US Forest Service began to address them by providing recommendations for reforms and training programs. If adequate funding is identified, US Forest Service will implement these recommendations by tapping into the agency's wide range of expertise and developing a program of technical assistance. The 2005 mission was funded by the US Embassy Freetown Public Diplomacy Program, US Agency for International Development's EGAT/ Forestry Team and US Forest Service International Programs.

 Please see USFS trip reports on FRAME:

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