Monrovia’s pot-holed roads are lined with signs telling you that rape is a crime. Slogans like "stop she could be your mother" are accompanied by a graphic cartoon depicting the act of rape. That, and bullet-riddled walls, are hardly an encouraging welcome to a capital city.
Liberia has been horrifically damaged by 14 years of one of the most brutal civil wars in recent times. A generation grew up during the war, became soldiers when they were children and were led to believe eating their enemy's heart would grant protection from bullets. During the war 75% of women were raped, and a horrendously high rape rate continues to this day.
Liberia is also only now seeing its first intake of school children to have known only peace. During the civil war children had their education interrupted for years at a time, often because their families left their homes to flee the fighting, and for one two-year period because the education system stopped altogether.
During the war foreign investment virtually dried up. It has not returned, making it almost impossible for many Liberians to find work and leaving 64% of the population below the poverty line.
In Monrovia, there is a slum called West Point located entirely on a sand bar. It is a 62,000 strong community living in tightly packed corrugated iron houses built on sand. I am sure there is something in the Bible about this not being a good idea, but these people don’t have a lot of options. Many of them came to Monrovia fleeing fighting in the provinces and they built makeshift houses wherever possible. At one stage in the war, this area saw an influx of 9,000 people in just two months.
West Point is now a busy community with several schools and a clinic staffed by one of Liberia’s 51 doctors. Walking along one of the sandy lanes in the midday heat I saw a woman in agony, her eyes rolled back in their sockets, suffering the indignity of being pushed to hospital in a wheelbarrow. I was shown around by a community worker who told me proudly he was raising money for an ambulance. There is clearly a need for one, and for some basic sanitation as well. I saw people using the beach as a toilet metres from where fishermen sat cleaning their catch and fixing their nets. But it struck me there were more pressing problems that what this community was facing. The whole area is being eroded and reshaped on a yearly basis by the rising tide. Ten years ago, I was told, West Point was considerably further from the coast. Now a one metre rise in sea level would wash the whole community away. And the effects of rising sea levels are also being felt through the water table as the community’s wells are becoming salty.
Ironically, while climate change is a serious threat, it also presents Liberia with an opportunity. Its rainforests survived the civil war thanks to the economic collapse, which rendered trade of most kinds impossible and brought international sanctions on blood timber. During the war the timber business shrank to nothing. This leaves Liberia with a very valuable reserve - 40% of the country is covered by forest, significantly more than neighbours Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire. The timber from huge hardwood trees can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars. But there other more sustainable ways of making money from rainforests, that could generate a continuous stream of income for the country for years to come.
One of these is REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, a financial incentive scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Liberia has completed the first step of drawing a US$200,000 grant. But the complex carbon accounting might be too much for Liberia’s administration. There are fears the international community will not deem Liberia ready for REDD and the money will be diverted elsewhere.
This will leave Liberia’s needy government with little option but to cut the forests down. According to the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy forestry revenues should grow from US$500,000 in 2008 to US$24million this year. The destruction of a carbon sink of this size is a problem not just for Liberia but for the international community as a whole.
To get Liberia successfully on the path of development means strengthening its institutions and making sure much needed funds are available to help preserve its forests. But Liberia’s problems have been ignored before.
Liberia, as a country, was made in America. It was set up for freed slaves who were quick to adopt the clothing and mannerisms of their former masters, who wasted no time enslaving the indigenous population. It was established as an independent state in 1847 and since then America has not always been a responsible parent. During the war the population of Monrovia begged the US for help, even going so far as to pile dead bodies outside the embassy to make their point, but the only marines that arrived were put to guarding the US embassy.
Today there are 12,000 UN peacekeepers in Liberia, propping up the economy to the tune of US$500million a year, but with their services in great demand across the region there are fears they could soon be moved, perhaps to tackle instability in Guinea. Without concerted international support towards creating sustainable and environmentally friendly development, Liberia faces the prospect of a rapid and catastrophic collapse.
Lynn Morris is part of Atlantic Rising, an environmental education charity creating a network of schools across the world in low-lying communities threatened by climate change. The team is currently circumnavigating the Atlantic along the one metre contour line, which is predicted to be the new Atlantic coastline in 100 years time. Their journey is an exploration of what could be lost if sea levels continue to rise and an investigation of how people around the ocean are finding innovative ways to adapt to or mitigate the impacts of climate change. Here she shares some thoughts and experiences from their recent trip through Liberia.