Why we are reviving lowland rice production in Liberia – Silas Siakor

The way I would sum it up is that if a Liberian hasn’t had rice, they haven’t eaten.

If a Liberian has not had any rice, and you ask them “Have you had something to eat today?”, they would answer “No, I haven’t eaten,” because they hadn’t had any rice. That’s how intimate our relationship with rice is. Right now, Liberia imports at least 60-70% of the food we eat in the country. More than half of that import volume is rice.

Lofa, where we work in Foya, used to be regarded as the breadbasket for Liberia. They used to produce large volumes of rice, year in year out, and everybody knew them for the volume of rice coming out of that region. The lowlands were developed with canals, dams, everything needed to store water throughout the year. They were able to farm and harvest three times a year. However, after fourteen years of civil war, total disrepair and lack of maintenance, those dams could no longer function properly and the canals were all closing up.

What we did was to meet these people, we held a series of dialogues, and the analysis revealed that if those lowland areas that were once developed were rehabilitated, the dams were restored and returned to their pre-war potential, the community would be able to regain its status. The communities felt very confident that that would significantly boost rice production in the area, generating more income, bringing more food into the region, and allowing them to export the excess to other parts of the country.

Potential for scale

If we Liberians were able to produce sufficient rice to feed ourselves, food security would be guaranteed for every household, that would have a ripple effect on health, on education, on all the other sectors, including the economy.

Liberia is estimated to have a little over 600,000 hectares of lowland across this country. We are blessed with lots of water resources – wetlands all over the country. Right now, less than 10% of that resource is actually being used. If we were to invest at scale in lowland development, in the next 5 years or so, Liberia could be fully self-sufficient in rice production.

Cooperatives for thriving communities

In one of the regions in which we work, in Sinoe County in the South-East, deforestation rates are extremely high, and people there live in extreme poverty. Income levels are extremely low. All of the most relevant factors that contribute to deforestation are at play in that region. Organising people in that area into small farming groups, into small saving associations, is giving them the tools they need to reduce their poverty-induced deforestation.

If they save together, and lend to each other during difficult times, and don’t have to turn to the forest every time they face a challenge, the forest will be better protected.

For example, people also produce a lot of cassava in Sinoe County. We are now working to turn the small saving groups, who also come together as farmer groups, into cooperatives, and working with them to set up small cassava processing hubs. Through that, they can lift themselves out of poverty. What needs to happen is to invest more in better production techniques, to invest more in better organisation of these farmers’ groups, so that all of these can interact in order to create a better condition for these people to thrive, and thereby be in a better position to conserve their resources, including forest.

When you go into communities, you don’t need a scientist to tell them why or how their activities impact on the forest. They explain to you, they do their own analysis. They say to you

Our agricultural practices are a problem, because they are affecting our natural environment.

However, from local people’s perspective, they need to put food on the table for their family. They need to educate their children. They need to be able to provide healthcare for their family members. The resource that is closest to them is their land and the forest. There is no way they are going to allow other stakeholders to ring-fence these resources and ask them not to use them. And they need to do that: they have the right to a decent living. But when you work with them to address the basic and urgent needs they have – they become partners.

Population growth and shifting agriculture puts pressure on forests 

In Foya, deforestation occurs most often in the upload areas. Fifty or one hundred years ago, the population was so low that shifting agriculture could happen without having the type of impact we are seeing now on forests. That was because the population was small, people were able to farm here, allow the area to fallow again, and then come back ten to fifteen years later, the area would be fully forested, and they would be able to farm there again.

However, times have changed and population growth is through the roof. So, we are working with the private sector, we are working with the communities, under a very clearly defined agreement, with all the stakeholders that they will gradually begin to shift back from upland farming, where deforestation often occurs, back into the lowlands, where they will be able to cultivate one piece of plot over and over, year in year out, and they are able to make a living from rice farming and vegetables at different times of the year.

New legal framework means future looks bright

In the past, communities and local populations had absolutely no say in how policies were formulated with respect to forests. They had no direct role in how forest legislation was implemented and enforced on the ground and they had absolutely no say in how external actors came into their space, into their territory, to extract forest resources for their areas.

What we are seeing now is that communities, as the owners of these resources, as the managers having been given the responsibility to really work together to manage them properly, they are now stepping up – even though challenges remain.

In the land sector, we now have a good legislation, which recognizes and protects the land rights of ordinary people across the country. It gives them the authority to work as a collective to manage the resources that they have, the forests, in ways that are sustainable for their own development today and going into the future.

In the case of Liberia, I like to be very hopeful. I think it is promising, because we have some fairly good legal frameworks in place with respect to natural resources, with respect to environment, with respect to the sharing of benefits deriving from natural resource use. However, the potential for that to happen would be strengthened if we see some dramatic improvements in governance. It’s not just about pushing along development and delivery of services to people across the country but we are also working to improve governance. The future looks bright, the legal framework is there, so I think we have the foundation in place.

Community members advocate for forest protection

In one community, a logging company that had an agreement with them was not complying with the terms and conditions of their agreement. When they approached the forestry authorities and asked them to intervene, it fell on deaf ears. So, what they did was to organise and pay a visit to the forestry development authority in Monrovia. That created so much pressure on the authority that they had to go into the community to investigate and better understand the issues, and to take some actions to address that.

In another instance, the community members came down to Monrovia and camped outside the Ministry of Finance. Through that, they had a meeting with the Minister of Finance, and they were given assurances that allowed them to go back into their communities. In the past, that did not happen.

International investment can play an important role 

Development agencies do have a role to play. But oftentimes, the projects are not sustainable. Donor funding comes in, it goes into projects, those projects have a lifetime and they are completed. The implementing agencies leave the communities, and oftentimes, the results of those projects are not sustained. If those interventions were happening along with the private sector in ways that are mutually beneficial for them and the communities, then we would be able to maintain any technologies that were introduced into the community.

So if, for example, a power tiller used in the lowlands got damaged, if they were generating income working with the private sector, they are able to replace that equipment. Whereas, if this was donor funding, if they had to buy five power tillers, that’s what they buy. When those tillers depreciate and are no longer functional, the results are no longer sustainable.

But if the private sector is working with the communities in a mutually beneficial way, under agreements that are mutually beneficial, and they make an effort to ensure that the benefits are shared with the community, then there is a real opportunity. Then, they can work with the communities to advance conservation and environmental protection and at the same time, support livelihoods.

This blog is part of our series on #LivingIncomeLivingForests.

Click here to access an independently-produced film by James Giahyue that shows some insights into the lowland rice farming project.

Click here to read more about the Production, Protection Inclusion agreement.