Written by Nicole Gerard by interviewing Fern's national partners.
At time of writing (2 July 2020), 804 cases have been documented in Liberia, up from 542 on 19 June. Fern’s partners at Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) provide a view from within the country, and indicate where international partners could help.
After the first confirmed case, 16 March 2020, Liberia’s Government imposed travel bans, closing borders with neighbouring countries soon after. A national health emergency was declared, and 21-day lockdowns were imposed on counties designated as infected. Cases continued to rise, and the state of emergency has been repeatedly renewed since, most recently for 30 days on 22 June.
From the outset of the pandemic, SDI and FCI have engaged jointly with communities to distribute safety kits that include bleach, masks, soap and buckets with spigots for hand-washing. They hammer home the message: CORONAVIRUS IS REAL: KEEP SAFE.
Jonathan Yiah, from SDI, explains. “We are still trying to make people believe that there is nothing fake about COVID-19. People depend on daily activities to live, so daily struggles to survive steal a march on disease and wellbeing – and even on believing that there is a health crisis. A lot of people are still in the denial stage – more so since the president eased restrictions. For example, at the biggest open market in Monrovia, we saw very few people wearing masks, and people were bumped up against each other. The National Public Health Institute of Liberia reports that cases are still on the rise, but many people are not hearing about daily increases.”
Community response to FCI and SDI’s awareness campaign (supported by the UK Department for International Development) has been positive. “People are very receptive to the message. Because of our experience with Ebola, we take nothing for granted,” says Loretta Alethea Pope Kai, of FCI, referring to the 2014 - 16 Ebola epidemic that hit the region and took more than 4,800 Liberian lives (see Liberia’s Ebola Lessons Can Help Communities Beat Coronavirus for more information).
Pressures on forests and forest peoples
FCI and SDI’s efforts are two-pronged, centred both on public health and on natural resources, because the Ebola epidemic imparted another very harsh lesson: threats to the natural riches of vulnerable communities are aggravated during a crisis.
“During Ebola, a lot of communities had to sign off on illegal concessions in crisis, without proper verification. We continue to work with communities so that illegal activities do not increase. We are committed to prevent this.” Loretta insists, “We must not abandon communities right now, when no national response plan captures forests and land.”
It is too early to assess the impact of the COVID-19 response on forests, land and forest peoples, but Yiah believes logging is accelerating. “We are going into the rainy season; logging will stop in July and August, and so they are intensifying operations right now. Communities are complaining, but the FDA [Forest Development Authority] cannot support communities in their actions to fight illegal logging. No monitoring of illegal logging was happening due to the lockdown. The FDA did not provide data to civil society from Libertrace during this period, making it impossible for civil society to assess whether companies are logging outside of their zones, or extracting logs they shouldn’t.”
The FDA seems to be taking a back seat generally during this crisis. Loretta is one of only two civil society representatives on Liberia’s COVID national household food distribution committee, which provides oversight of how food is being distributed as part of the national COVID-19 response. The FDA is not taking part in this steering committee; the Ministry of Agriculture attends meetings and serves as Co-Chair but they have not focused on risks to forests and local communities.
“We are calling on the government to strengthen monitoring of extractive activities and to develop a plan that links COVID-19 to forestry and land, but authorities say that COVID-19 is a public health issue, and that forestry and the extractive sector are separate from disease response. The current engagement is to address public health issues, but there is a need for an integrated and inclusive plan that covers all sectors,” Loretta says. Other government institutions are developing response plans; the FDA apparently, are not.
Food security is a fundamental concern.
The national steering committee on household food distribution is tasked with distribution of one-month food rations to 2.5 million vulnerable people who are hit by the lockdown, concentrating on the most food-insecure households and communities (as identified by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection and other stakeholders). VOSIEDA, another forest NGO, won a World Food Programme (WFP) tender to support distribution to 15 counties.
Pilot testing was carried out on 23 May; Loretta participated in a distribution of food baskets including rice, beans and locally produced palm oil to the first 10 vulnerable institutions in Montserrado. On 13 June the program was officially launched.
Even as the programme is being rolled out, the WFP is coming under fire for excessive operational costs (US$ 9.8 million) taken from the overall budget of US$ 30 million, causing considerable controversy around accountability and transparency. The situation is rapidly evolving, and the government has repeatedly said that the expectations of the population should not be raised.
International partners could help with information-sharing – and research
Yiah says, “In the past – before this government – information-sharing between government and civil society was better. Now it is difficult for us to know what is happening unless we go into communities,” with the risks that such travel entails in a pandemic. He continues, “International partners could put pressure on the government to resume information-sharing, and to be more transparent about managing forest resources. We need to know which areas need more help so that we can focus our attention there.” Privileged information often stays at higher administrative levels, or long delays make the information obsolete by the time they get it, Yiah says. “If they could use backchannels to inform us, we could adapt our work.”
Loretta takes up the issue. “The EU should be less confident that the information they share with government interlocutors reaches NGOs or Civil Society Organisations. We need to have routine dialogue, a conference call with the EU to keep us updated. Such communication needed to be strengthened even before COVID-19.” She gives the example of a “broad EU action plan”; Fern’s partners would be eager to provide context for Liberia, and to share information directly, especially concerning specific potential threats, and commercial operations.
Research funding is very important, especially now: As elsewhere, people can afford to carry out in-depth, targeted research only when they are paid to do so. “They could support civil society organisations to research and publish more – the more you do, the better you understand issues, and we need to better understand the communities’ stories.”