By Darius Barrolle, Senior Communications Specialist
Once again, entertainment-education has proven to be an effective tool for increasing knowledge and promoting best practices in forest and wildlife conservation. After only 3 months of broadcast, the “Forest Blessings” radio drama and call-in show series has captured the hearts and minds of over 4 million people, particularly those within 432 forest-edged communities located in and around the Gola, Ziama-Wonegizi-Wologizi (ZWW) and Tai-Grebo-Krahn-Sapo (TGKS) Transboundary Forest Landscapes within the Upper Guinean Forest Basin and all of which are found in the four Mano River Union (MRU) Member States: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire.
Funded by the United States Agency for International Development through the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) Program, the 24-episode series was produced in Mende, Krahn, Lorma, Krio, French and Liberian Simple English, and aired on eight radio stations throughout the MRU subregion. This was the first time a single radio drama and call-in show series promoting biodiversity conservation has been produced and broadcast in these many languages across these four biodiversity rich countries. Forest Blessings was also the first radio drama and call-in show series ever broadcast in these landscapes. Moreover, the series provided an opportunity to build the capacities of the eight radio stations broadcasting “Forest Blessings” to properly report on the live shows by providing discussion guides, which included callers’ information and feedback. These skills can now be used and applied for future broadcasts on any topics ranging from conservation, to health to education – the potential is as endless as creativity itself.
The “Forest Blessings” story is based in a fictional border town called Mano NZela located near a very large and dense forest with many different animals, and has been declared a national park, which is part of a larger forest landscape that expands into a bordering country. In the story, the local paramount chief named Blamah Wleh is in a conflict with his people to either make money from their forest resources—and likely destroy them in the process—or protect the forest. While the story is fictional, this conflict is being played out in forest-edge communities throughout West Africa, whose activities such as growing crops, mining, and hunting for bushmeat in the forest threatens the forests, the biodiversity they house and the ecosystem functions they provide.
The humorous and action-packed radio drama features good guys, bad guys and those not sure which side to pick. In the beginning of the story, the chief is a greedy leader with poor judgement, but he later realizes that the forest is all they have and when it is depleted, generations to come will suffer. So, he decides to change his leadership style and work with those who want to conserve the natural resources. Walatee, the wildlife hunter, goes to jail and pays a huge fine for killing elephants and other protected animals. After his release from jail, he stops hunting animals and starts raising goats and chicken to earn money.
The radio drama also promoted sustainable livelihood activities such as beekeeping and lowland swamp farming as lower intensity income-generating options than slash and burn agriculture or risky illegal enterprises such as mining. These and other livelihood activities are among the many conservation strategies supported by WA BiCC in the various landscapes through its grantees Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia, Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, Fauna and Flora International and Partners in Development.
As a result of the Forest Blessings broadcasts, important lessons were learned about the radio coverage and listenership in the various landscapes. Radio Kintoma and Radio Life, both located in Lofa County, Liberia, and covering the ZWW forest landscape which had the most callers, which indicates the best coverage that also reached into neighboring Guinea via the shared common language (Lorma). Eastern Community Radio in Kenema, Sierra Leone, had the highest number of female callers, which indicates that the Gola Sierra Leone landscape has the highest number of women who own radio sets and cellphones and are willing to express their opinions and ask questions about conservation issues.
A majority of the callers said they enjoyed the episodes and valued their educational aspects. Many callers highlighted poverty as a major cause for the overuse of the natural resources in the forest and insisted that the government and donors should put more programs in place to reduce poverty if they really want to conserve the forests. Callers repeatedly said communities need more awareness-raising activities such as the “Forest Blessings” radio program to sustain the dialogue on conservation issues among forest-edged community members, local leaders and decision makers.
Augustine Cooper, a farmer who lives near the Wonegizi Forest, said, “I visited Kpotoma, one of the forest-dependent communities in my area, where I asked some of our people if they had dried bushmeat for sale and they answered, ‘We are listening to the Forest Blessings radio program, which says no one is allowed to kill protected animals in the protected forest. As a result, we are now raising our goats, chicken and other animals to eat and sell.’”
Regular callers participated in conservation quizzes and won t-shirts, hats and phone credits. Hunters, farmers, students, conservation experts and other radio listeners of all ages called the program to ask questions and share their experiences.
The inhabitants of these communities have been underrepresented in conservation forums and their appeals to donors and decision-makers for livelihood support in order to reduce their unsustainable use of forest resources were not prioritized in the past. The radio program provided a unique space for voices to be heard in many communities as opposed to community meetings that are limited to only those in the meetings. Reports from participating radio stations revealed that the listeners saw themselves in the radio drama and the call-in show lifted their voices.
In light of these rich experiences and findings, hopefully additional resources can be programmed to continue and to build on this unique pilot effort to support the conservation of the Upper Guinean Forest through entertainment-education and dialogue reaching millions of people on rural and urban radio stations. The radio drama series can still be heard on the WA BiCC YouTube page in English and French.