By Darius Barrolle, Senior Communications Specialist
After 4 years of tireless efforts by the National Protected Areas Authority (NPAA) of Sierra Leone and the USAID-funded West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) program to strengthen local institutions for improved management of coastal Sierra Leone’s vast marine ecosystems, the Sherbro River Estuary (SRE) Co-Management Plan has been reviewed and approved by all stakeholders. Additionally, a petition by local communities to formally designate the SRE as a Ramsar Site (Wetland of International Importance) was presented to government authorities for onward submission to the Ramsar Secretariat to consider for listing.
The SRE landscape, which includes the Bonthe-Sherbro Island, runs along the southeastern coast of the country. The estuary sprawls 80 km and expands from 3 m wide upstream to 6 km where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. With an estimated area of 284,000 ha (2,840 km2), it is roughly three and a half times the size of the country’s capital, Freetown. The estuary is one of Sierra Leone’s four existing marine protected areas, comprising a variety of habitats that offer tremendous opportunities to support human livelihoods as well as human and plant diversity. The dominant mangrove forests and extensive mud and sand flats support several sea turtle species, including olive ridleys, leatherbacks and loggerheads. Crocodiles, monitor lizards, mambas and water snakes also thrive there. The Rhizophora racemosa (red mangrove species) is the pioneer mangrove species in the estuary and can reach up to 40 m high.
The estuary’s mangroves play a vital role in food security and economic growth by providing breeding grounds for fish and many other marine species. Agriculture, crop farming and animal husbandry are the three primary sectors of the estuary’s economy; however, the fishery sector is also of great importance and employs 43% of the population.
The rich biodiversity of the SRE faces significant threats. Approximately 8% of the mangroves in the region have been lost since 1990 due in part to mangrove cutting for firewood and construction purposes. In addition, the biodiversity of the region is threatened by habitat destruction, the collection of sea turtle eggs and other endangered species products, land use change due to agriculture encroachment, settlement development, hunting, and the overexploitation of fishery resources. Climate change impacts, including droughts and coastal erosion and flooding due to increased storm surges, exacerbate these threats.
Since 2016, WA BiCC has been working in the Sierra Leone Coastal Landscape Complex that comprises the SRE, Sierra Leone River Estuary, Scarcies River Estuary and Yawri Bay. The program’s interventions started with a vulnerability assessment and an analysis of options to address climate change issues and other stressors, which provided the basis for the development of the SRE Co-Management Plan. Activities that support Village Saving and Loan Associations (VSLAs), restore degraded mangrove areas and raise awareness about biodiversity conservation, including through the radio drama series Watasay Ston, were also carried out as a means of mainstreaming climate change adaptation and mitigation in the landscape. Governance structures involving national and local stakeholders were also established and strengthened, including the SRE Co-Management Committee, to ensure joint and concerted implementation of the plan.
History was made in Bo, Sierra Leone, when local leaders and the national government came together September 22–25, 2020, for the final stakeholder review and approval of the co-management plan, demonstrating their commitment to work together to implement this critical instrument. The designation of the SRE as a Wetland of International Importance (Ramsar Site) was an equally important outcome of this event.
In his opening statement, Papa Pwe, Paramount Chief of the Bagruwa Chiefdom and an SRE Advisory Board Representative, said, “Our communities have been susceptible to a series of climate change-related impacts on livelihoods and biodiversity. The intervention of WA BiCC has been a sound opportunity to transform our knowledge, attitudes and practices towards biodiversity conservation and climate change issues.”
The 4-day sessions attracted 50 participants, including high-level dignitaries, of which 20% were women. This process culminated in the signing of the SRE Co-Management Agreement by the communities and the NPAA.
The SRE Co-Management Plan was developed by WA BiCC at the request of, and in close collaboration with, the NPAA and local stakeholders from 10 chiefdoms to ensure inclusive sustainable management of the SRE for the conservation of biodiversity and to strengthen resilience to climate change impacts across the landscape. It was developed through numerous stakeholder consultations in collaboration with local and national government institutions, and it marks the first time that a marine and coastal landscape in Sierra Leone benefited from an inclusive, participatory, and stepwise process. It now provides the basis for the NPAA’s submission of the Ramsar listing application to the Ramsar Secretariat for the recognition of the SRE as a Wetland of International Importance. A key recommendation made by participants was to extend the Ramsar Site designation to other coastal landscapes in Sierra Leone.
The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development representative, Sulaiman T. Jalloh, said, “I must assure you that my ministry will collaborate with the co-management committee, through the Paramount Chiefs and other local authorities, to fully enforce all bylaws that will be established for the protection of the biodiversity across the SRE.”
Joseph Musa, NPAA Exectutive Director, closed the event by reflecting on the need for all stakeholders to remain committed to protecting the SRE, “I kindly appeal to everyone to do all they can for the success of this initiative. I consider it as a brave start in ensuring that the Sherbro River Estuary is an eco-tourism site.”