ArcelorMittal publishes Biodiversity Conservation Programme annual report

Posted on 01 November 2013

ArcelorMittal Liberia has published its second annual biodiversity conservation programme report, highlighting the progress being made in the company's dedicated programme. The report includes the news that an important agreement has been reached with local communities that will help to protect the future of Liberia's East Nimba Nature Reserve.

While the first year of the biodiversity conservation programme was spent in discussions with stakeholders, fact finding and evaluation, and drawing up agreements - the latest 45-page report shows the first tangible results of the programme, which is now in its second year.

The programme aims to fill the gaps in current scientific knowledge of the biodiversity in the Nimba mountain range, home to ArcelorMittal Liberia's Tokadeh mine, and to work with local communities to preserve the forest which is one of Africa's top five biodiversity hotspots.

ArcelorMittal's scientific research focuses on flora and fauna that are endemic to the Nimba mountain range, including the critically endangered Nimba Otter Shrew. Former hunters (pictured, right) are now working with ArcelorMittal Liberia's environment team to trap the otter shrews, and a survey in December will fit radio collars to track their movements. The data collected from the radio collars will directly influence the company's operational decisions as to the size of buffer zones needed between the shrews' habitat and the mining area. In addition, the research will provide valuable information about the ecology of this species that will be used to develop a conservation management plan for the Nimba Otter Shrew. An initial report on the Otter Shrew's habitat has already been compiled.  The next step is thethe collection of more substantial scientific data on the mammal.

Another key area of the conservation programme focuses on encouraging farmers to change from shifting cultivation – a practice where plots of land are cultivated temporarily, then abandoned and allowed to revert to their natural vegetation – to permanent, stabilised agriculture in one location. In practice, this means cultivating tree crops that require fewer nutrients; growing this kind of crop also requires a move from subsistence to low-level commercial agriculture, therefore research is being carried out to analyse the markets for crops such as sugar cane and oil palm.

The programme is shaped by a philosophy that all the work undertaken as part of the programme should be informed by the best science. 'Our scientific work is very carefully focussed. The main aim for the programme is to understand and influence land use practices in order to find ways to conserve the forest. To do this, we have to have established mechanisms and agree on which areas of the forest are to be protected' said John Howell, environmental adviser to ArcelorMittal Liberia.

Local farmers are currently testing various models of conservation agriculture which rely on very low labour and technical input (pictured, below) to find out which methods are best suited to the local environment.

'We have seen the first harvests starting to come in, with some very positive comments from farmers who are seeing larger yields from crops that require less labour to cultivate. This is a long term programme and it is still early days – the next step is to find out whether this can work on a large scale' said Howell.

As part of the conservation programme, an agreement has been made to protect the East Nimba forest area, which is one of only three protected habitats in Liberia. While the Nimba reserve is home to endangered flora and fauna, it is also used by local communities to support their livelihoods, through hunting, agriculture and harvesting of non-timber forest products such as rattan, mushrooms, palm products and snails. Thanks to workshops funded by ArcelorMittal but facilitated by international non-government organisations (NGOs) Conservation International and Fauna & Flora International, all the stakeholders have reached an agreement that means the East Nimba Nature Reserve will be used solely for conservation for the next five years.  This historic agreement has laid down a challenge to conservationists to prove to the communities that live near the reserve that conservation can pay.

ArcelorMittal Liberia has also been working with community forest groups in forests outside the reserve borders, to educate communities about the forests' biodiversity and to show why they are worth conserving. Work is underway to zone the forests, with some areas used for conservation, agriculture and mining. 'It is exciting to see that the community forest groups agree that conservation is one of the top priorities for these forests. These groups know that the number of animals in the forest is declining. What they do not know is how to sustain them – and we are working to help them change this' said Howell.

ArcelorMittal Liberia launched its biodiversity conservation programme in August 2011, with US$1m invested to date as part of the company's phase one iron ore mining operations. The initiative, which is overseen by the ceo of ArcelorMittal Liberia, Antonia Maria, and the managing director of the Forestry Development Authority, Harrison Karnwea, is intended to compensate for the impact of the mining of direct shipping ore during phase one of ArcelorMittal Liberia's operations, from 2011 to 2015.  In exploiting an area's natural resources and unlocking wealth – in this case, through mining iron ore – ArcelorMittal Liberia's conservation strategy is to set up systems to manage renewable resources.

According to international best practice, where operations cause irreversible damage to a landscape, compensation must be offered to those affected. ArcelorMittal Liberia's biodiversity conservation programme is one of the first examples in West Africa of an active compensatory environmental programme that is working with communities, to support their livelihoods while taking a long-term view on how to preserve the forest for future generations.

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