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Forestry Experts Urge Barrow to Reverse Decision to De-Reserve Portion of Salagi Forest Park

A group of forestry experts and retired civil servants wrote an open letter to President Adama Barrow urging him to reverse a decision to de-reserve a portion of Salagi Forest Park along Sukuta-Jambanjelly highway.

Recently, the social media went into a tizzy over a leaked letter signed by the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Natural Resources to the Attorney General’s Chambers at the Ministry of Justice about the de-reservation of a portion of Salagi Forest Park.

The letter approved “to de-reserve a depth of 80 meter wide and 1000 meters or one (1) kilometre long excluding the 30 meter wide along the highway road reserve metre as per sketch attached. This will avail MoLRG & RA the allocation of a strip land for institutional purposes which will impact positively on the economy of the country.”

The experts described the content of the leaked letter as “great discomfort and surprise.” They are Bai Mass Taal, a former Minister of Environment and former Director of Forestry, Foday Bojang, former Director of Forestry, Abdoulie Danso, former Director of Forestry, Jato Sillah, former Minister of Forestry and former Director of Forestry and Almami Dampha, former Senior Forestry Officer and now Senior Policy Officer for Forestry and Sustainable Land Management at the African Union Commission.

“The area in question is part of the natural forest (commonly referred to as amenity belt) that was deliberately left untouched when the rest of the park was converted to fast-growing Gmelina plantation,” they wrote. “The idea at the time was to allow some portions of the forest park to remain under natural vegetation in order to continue to provide ecosystem goods and services for the benefit of neighboring populations and wildlife species that depend on the park. Although degraded as a result of increased population pressures, this area continues to provide numerous critical ecosystem goods and services including the maintenance of the underground waters in the aquifers including that of NAWEC water boreholes (being one of the major source of our water supply); grazing for thousands of livestock from neighboring settlements; firewood and fruits for thousands of poor families within the vicinity of the park; bird watchers; Eco-tourists and nature lovers in an increasingly affluent neighborhood.”

A man riding bike in Salagi Forest Park photo credit: AG

The experts added: “To put things in perspective a little over 150,000 people live within 2.5 kilometers from Salagi Forest Park. With the current population trajectory, this will reach 200,000 by the next census in 2023 thus the need for the maintaining the ecological integrity of the park.”

According to the experts, the latest de-reservation request followed another one just few years ago, that allowed NAWEC to expand its water facility at Sukuta. They warned that re-allocating 8 ha of a 100 ha natural forest area will significantly undermine on the ecological integrity of the park, particularly on its ability to sustain the biological diversity and water production functions.” In addition, they added, allocating this land for unspecified “institutional purposes” including a heavy equipment depot and a petrol station presents serious threats to the boreholes and domestic water resources in the event of an industrial accident and likelihood of fuel seepage into the underground water table.

Countering the NDP goal

One of the critical enabling goals of the National Development Plan is to ensure that Gambia’s environment and natural resources are sustainably managed and conserved to increase resilience for the benefit of all. The experts said the decision to convert 10 percent of the last remaining natural forest in a gazetted park to industrial land use, no matter the economic promise counters the above stated goal and will no doubt send the wrong message to Gambia’s development partners.

Setback in meeting commitments to multilateral environmental agreements and national policies

The Gambia is signatory to a number of international environmental treaties, conventions, protocols, agreements and programmes, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Reductions in Emissions through Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), the National Adaptation Programme of Actions (NAPA) and Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA) and Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). All these require commitments to protecting natural ecosystems and the sustainable utilization of the associated ecosystem goods and services they provide.

According to the experts, de-reserving a portion of the Salagi Forest Park will present a significant setback to achieving these long-term conservation commitments, national or international. They wrote that “it will represent serious disregard for all the effort and money spent by the Gambian people during the 67 years of protection and management.”

“Our national Forest Policy advocates for sustainable management of our remaining forest through state, community and private participation. It categorically indicates the need to maintain 200, 000 hectare under community forest managed by communities themselves. This has led to the creation of the Gambia Forest Management Concept (GFMC) in which the forest parks will serve as the nucleus in the teaching and promotion of best management practices to surrounding communities.”

“Therefore this action does not reflect what government advocates for and is sending the very wrong signals to communities we are encouraging to complement government’s efforts in the drive for sustainable forest resource management.”

Not economy vs the environment

“While we recognize your government’s commitment to improving and expanding the Gambia’s economy, such development cannot be sustainable without the protection of our natural ecosystems. Sustainable development as defined in the Brundtland Report is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations”.

The experts argued that de-reserving a portion of a national forest park for the sole purpose of converting it into land use other than its natural vegetation, is not a sustainable development. “If history is to teach us anything, Bijilo Forest Park is one to point to.  In 1982 when Bijilo Forest Park was to be de-reserved and allocated for hotel construction, some of us and colleagues at the Gambia-German Forestry Project helped reverse that decision. Within a few short years the park was transformed into the eco-tourism Mecca of the Gambia, attracting thousands of birdwatchers, employing thousands of youth and paying millions of Dalasis into the government’s Consolidated Revenue Fund each year.”

“We are in no doubt that the Ministry of Lands can find 8 hectares in some other part of the country that can be used for “institutional purposes” without impinging on our ability to meet our national and international environmental obligations.  We believe that is what’s best for the Gambian people, environment and it is good for the economy and good for your legacy,” the experts told the president.

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