(Published in Village Magazine June 2015)
Tommy Garnett is a dual citizen of Ireland and Sierra Leone. He founded the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) in 1997 while living in Liberia at the end of the first Sierra Leonean civil war. His organisation currently employs twenty staff all of whom are Sierra Leonean. He lives and works in Freetown.
1. What is your background and why did you found the Environmental Foundation for Africa?
I was born in the Kono district in the eastern province of Sierra Leone in the late 1950s at a time when most of the country’s forests were intact. I remember that our house was on the edge of the forest, so I had a forest backyard at the age of 5 or 6, but by the time I was eighteen and going to university that forest was no longer there. In its place were developments, degraded bush and diamond-mining pits that stretched as far as the eye could see. But that memory of the forest of my childhood stuck with me. When the war started in Sierra Leone in 1991 I was living with my family of three young children in London and we started seeing pictures of devastation: the suffering of people and destroyed landscapes. I also knew that mining had been happening for the best part of five decades and it seemed there was no one talking about what would be done to repair this damage. The focus was exclusively on alleviating human suffering. That is why I decided to start an organisation that would focus on the repair of degraded landscapes, protection of forests and education of people about managing both.
2. Why is environmental protection urgent in west Africa?
Much of western Africa lies within what used to be called the Upper Guinea forest belt, which once stretched south through Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Western Togo. Over the last century this has been reduced to less than ten percent of its original cover. Given the inextricable link between forests and the traditions of the people of this region, many cultures and livelihoods are disappearing.
3. What are the main projects you are running?
We have launched a biodiversity and renewable energy learning centre which is intended as a repository of knowledge and experience of over twenty years working in the field. We hope to use this centre as a place for exhibiting representative samples from the eco-systems of our country and wider region, and create enabling-conditions for people to have a heart connection with nature and the forest. Currently the relationship with the forest is narrowly utilitarian. We want people to fall in love with nature! Then its protection is assured.
We also maintain a wildlife sanctuary on Tiwai island where we promote eco-tourism, motivating local communities around the site by delivering alternative livelihoods and raising awareness of the global significance of its biodiversity. We are also offering renewable energy by installing solar panels to local villages. These projects help people understand that they matter and that there is great value in protecting forests.
We are also involved in supporting research, working with Njala university to find answers to some of the burning questions that help people recognise why they should manage natural resources. For example, we are conducting a joint study with Environmental Resource Management Foundation (a part of the ERM consulting group) to establish a link between Ebola and natural resource management.
4. What organisations support your work?
We are supported by the European Union who are funding a solar energy project in 50 communities. Critical Eco-system Partnership Fund based in the US has also provided support over the years. We also work with the JJ Charitable Trust an arm of the Sainsbury Charitable Trust.
5. Have Irish Aid been supportive?
We have not had any relationship with Irish Aids in recent times though they supported me initially as for the first ten years out here I was an Irish volunteer working for APSO. I used to receive a volunteer’s allowance which allowed me to support my young family while I did my work. They also provided bridging support for Tiwai island when we first completed construction of the facilities in 2006: the only means of maintaining the facility.
6. Do you have other means of fund-raising?
At the moment the only means available for us is to draw income from the usage of the learning centre, but it is not easy to raise money as a result of the Ebola crisis. It is not a good climate for doing meaningful environment work. It is very expensive to do business in this context for a local organisation that wants to deliver the highest standards possible. The cost of utilities is very high. In order to have the desired impact, we have to focus on environmental management meaning we constantly have to find ways of fund-raising, and that includes generating resources from our facilities.
7. What are the principle challenges confronting environmental protection in Sierra Leone?
We have a rapidly growing population of which more than 65% are under the age of 35. Very high levels of unemployment: over 70% of the rural population are dependent on the land which brings a lot of environmental degradation. The economy is driven by the extractive sector, mining particularly and lately we are seeing the establishments of large plantations of palm oil, squeezing other activities. There isn’t a proactive approach by the international development partners towards environmental protection. Everything that occurs is in response to obligations. Usually we respond to crises when it comes to addressing environmental challenges. It is sometimes daunting to know where to start: for example waste management is terrible meaning many of the beaches are littered; then there is the degradation of the hill sides due to soil erosion; up country we still have a lot of slash and burn agriculture with no clear plan of action on how to replace or remedy the destruction to nature. The measures taken are so far comparatively minor: the combined efforts are far smaller than the problems.
8. Do the Sierra Leonean government support your work?
Yes, they have been very supportive. Apart from the fact that they support all the organisations through concessions, the government recognises that we are contributing to the national development plan. But given the financial and human resource constraints even the best intentions are insufficient to have lasting impact when it comes to implementing environmental projects which require long time scales. But NGOs and their partners want immediate results. Changing a culture is a slow process, and very few entities allocate enough time and resources.
9. What additional measures should foreign NGOs take when delivering aid to take care of the environment?
The first thing they should do is recognise that we have all contributed and continue to contribute to the problem. Investing in development aid in the agri-sector means that more forests are cleared to grow rice. Building more latrines involves using materials from the bush. Investing in roads and bridges requires cutting down huge swathes of forest. Every agency has contributed to the problem. The second task is to integrate environmental considerations into the planning and implementation of every project. This means close collaboration with both governmental and civil society organisations. Bigger NGOs with greater resources should develop capacities within their institutions so that it isn’t always an external agency that cleans up adverse environmental impacts. Failure to recognise the ecological basis of all investments is like building on sand. What has just happened with Ebola is a classic example. When it struck it wasn’t long before all the systems collapsed. Yet we know that this zoonotic disease came about in part because of the fragmentation and irresponsible use of forest eco-systems. We were very quickly left to the mercy of the international community.
10. Is it difficult to raise environmental awareness among Sierra Leoneans?
I would rather say it is absolutely necessity to raise awareness. The challenge is to maintain consistency and follow words with deeds. This is why there needs to be greater collaboration between all the actors, so that when people are told that something is not right they are shown suitable and sustainable alternatives. This is what happens when an organisation talks about agricultural sustainability, it wouldn’t take long before people would stop burning the forest. We need to look at this as not a threat to incomes but a wise investment for the sustainable foundation on which all development efforts lie.
11. Shouldn’t we always prioritise aid to people as opposed to the environment?
If you see people as different from the environment then maybe. But if you see the people as being part of the environment then you see it’s a necessity. It’s a false economy to support people at the expense of the environment. That is where the whole world is going wrong.
12. Are you hopeful that environmental conditions will improve in Sierra Leone?
I have to be, otherwise I might as well retire and go travelling adding more CO2 to the atmosphere! I am an eternal optimists. I see the innocence of the children and ask myself what they will be doing in twenty years. When I was their age I had so many dreams and aspirations. Since then much of the forest has disappeared. Peace and quiet is hard to come by, the beaches are dirty most of the time. All of the things that make nature beautiful are under threat. It is all important that we work with the younger generation who will inherit what we have now. There is no other option if we are to avoid future catastrophes. If we are to curb future poverty, then we have to look seriously at this.