Freetown is burning
On any given day if you drive around the Western Area Peninsular you will see smoke coming from the hills. These aren't wildfires. They are fires intentionally set by people who are clearing the forest to build homes.
Whether it is viewed from Leicester Peak, Regent, Tombo, or Sussex, fires are set every day to take the forest away. The green hills that we all grew up with are now brown, lion mountains scalped for their fur.
I’m in awe of just how far up into the forest hills new gentry are willing to go.
If den bin don get moni from traday no to tiday den go day bil os.
Every time I return to Freetown more of the trees are gone. The government doesn't seem to have any control or desire to curb the rate of forest destruction but it was this careless disregard for flora that led to the mudslide that killed 1000 people in 2017.
Most of the new houses that replace our forests are being built without permits. They are being built in places without roads, without any connection to public works. They’re like islands in the forest. Except when a house pops up, trees disappear and the house is surrounded by wasteland until another comes to build next door. Freetown is free for all.
Last week I was in a canoe going up the river that connects Sussex to the Atlantic Ocean. I was in awe of the calmness until I looked up and all I could see was smoke. People are burning and clearing for homes up in the hills.
Maybe you're thinking that perhaps it's a question of a lack of space, that somehow we might have run out of land for people to build. This is not true. Sierra Leone is actually quite sparsely populated. The country has land but everyone has decided that instead of building homes in their hometowns, Freetown is where they must own. And since no one is actively protecting our forest they cut and they build. The problem in Freetown isn't a lack of space but wanton abandon of rule of law and a lack of love for the city and its environment. If they loved it they wouldn't work so tirelessly to burn it down.
Fifty years ago Sierra Leone was covered in 70% of rainforest, today only 5%-6% of forest remains. This means that we have destroyed the habitat for wildlife, and destabilized the very ecosystems we need for our own survival. Sierra Leone is nowhere on efforts to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, and sustainably manage forests…” and it needs to be.
Wetin di plant en tik den do wi ba?
For all we talk of tourism few (with the exception of Tacugama) understand that our flora and fauna are important if not more so than beaches for the creation of eco-jobs. Its not just everyday beach. We are never going to beat the Caribbean for beautiful beaches but our flora and fauna are exclusive to our geography.
In our oral traditions animals, plants, and especially the forest were all sacred beings. The forest was a place of reverence. Yes, the forest was a place to be feared but it was also a place to seek refuge, a place where our ancestors went to be with their gods. During the civil war, people fled to the nearby forests to run away from death. It was through forests that children and families traveled to safety.
Since the end of the war especially, our belief systems have been turned upside down as we seek to “modernize” and “develop”. Concrete houses replace mud huts, forests are cleared for two story homes. When we buy land to build instead of preserving what exists we cut down trees as if their very existence challenges our own. We believe that caring for the environment, protecting nature, animals, and plants “na white man biznes”.
But we live in just one world. The more we destroy our forests, and our environment the more we expose ourselves to the elements of nature that we can not control.
Global warming is real. CO2 emissions in the earth’s ozone have heat up and are heating up out planet. It isn’t a question of whether we will be affected, rather a matter of when.
Freetown especially is at risk as a coastal city, and one of the wettest on the continent. It can rain for seven days nonstop. A 1000 of our citizens many whose names we will never know paid with their lives to show us what happens when tropical rains meet deforestation. Two years later we are still cutting down the same forest.
What needs to happen now is an awakening. Young people especially need to know that what is being destroyed today is our future. We need to force the hands of government to control the destruction of the forest and our environment. Everyone needs to plant trees in their compounds; cut one, plant three. The most important however is that forests should be protected by law and that law should be enforced. Communities need to lead the conservation effort in partnership with conservation NGOs but the government has to lead with the policy and framework.
Our ultimate goal as citizens should not be build homes at all costs rather we should plan for sustainability. Sustainable development happens when humans, plants, and animals can thrive for generations. It is about today, and about the future.
By Presidential Decree put in place in May 2018, once a month the whole country comes to standstill and communities clean up. This is good but it is insufficient, the government needs to enforce city planning laws and destroy houses built in places where forests should be to send a stern warning to violators. Just like they broke the houses inside Grammar School land years ago for illegal encroachment that is what needs to happen to these houses in the forests. After the houses are broken, violators should be made to plant trees under their foundation. I know it sounds radical but I know our people; den noh day yerri wod, pass stone. We must protect the environment, and our forests, plant trees, end plastic pollution, and recycle.
As my canoe headed up Sussex River and I cast my eyes to the burning hills of the peninsula forest I thought about my son. Olushola is just 3 years old. By the time he is sixteen, I wondered if he would meet any forest at all. Or will the forest be a story like the ones they used to tell us about the spirits in the forest?
Olu once upon a time there was a forest and it covered this whole entire land. Once upon a time not so long ago, but then they set it all on fire.
Writers Note: I use Freetown to include Western Area Rural & Urban and not the political demarcation and boundaries of the Freetown City Council. Where I mention Freetown I’m referring to everything within the Peninsular from Waterloo to Aberdeen and back around.
Photo Aerial - Western Area - Courtesy R_Skeiky