The Environment, Deforestation, and Human Diseases

The Liberian Environmental Watch International Environmental Conference
The University of Liberia
Capitol Hill, Monrovia


Mr. Morris K. Koffa, Executive Director, Liberian Environmental Watch (LEW); The Interim President, University of Liberia; Officials of Government present;  LIHEDE Representatives Dr. Horlin Carter, Mrs. Henrietta White-Holder, and Mr. Augustus Menyongar. Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen:  

I bring you heartfelt greetings from the officials and members of LIHEDE in the Diaspora. I am very happy to be with you this morning at this famous forum, and I want to thank the Liberian Environmental Watch and other organizers and sponsors of this program for granting me the opportunity to bring to you the message that protecting the environment is a must in Liberia today more than ever before.  Our nation is facing serious deforestation challenges and environmental degradation at a rapid pace that if not checked in time, the road to national reconstruction will be very difficult, and quality of life of future generations of Liberians will diminish greatly.

My brothers and sisters about 30 to 40 years ago when I was growing up in Liberia, I could walk across town in the hot sun and be fine without drinking a glass of water. But today I don’t think I can walk across town in the hot sun anymore without drinking a lot of water, sweating heavily, or in the worst case fainting because, as a result of deforestation and other environmental activities, the hot sun now penetrates the human skin. In fact, in today’s Liberia, handkerchief is not enough to wipe our sweats anymore as we now need towels because of the changing climate. Even the raindrops in Liberia are now heavy enough to cause a major flood. In other words, Liberia today is no longer the Liberia of the last 30 or 40 years, and without serious national efforts at environment protection in Liberia, it will be difficult to tell what will happen to Liberia in the next 30 to 40 years. And this is why I think the Liberian Environmental Watch, the Liberia Environmental Protection Agency, and other similar environmental protection groups in Liberia deserve credit for making available to the Liberian public this kind of conference to create public awareness about the state of the environment in Liberia, and emphasize the need for all Liberians to work together to protect the environment.
We need a comprehensive environmental protection plan in Liberia to help safeguard ourselves and our homeland from global warming, malnutrition, diarrhea, and cardio-respiratory diseases resulting from hot tropical heat waves, droughts, extreme weather events, and degraded ecosystems. Our nation’s natural beauty of abundance forests covering nearly 14 million acres, including 230 species of useable timber such as Mahogany, palm trees, some of which have several heads, sacred oracles, Walnut, and Makere red ironwood (Ekki for house and bridge building) Teak, Whismore, Camwood, Abura, and Niango, as well as wildlife such as elephants, viviparous toad, cross river gorilla, water buffalo, lions, zebra duiker, leopards, diana monkey, white mangabey, chimpanzees, pygmy hippopotamus, the only kind in the world, and eagles will be lost if the country is not protected against environmental pollution, degradation, and deforestation. 
In 2007, for example, I wrote two articles that highlighted the telling effects of deforestation and other acts of environmental degradation in Liberia, so I won’t bore you with many historical and scientific details about the environment here today. The two articles, “Developing Liberia’s Aquatic Biomass Amid Incessant Iron Ore Mining” and “The Ganta Tropical Storm: A Challenge to Liberia’s Environment,” are self-explanatory and they are available on the internet. However, for the sake of this discussion, I want to share a few thoughts from each of the two articles.  

Deforestation and Mass Destruction of Biological Species

In the article on “Developing Liberia’s Aquatic Biomass Amid Incessant Iron Ore Mining,” I noted that the initial phase of iron ore mining and production requires massive deforestation activities such as land clearing, road building, and the destruction of important wildlife species, animal and human habitats, and mountain ranges. I spoke about opencast and open-pit mining processes that are used regularly to recover the iron ores of Liberia's virgin mountains, which, oftentimes lead to large-scale deforestation. Large-scale deforestation activities under the guise of development often reduce the local tropical forest area significantly, while the use heavy equipment in mining operations also creates erosion, dust, and fossil fuel emissions for the environment.  Deforestation activity such as road construction can help hunters to easily reach the dense forests to elephants, lions, leopards, hippopotamus, and eagles and other forest animals, which often become easy prey for hunters as these animals migrate from one forest area to another.
I said deforestation caused by iron ore mining operations can lead to severe climate changes and weather conditions because mining often encroaches on fragile ecosystems and interferes with hydrological cycle or weather-controlling ability of the mountains being exploited for iron ore. Hydrological cycle refers to the continuous circulation of water within the Earth’s hydrosphere that influences a self- propagating wave in space to combine with electric and magnetic components or solar radiation. In essence, what is usually at stake during any deforestation activity from mining operations is the need to preserve a healthy environment for local livelihoods through the maintenance of biodiversity. Biodiversity, therefore, underpins the environmental services as biodegradation, soil aeration, fertilization and carbon sequestration that are necessary to maintain productivity, stable, healthy environment, upon which every nation, including Liberia, depends.
In the same article, I suggested that the aquatic biomass of Liberia needs adequate development to facilitate commercial fishing and canned fish productions, but pollution is another residual effect of iron ore mining and timber mining activities that have profound effects on the environment.  I said environmental destruction  such as soil erosion, air pollution, and contaminated water not only shorten human lives, destroy homes,  and poison the atmosphere in Liberian towns and communities, but also make Liberia hotter as we are now seeing in Liberia today.  In other words, trees are important to lowering the temperature through shade, as their roots stabilize soil, and prevent erosion by trapping soil that would otherwise become silt. But deforestation creates silt which destroys other aquatic wildlife because it interferes with biochemical oxygen demand or the amount of oxygen required in a system for the breakdown of organic material and for organisms to breathe in our tropical waters.  Hence, trees along our riverbanks hold stream banks in place to protect against flooding and stop silt so that we can have more cold water fish and other aquatic food to eat in our nation.
Of course, in the second article on “The Ganta Tropical Storm: A Challenge to Liberia’s Environment,” I said The fast pace nature of unregulated timber exploitation in the Liberian virgin forests in the 1980s, 1990s, and up to the mid-2000s at the height of the 14-year Liberian civil war from 1989 to 2003 seriously undermined the Liberian virgin forestlands. Hence, today,  after decades of  uncoordinated and unregulated rubber, iron ore, coffee, cocoa, and timber operations  resulting in chemical wastes, pollution, and  mass migration of people to communities catering to these mining operations, Liberia has now lost more than 85% of its virgin productive forest to the concessions.  This also means that the land to population ratio of these trees cutting commercial plantations is very high, and poses a major environmental threat to country and its people. In other words, at independence in 1847, Liberia had 99.9 percent of virgin forest and more than 44.5% of the Guinean forest ecosystem, or a forestland with rich biodiversity that boasted of more than 2000 species of plants, including 240 valuable timber species. But the environmental situation in Liberia worsen ever since the 1926 rubber plantations agreement with Firestone that led to the massive felling of trees in  Liberian virgin forestlands by Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and other companies for various  rubber, coffee, cocoa, coffee, timber, and iron ore mining operations. 
I also said dry weather and air pollution were also at a crisis point in Liberia. Dry weather not only leads to dusty soils, but dust might in turn lead to dry weather by changing timing in farming and fishing, which majority of Liberians depends on to live. I said when all the trees and fertile grounds are destroyed, we are bound to have a serious health epidemic in Liberia due to the fact that Liberia lacks not only paved roads, but also lacks effective emission control. As a result of these things, it has become fashionable for anything with tires to run in Liberia at the expense of public health, given the huge transportation shortage after the civil war has therefore made vehicle pollution the primary contributor to pollution problems in Liberia today, particularly environmental issues such as the greenhouse effect. These kinds of uncontrollable emission problems are so rampant in Liberia that they have become potential cancer hazards. air pollution cannot be overlooked in any re-construction efforts in post-conflict Liberia, as it continues to disable more than 1.1 billion people worldwide and kill between 2.7 million to 3.0 million others annually, especially in developing nations like Liberia.
My brothers and sisters, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, outdoor air pollution associated with vehicles using fossil fuels in their combustible engines can cause acute respiratory problems, inflammation of lung tissue, and aggravation of asthma as well as increase the risk of cancer. Recent studies have linked outdoor air pollution to birth defects, low birth weight, premature births, still births and infant deaths. Pollution from fossil fuels are also directly destroying many other areas of creation, including the ability of plants to produce and grow food, forests and ecosystems, algae blooms in sensitive waterways, and acid rain. I therefore believe that if the current rate of deforestation and environmental degradation resulting from iron ore and diamond mining, and tree felling continue, Liberia will not be able to enjoy for long its finest climate and fertile soil for agricultural enterprise to grow such agricultural products as bananas, rice, plantain, bitter ball, cassava, Malaguatta pepper, mushroom, coffee, kola, cocoa, mango, okra, palm nuts, papaya, rubber. Consequently, no modern buildings, superhighways, bank accounts or billion of dollars in our national coffer will rescue our nation when all sorts of natural disasters begin to befall our nation as a result of deforestation, so we in Liberia need to take precautionary measures to control destruction of our environment if we don’t want to end up destroying ourselves as the Ganta tropical storm has shown.
Our nation will suffer the largest crop losses when all the forest are gone since many Liberians are highly dependent on subsistence farming or agriculture for basic survival, as agriculture contributes upward of about 30 per cent of country’s Gross Domestic Product. In essence, since the dawn of creation, there has always been interaction between human beings and the environment. The pristine and peaceful surroundings of gentle hills, coconut trees, mango groves, coffee plantation, eucalyptus forests, and beautiful cows lift our spirit by day. We, therefore, ought to realize in Liberia that the environment is not just a useless jungle with wild animals that can be exploited and polluted with impunity. The role of trees and vegetation in air pollution control cannot be over-emphasized within the contest of preserving our environment. Trees perform environmental services that directly benefit people living mostly in urban areas.

For example, trees can filter up to 80% of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide and a hold soil to prevent erosion so that we have good top soil to grow our food to eat. A single mature tree in Liberian jungle can, therefore, provides enough oxygen for the needs of ten Liberians annually. But any alterations to the environment such as pollution, forest degradation, climate change, and extreme weather can also change prospects for health and development as we are seeing around the world. For the most part, conditions of the environment can help determine whether or not people lead longer and healthier lives, as conditional changes in the environment can affect reproductive health and lifestyle choices. Deforestation, on the other hand, is responsible for higher rainfalls that trigger mosquito-borne disease outbreaks, increase flooding (spreading parasitic diseases), increase the contamination of water supplies with human or animal wastes and other environmental pollutants.

Liberia's environment is no longer that wonderment of colossal geological formations of God's creation. The environment in Liberia is being assaulted on all fronts daily by unregulated mining and deforestation activities that if such a trend continues, a potential extinction of the treasure trove of species and natural habitats of Liberia are bound to plunge the nation into a future environmental nightmare. For environmental degradation in Liberia as a result of climate change will have an adverse impact on the Liberian people's drinking water and health with the eventual rise in vector-borne diseases such as malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. Liberia is home to two of the world’s most deadly malaria parasites, which have become very difficult over the years to treat due to their resistance to insecticides.  And sadly Liberia is also the number one malarial nation in the world as a result of environmental factors.
In addition, the environmental situation in Liberia has been a source of human diseases due to the global emergence, reemergence, and spread of new vector-borne diseases and old ones such as dengue, yellow fever, plague, trypanosomiasis and leishmaniasis, as well as related morbidity and mortality problems from insects, rodents, and other parasites. at least 80 percent of diseases in developing nation like Liberia are caused by contaminated water, and the  situation is even compounded by the fact that close to 50 percent of people living on earth lack adequate sanitation, while 20 percent of freshwater fish species have been pushed to the edge of extinction due to contaminated water. Hence all of our coastal areas will be at risk of flooding due to sea level rise, especially in densely populated and low-lying settlements that already face other challenges such as tropical storms, including recent tropical storms in Ganta, Monrovia, and other parts of Liberia.
The diet choices we make in Liberia have a direct link between our survival and our environment, so any environmental changes in our daily socioeconomic conditions can lead to early death and related biotope factors since we as human beings are connected to the environment by food chains or food webs. Hence, any ecological damage to the environment will endanger our national health by turning parasites into evolutionary land mines capable of destroying or killing each and every one of us. Indeed, when the forests are all gone and rainfall rises above normal levels, the resultant still water will provide excellent breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other vector-diseases. And, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 300 million people worldwide suffer from intense malaria annually, including annual malarial deaths in Liberia of 21,500.
Fellow Liberians, global warming gives us added reason to be jungle lovers. Trees are the most effective long term way of removing carbon from the atmosphere.  Forests and tree planting are therefore two avenues for stabilizing human society in the face of current environmental challenges in Liberia. Consequently, I think increased business operations in Liberia are very good for economic recovery and social stabilization in Liberia, but we should not rush to every recovery by all means necessary by overlooking potential harms to our environment. We must not let a few people and companies ruin our environment in the name of economic recovery because we all share the soil, water, air, and fruits of Liberia. We should also not assume that all those who come to Liberia from other countries to exploit our environment will be fair, as there are no guarantees to anything in this world. We must seek balance in protecting the environment of Liberia by taking initiatives to pass appropriate legislations and related national policies.
 I believe my Liberian brethren that the time has come for the sleeping giants (the sons and daughters of Liberia) to awaken and proclaim the new Liberia environmental ethic. The time has come for the church to take steps now to build an ark in which Biblically informed, morally responsible people will stand up against the special interests who are determined to destroy creation for their own economic gain. The time has come for the sons and daughters of the Liberia to stand up and fight against deforestation, environmental pollution, and global warming. The time has come for the sons and daughters of the Liberia to protect Liberia’s forest and water resources, including mountains, rivers, streams, oceans and their inhabitants, trees, forests, minerals, fish, vegetation, and animals. Will you get on board? This is my message to you! This is the message of Liberian Environmental Watch, Liberian EPA, and related Liberian entities. Let us help to protect our environment and the natural habitat of our physical and spiritual selves. Thanks for listening!

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