Freetown deforestation – countdown to catastrophe

Mohamed Ismail Kamara: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 22 March 2024:

Under the lofty canopy of once-thriving forests, a looming catastrophe is developing in the heart of Freetown. Factually, Freetown, a hilly city, and its surroundings were enveloped in dense forests that provided numerous ecological and economic benefits.

However, the growth of the city and the demand for resources have led to deforestation at an alarming rate.

The consequences of this decline are far-reaching and must be addressed promptly. The once-thriving ecosystem, which has been essential to Sierra Leone’s biodiversity, is currently facing serious threats that could endanger the city and its citizens.

The Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve, encompassing over 130,000 hectares of verdant forest, has long been a haven for diverse flora and fauna. Sadly, the delicate balance of this environment is already in jeopardy due to increased deforestation caused by logging and urbanization.

Multiple species have gone extinct from this once-rich forest, and the obliteration will continue unrelentingly. However, highlighting the monstrousness of this issue, the United Nations recently released a report on the deforestation of these precious forests and its looming apocalyptic devastation, which has put our city on the brink.

Today, we’re witnessing several signs of the imminent disaster and, for sure, a harbinger for the massive destruction that will befall our historic city. For instance, there are unprecedented rates of disparaging floods ravaging the city, disastrous landslides, storms, extreme heat throughout the city, and so on.

All these have made lives unbearable for millions of residents across the city. Back in the eighties, I remember we used to play on gutters that ran from the top of the hills and empties at the Atlantic Ocean. Then it was crystal clear water, and I can still remember that there were tiny streams and pools scattered all over the city where people would launder and bathe. These waters would still flow throughout the year and become more tense during the rainy season.

Nonetheless, today it is the opposite; every time it rains, the amount of gravel, boulders, and reddish water that makes its way downhill to the city streets and subsequently into the Atlantic Ocean is extremely alarming.

Today it is the opposite; every time it rains, the amount of gravel and loose boulders and the huge volumes of reddish water during the rains that make their way downhill to our city streets and subsequently into the Atlantic Ocean are extremely alarming.

Consequently, the topsoil of the hills are evidently eroding with time, and the trees that once held these soils together are no longer present. Through a variety of methods, trees and forests play key roles in lowering the risk of landslides.

Tree roots act as buttresses against soil movement, strengthening soil layers and anchoring the soil to bedrock. Water resources are severely impacted by the degradation of trees. In order to keep rivers and watersheds healthy, control water cycles, and stop soil erosion, trees are essential.

Therefore, the population of Freetown is placed at risk when these natural buffers disappear because of the increased susceptibility of the city to flooding, landslides, and water shortages. The recently released UN study highlighted an austere picture of the once-national park that provides Freetown’s main supply of clean water, comfort, and other necessities.

As per the research, the park has experienced a notable reduction in its forest cover, with an approximate loss of 26% of its 18,000 hectares since 2016. Sarah Tancredi stated on Sigma Earth newsletter in response to this report that human actions like land grabbing, charcoal burning, quarrying, and marijuana cultivation are to blame for the loss. She also emphasized how deforestation is endangering Sierra Leone’s capital, which underscores the region’s growing concerns about sustainability and the future.

Unthinkable Consequences

There are numerous concerning effects of Freetown’s widespread deforestation. The loss of biodiversity is one of the most obvious effects. The diversity of life is declining as a result of the swift disappearance of the rich and distinctive ecosystems that formerly supported a vast array of plant and animal species.

This loss upsets ecosystems and puts species that were formerly essential to Freetown’s natural heritage in jeopardy, all of which have a cascading effect on the environment’s fragile equilibrium. Furthermore, deforestation has a major role in climate change.

As organic carbon sinks, trees are essential for taking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. The equilibrium is upset by the careless felling of these trees, which raises greenhouse gas emissions.

The large volumes of carbon dioxide absorbed and stored by forests make them essential carbon sinks. This will be made worse by the depletion of the Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve, which raises greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising temperatures, more intense weather occurrences, and changes to Freetown’s climate patterns are all issues we have witnessed. However, the inhabitants of Freetown are put in even greater danger as a result of the high level of vulnerability to landslides and flash floods due to the lack of trees to absorb rainfall, which is essential for controlling water flow and avoiding soil erosion. This is one of the direct effects of deforestation.

The risk increases for every community when there are no natural barriers. The unthinkable consequences will be the destruction of Freetown Another effect would be the tendency for disease outbreaks.

Rapid deforestation is most often linked with outbreaks of diseases. Countries within the tropical forest are mostly susceptible to disease outbreaks. My fear is that if there are outbreaks of emerging diseases, then we will be in for another tough bout of environmental and public health crises.

The resilience of Freetown against diseases and general environmental health are all significantly impacted by the lack of biodiversity. Our water shortage will increase because this delicate water cycle is upset by deforestation, which lowers the supply and quality of water.

A Call for Urgent Action

There is no longer any room for complacency. Freetown is at a crossroads, and something has to be done. This urgent call for action necessitates a multifaceted strategy such as initiatives for reforestation and rehabilitation of the Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve. Significant funding for reforestation operations is required.

Rebuilding the environment and reducing the threats facing Freetown can be accomplished through planting native tree species and implementing sustainable forestry methods.

Immediately Put an End to Deforestation

To prevent more damage and give the environment time to heal, put an end to all types of deforestation. For the good of this historic city, ban the export of timber and make it a criminal offense to cut down trees for export.

Policy Reforms

Prioritise conservation and sustainable development in new policies, and enforce and enhance current environmental protection legislation.

Enforcement of Current Laws

Although Sierra Leone has laws in place to safeguard its forests, they have not been strictly enforced. The construction of homes that should not have been built on protected areas by people in high offices and influences is utterly challenging.

It is imperative to reinforce the enforcement of current rules and regulations. Embark on massive demolition drives. Will the government have the will to demolish structures that were built on once-protected lands? That I don’t see happening.

Subsequent governments have come and gone, lip services, organising trips to these areas, and so on and so forth, but what comes out of it is more structures. Everywhere there are structures, from the Aberdeen Creeks, which are the breeding grounds for marine organisms, to the Guma catchment, the hills of Freetown, and the Fourah Bay College Forest Reserve, all of these ecosystems have borne the brunt of these development projects.

Public Awareness Campaigns and Community Engagement

It is essential to raise awareness of the value of forest reserves and the effects of deforestation. It is crucial to involve local communities in sustainable forest management methods. By doing this, communities are guaranteed a stake in the ecosystem’s conservation as well as the preservation of its traditional knowledge.


Finally, I don’t want to be cynical, but the city will soon witness the most devas­tating catastrophe, if urgent actions are not taken. The government should take the UN report extremely seriously. The caveats are there, and a sense of ur­gency is needed. To me, I would say we are already late. Reforestation initia­tives can take a lot of time and money.

Have we learned from past disasters – the 2017 devastating mudslide, flooding, the continuous landslides all throughout the city, too much heat, and even the fall of the iconic cotton tree? These are indicators warning us of an imminent catastrophe. Why wait until something happens before we act?

Let’s take action now. The environment is no one’s property to destroy; it’s everyone’s responsibility to protect (Mohith Agadi). Stop the indiscriminate deforestation, reforest, and save Freetown.

About the author

Mohamed Ismail Kamara is Executive Director of Stichting EcoProbe Africa in the Netherlands.


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