Gola - The Inside Track

Published 20th December 2020 by ClimateCare

Marketing Director Pete Ryde was in discussion with Oliver Forster, Director of Business Development at ClimateCare, who visited the Gola Rainforest project.

So Ollie – tell us a bit about what you do at ClimateCare and how it came to be that you were at the Gola Rainforest Project back in March.

I’m the Director of Business Development at ClimateCare. That means I work with partners to create programmes which reduce emissions and improve lives. Increasingly our partners are looking beyond Climate Neutral and are working to become Net Zero. So, my team does a lot of work to help inform their strategies and plan the appropriate use of both carbon avoidance and removal projects to deliver their Net Zero ambitions.

The ClimateCare Team regularly visit projects as part of our due diligence activity. My trip to the Gola Rainforest was also an opportunity to support a partner, Bulb – a renewable energy supplier and fellow B Corp. Bulb support the Gola rainforest as part of their offsetting programme with ClimateCare, by providing 100% Carbon Neutral gas to all of their 1.7 million members. Before international travel restrictions were put in place earlier this year, we visited Gola with the Bulb team to learn more about how the project works first-hand. We also took the opportunity to gather some videos and photos while we were there.

What first struck you when you arrived at the rainforest?

We arrived at the project HQ in Kenema before travelling to the project site. The Gola Rainforest National Park was designated in 2011, covering an area of 70,000 hectares which forms part of the remaining Upper Guinea forest in Sierra Leone. The forest supports an impressive array of wildlife including 60 species of global conservation importance, such as pygmy hippo, forest elephant and chimpanzee. At the HQ, the Gola Rainforest Conservation (GRC) team gave us an overview of the project. I was immediately struck by the professionalism of the project operation and breadth of the protocols and management.

It was also clear from that very first moment that community is an integral part of everything at Gola. In particular, the communities that live around the rainforest in the ‘forest edge’ (or buffer zone). The long-term protection of the forest relies on the improvement of livelihoods for those local communities who depend on the forest and surrounding areas.

How is chocolate saving the rainforest?

A cocoa programme operates within the communities who live in the forest buffer zone. This is key to the conservation of the Gola forests. Years of civil war meant that many of the community’s original cocoa production skills were lost. When the project started, cocoa yields were two orders of magnitude lower than in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire.

Now, using the proceeds from carbon finance, raised by partners like Bulb, the project has systematically improved cocoa yields. It has done this in two ways. Firstly, it trained and continues to train a network of master farmers in good agricultural practices, who then share their skills with other farmers. And secondly, it enabled farmers to form cooperatives to govern their own role and access the cocoa supply chain.

Previously cocoa prices were low, and it was mostly bought by traders. Now farmers in the Gola communities have improved the quality of their cocoa by undertaking their own drying and fermenting. Cocoa is then sold to collection centres set up in their isolated communities, and is taken to market by their cooperative, working in collaboration with GRC representatives. The result is a much better price at market.

Gola chocolate is ‘organic’ by default. Chemical fertilizers have never been used in the area. The taste is incredible!

How does the project work to cut carbon emissions, and how can we be sure they are real and permanent?

The project reduces carbon emissions by reducing deforestation, keeping carbon locked up in the trees.

Prior to the project, slash and burn agriculture drove deforestation. Across the project area deforestation was occurring at over 2% every year. Through education, provision of an alternative form of sustainable cocoa farming, and income from carbon finance and grants, the project has been successful in reducing deforestation rates in the National Park, avoiding more than 500,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year.

The exact carbon savings are precisely monitored by satellite and through carbon plots. 50 carbon plots throughout the forest allow forest carbon density and growth rates to be calculated. These are assessed against a baseline, calculated through a formal assessment under the VCS methodology. This includes satellite assessment of historic deforestation rates, as well as considering deforestation patterns in similar ecosystems within Sierra Leone.

The permanence of the forest is guaranteed by the strength of the project. The Government of Sierra Leone is a key part of the project and a member of the GRC. It has given the forest National Park status and outlawed tree cutting in the forest area. However, the government can only do so much. The entire National Parks budget for Sierra Leone is wholly inadequate, so carbon finance is vital to enable the ranger patrols and community initiatives which maintain the forest.

Did you see any wildlife on your trip? How is the way the forest is managed helping or hindering their survival?

The fantastic hornbills are the first thing you notice as you come into the forest. Their wings make a unique ‘whooshing’ sound as they fly through the canopy. This can be heard throughout the forest. Their pre-historic look completes the Jurassic Park feel.

We also saw Campbell’s monkeys in the canopy, and got a fleeting glimpse of a white-necked Picathartes, a unique and mysterious bird.

The ranger programme has a big focus on stopping poaching and the forest is home to one of the only remaining stable populations of Western Chimpanzees. Sadly we didn’t see these guys – they are exceedingly rare! It’s estimated there are 300 in the project area of approximately 140,000 hectares. But a member of the GRC team accompanying us, told us about his close encounter with the chimpanzees a few months earlier – a whole troop walked past him one morning on his way to the Picathartes lookout.

Did you meet local people? What do they think about the project and how is it changing life for them on a day to day basis?

We heard really positive things about the Gola project from everyone we spoke to.

Women play a leading role in the project, particularly in the savings and loans co-operatives it has set up. One of the most touching stories came from a lady known as Mama Gola, due to her devotion to the project.

After losing her husband and her job as a midwife, the project offered her the chance to take part in the financial administration of the Gola project.

She told us how, after the civil war, farm owners abandoned their lands. But then, after only a few months from it’s launch, the project helped them realise how the surrounding communities could benefit from the forest and from those abandoned cocoa plantations.

Now she says, communities are thriving. Women are playing a key role in the political and financial decisions of the villages. New jobs are created every year for locals, who receive constant training and support for cultivating, harvesting and selling cocoa. And, through scholarship programmes, families can now send their children to school and even on to college and university.

What is the biggest threat to the Gola Rainforest and the future of the project? How has COVID-19 impacted the project and local communities?

While the majority of immediate threats to the project have been mitigated, carbon finance is critical to maintain these initiatives. But the long-term aim is self-sufficiency for this community.

Cocoa farming is on track to break even in the coming years, which will be a great step forward. And a key stakeholder, the RSPB, is also putting in place a process to help the farmer’s cooperative become an independent functioning business.

So far, the number of Covid cases in Sierra Leone has been small and because of Ebola, communities are already well versed in hand-washing and social distancing. GRC distributed sacks of rice to villagers as part of initiatives to ensure communities had food security during the Covid-19 pandemic, but there remains the need to provide further support.

The real key to making this a lasting success is the continued income provided through carbon finance. Companies who choose to take full responsibility for their carbon footprint by offsetting it through the Gola project are both helping to tackle climate change and investing in this long-term vision of a sustainable and self-sufficient forest community.

What’s the lasting memory that you take away from your visit?

Two memories really stand out.

The first is the forest at dawn. We went to a viewpoint for sunrise and saw the first sunshine of the day touch the forest. The forest came alive. It’s something I’ll never forget. Check out the Gola drone footage captured by the Bulb team to get a sense of the forest – amazing!

The second is the kids in the forest edge. They were always messing around, and had a real love for English Premier League footballers – which made for a quick connection.

The Gola Rainforest Project is just one of the 300+ climate projects that you can support through ClimateCare. Check out our project map to find out more about projects that cut carbon and improve lives.

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