Inclusive GEF Assembly award winner shows value of long-term support for nature
Tommy Garnett’s vision for restoring the natural beauty of forested land in Sierra Leone has withstood the test of time and civil strife, leading to his organization’s recognition in a new Global Environment Facility awards program.
The Environmental Foundation for Africa, which Garnett heads as Executive Director, is one of 23 civil society organizations selected in the Inclusive GEF Assembly Challenge Program for their community-driven climate and nature projects.
Garnett’s organization was selected as a program winner for its work helping to prevent the further degradation of the Western Area Peninsula National Park, a 17,000 hectare tract of forest near Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital. It does this through a tree stewardship project where local residents, mostly young people, take long-term care of the saplings they plant - with impacts measured by a forest inventory based on digital mapping.
The success of the foundation’s winning project is based on a partnership with the Freetown City Council, other governmental agencies, local tree nursery enterprises, civil society organizations, technical institutions and local communities. This builds on ongoing efforts by the Freetown municipality to increase urban resilience and improve livelihoods by investing in nature-based solutions to environmental degradation.
The Challenge Program was launched during the GEF Assembly in Vancouver in August to recognize the key role played by community groups in generating lasting ways to protect the environment. Each winning organization received a grant of up to $100,000 and gained access to networking, training, and knowledge exchange opportunities through the GEF.
The work of the Environmental Foundation for Africa has certainly not been easy, and its success mirrors Garnett’s enduring passion for environmental protection. This began when, as a boy living in the eastern part of Sierra Leone, he became disturbed by the large areas of barren and toxic land left by unsustainable diamond mining.
Garnett left Sierra Leone at an early age to pursue studies in agriculture and development economics. But his desire to reverse the forces of natural degradation in his country of birth was strong enough to draw him back to Sierra Leone in 1991 from London, where he had emigrated several years before and was living with his family. This period coincided with the outbreak of Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war.
“Everybody else watching the fighting on the TV news was talking about food and medicine – the basic needs of surviving day to day,” said Garnett. “But what caught my eye was the destruction of the environment – not just from the war, but from decades of mining for diamonds, bauxite, and titanium.”
Despite numerous challenges related to upheaval from that past conflict, the foundation grew to the point where it now has over 20 staff members working in Sierra Leone. While Garnett’s initial environmental community focus was pioneering, there is now a wide recognition that nature preservation can and should go hand-in-hand with social development.
The importance of preserving natural landscapes was made clear when flooding and a landslide killed several hundred people and displaced more than 3,000 in Freetown and surrounding areas in 2017. Garnett describes this as an important moment for recognition that nature within and around cities can be used to bolster resilience. He said that growing trees around cities not only benefits the communities and provides vital urban services, but also acts as a shield between the effects of rapid urbanization and surrounding protected areas.
In addition to the tree stewardship project which was chosen in the GEF’s Challenge Program, one of the foundation’s main initiatives is a community-based project protecting the rich biodiversity of Tiwai Island in Sierra Leone’s southeast. This ecotourism-based wildlife sanctuary is home to pygmy hippopotami, over 135 different species of birds, and one of the highest concentrations of primates in the world. A primary goal of this initiative is to create cashflows which recognize the value of biodiversity.
Garnett has lost none of the passion for protecting nature which sustained his determination to found an environmental organization in the middle of a conflict zone over 30 years ago.
“Forest loss across the African content is occurring at twice the rate of the world average,” he said.
“When you consider that a quarter of the world’s population is forecast to live in Africa by 2050, if we are serious about protecting our planet’s future, we must ensure that African people understand the value of nature. In Freetown, this means connecting with youth to bolster the resilience of urban areas by safeguarding surrounding forests.”
Educating young people is key, both in preventing future conflicts and in halting the onslaught against nature through more familiarity with its benefits. “You cannot love something you don’t know,” he said.