Liberia has been affected by a total of 14 years of civil war. The conflict has had grave social, economic and environmental impacts. In 1990, one million people – almost a third of the entire population, estimated at 3.3 million – fled the country (UNEP 2004a). By the end of 2003, about a third of these people was still living as refugees in neighbouring countries. Since 1989, about half a million people have been killed in war-related circumstances, and of these, 50 per cent were civilians. The conflict also involved large numbers of child soldiers, often supplied with narcotics by militia commanders, and involved in traumatizing attacks on civilians and other atrocities.

The war devastated the economy, which was struggling even before violence broke out, halving GDP and completely halting production in key sectors of the economy such as the export trade in iron ore (UNEP 2004a). Since the end of hostilities, the economy has begun to recover, growing at around 15 per cent in 2004, primarily as a result of donor support.

One side effect of the conflict is the increasing pressure that has been put on forests. This was particularly the case after sanctions were imposed on the trade in diamonds, which was linked to the arms trade and enduring violence in Liberia and the sub- region. With diamonds becoming harder to sell, increased emphasis was placed on the production of timber. In 2002, timber exports accounted for more than half of the foreign exchange coming into the country, and more than a quarter of total GDP (UNEP 2004a). Since then, in terms of the UN Security Council Resolution 1521 of 2003 an embargo on the export of timber from Liberia has been imposed.

Deforestation is also the result of increased dependence on charcoal for fuel. Due to infrastructural breakdown as a result of the war, the current availability of mains electricity is just 1 per cent of what it was prior to the war. Supplies of kerosene and cooking gas were also disrupted by the war (Satia 2000). Consequently, charcoal is the only option for 99 per cent of the population. As a proportion of the GDP, charcoal production increased from 2 to 9 per cent in 1999. However, during the most violent and unstable periods of conflict (between 1994 and 1996) commercial production of charcoal actually decreased, because of the dangers and difficulties of transporting the commodity in the war zone (Satia 2000).

Between 1990 and 2000, forest cover was reduced by 2 per cent per year, which amounts to 76 000 ha per year (FAO 2005). The Forestry Development Authority, which is meant to regulate the industry has been unable to fulfil its mandate due to lack of capacity. For example, the Authority has only received a fifth of its annual budget since 1990 and employees are owed large sums in unpaid wages. Access to many parts of the country is difficult, due both to the lack of official transport, and the continued presence of armed groups (of ex-combatants) in many areas.

The formal sector has been badly hit, not just in terms of reduced markets but also war-related damage to public infrastructure and private facilities. Fuel storage depots in Monrovia harbour, for example, have been poorly maintained and sustained damage, leading to extensive localized pollution.

Mining is also a problematic sector, but one on which thousands of Liberians rely upon for their livelihoods. For example, prospecting and mining, and hunting have became widespread in Sapo National Park (SNP) due to conflict. Since 2003, intensive mining in the park has occurred and two major mining settlements – called Iraq and Baghdad – were established with a population of between 3 500-5 000 people (SDI 2005). Research, in the region of Iraq, showed that gold mining and trading is was the main economic activity, generating for some miners about 198.45 gram of gold a week. At a minimum price of U$9 per gram in Monrovia, this amounts to an income of U$1 786 a week (SDI 2005). “Even though the actual income that accrues to the miners themselves may not be this high, it certainly points to the fact that the mining is actually paying off for the various actors in this economy” (SDI 2005). The various negative environmental impacts of the alluvial mining techniques are barely regulated. Mining results in the discharge of large amounts of suspended solids into watercourses, and the release of large amounts of poisonous chemicals into the environment. For example, it is thought that for every gram of gold extracted, two grams of mercury are released into the environment.

Another problem is the extent of landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) littering parts of the country. In 1995, it was estimated that there were seven minefields in the country, containing a total of some 18 250 mines (HRW 2004). Many of these have since been removed, although information is lacking on the exact number of landmines removed and the location of de-mining operations. Also, there is no systematic collection of data on landmine casualties. Human casualties continue to be a problem. In 2003, two children were killed and another three injured when an anti-vehicle mine found in a swamp exploded after they tried to open it. In 2004, UXO that detonated in an agricultural field killed one person; a boy was injured in the capital city while playing with a hand grenade, and six people were injured in a UXO explosion in Monrovia (HRW 2004). There is no mine/UXO risk awareness education being conducted. There is only one prosthetic workshop in the country, the other one having been destroyed in fighting in 2003, and access to healthcare for those injured by UXO is extremely limited. It has been estimated that only one in ten Liberians have access to any formal health care (HRW 2004).

The trade in bushmeat – which includes endangered species, such as Pan troglodytes (chimpanzee) – has become so lucrative that many farmers have actually abandoned agriculture and now rely on hunting as their main livelihood strategy. Manis gigantea (giant pangolin) are sold for about US$1 000 each while a medium-sized Cephalophus niger (black duiker) goes for between $400-500. Colobus cercopithecidae (red colobus monkey) is sold for about US$200 (SDI 2005). According to the Sustainable Development Institute’s research, the bushmeat trade appears to also be providing employment for many traders, mostly from Monrovia and other urban towns.

It is not just terrestrial animals that suffer – all six Atlantic species of sea turtles Chelonia mydas (green turtle), Dermochelys coriacea (leatherback), Eretmochelys imbricate (hawksbill), Lepidochelys olivacea (olive ridley), Caretta caretta (loggerhead) and Lepidochelys kempii (Kemp’s ridley) fall prey to poachers (Formia and others 2003). Years of political instability and civil wars have hampered conservation activities and sea turtle conservation initiatives in these countries may be negated by difficulties in establishing safe, long-term field projects and enforcing national legislation, or by shifting pressure on natural resources (Formia and others 2003). Marine ecosystems are also affected by pollution from the many ships that have been damaged and sunk in the harbour. Furthermore, many ships are believed to fly under a Liberian “flag of convenience” (ie they are registered in Liberia for financial reasons). Some of these ships do not comply with international standards on the discharge of waste products, and have been associated with serious environmental pollution in the past.