Community Stewards of Natural Resources: Integrating Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance with Sustainable Forest Management in Liberia




One of two 2019 USAID Biodiversity Integration Case Study Competition winners and recognized by the judges as a compelling example of integration that shows how a Mission’s Economic Growth and Democracy, Rights, and Governance Offices worked together to address biodiversity loss, promote sustainable community forest management, and strengthen forest governance.

Funding Approach: Co-funded. Geographic Approach: Co-located. Sectors Integrated: Biodiversity and Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.

Supporting the sustainable management of community forest land is essential to addressing biodiversity loss in Liberia. Most biodiversity in Liberia falls outside of protected areas; consequently, community members are the stewards of Liberia’s natural resources. This story illustrates how USAID/Liberia’s Economic Growth Office built upon its strong relationship with the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (DRG) Office to re-design and integrate ongoing activities to improve sustainable development outcomes, using a collaborating, learning, and adapting approach.

One of the main threats to sustainable community forest management in Liberia is private logging companies, who seek to sign forest management agreements with communities and push them towards commercial logging. Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority and communities have often opted for commercial logging over community forest businesses. The USAID/Liberia Mission promotes community forestry management options that can provide equitable local benefits while safeguarding national and international forest conservation objectives.

USAID/Liberia’s Forest Income for Economic Sustainability activity implements sustainable forest management actions but has encountered a changing set of contextual challenges. A 2018 mid-term evaluation found that increased pressure from logging companies on ill-prepared communities undermined implementation of biodiversity conservation activities. Communities needed robust governance structures to manage their forests successfully and ensure commercial ventures respect rights and equitably distribute benefits. USAID/Liberia also realized that the Forest Income for Economic Sustainability activity could benefit from a strong governance partner to help tackle corruption in the forest sector.

Identifying an Integrated Solution

In recognizing that achieving biodiversity conservation objectives required targeted action to address underlying governance challenges and build local communities’ forest management capacity, the Economic Growth Office began coordinating with key DRG Office staff. The Economic Growth and DRG Offices had previously collaborated, and the Mission’s Liberia Accountability and Voice Initiative had worked in the natural resource space through the development of county-level development councils. The two offices agreed to pursue a re-design of their programming, and the Mission established an interoffice design team to write a transition plan.

Adapting the community forestry activity’s implementation approach required collaboration across additional Mission offices. Technical teams worked with the Office of Acquisition and Assistance, the Regional Legal Advisor, and the Mission’s front office to review the flexibility and adaptability of the mechanisms to accommodate the integrated implementation approach, and ensure this approach aligned with the Mission’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy and Project Appraisal Document.

USAID/Liberia’s natural resources officer consulted USAID’s Office of Forestry and Biodiversity in the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment about whether obligating biodiversity funds into a DRG mechanism would fulfill the requirements of the Biodiversity Code. After the Office of Forestry and Biodiversity confirmed this approach met the spirit of the Biodiversity Code, the Mission had the confidence to move biodiversity funds into the Liberia Accountability and Voice Initiative and Land Governance Support Activity mechanisms and move forward with an integrated approach that fulfilled both biodiversity conservation and DRG objectives.

The Mission then presented the proposed changes to the implementing partners. The relevant activity managers collaborated with the implementing partners to adapt the activity workplans to include the integrated components and promote synergies among the two offices and three activities. The Mission ensured the implementing partners understood this integrated vision and committed to coordinating the relevant workstreams. These adaptive management actions took approximately nine months.

Addressing Biodiversity Loss and Preparing Communities to Manage their Forests

Since implementing an integrated approach, the Forest Income for Economic Sustainability activity is better positioned to address deforestation and biodiversity loss while developing rural, forest-based enterprises for farmers and forest-dependent communities. The Liberia Accountability and Voice Initiative is now strengthening forest governance by increasing the capacity of Community Forest Management Bodies to bring the concerns of forest-dependent communities into the national policy dialogue and serve their long-term interests. The Liberia Accountability and Voice Initiative is also strengthening the role of the National Union of Community Forests to function as a coalition of forest communities and serve as a watchdog for community rights. The Land Governance Support Activity is assisting community forests and their respective governance structures with training, mentoring, and legal advice to prepare them to 1) negotiate and enter into contracts and social agreements with timber companies where community development projects are clearly identified with a time-line for implementation; and 2) monitor contractors to ensure that they comply with legal rights of community associations. In the future, USAID intends to provide technical assistance to allow the Community Forest Management Bodies to directly manage forest areas.

USAID/Liberia believes that the efforts to supplement Forest Income for Economic Sustainability’s natural resources and agro-forestry livelihoods activities with the expertise from Liberia Accountability and Voice Initiative and Land Governance Support Activity will provide a comprehensive package of services that prepares communities to manage their forests in the public interest, not only in the interest of political and economic elites.

Lessons Learned

Consider activity re-designs to strengthen existing activities and enhance coordination among different sectors.

Planning an integrated design with mixed funding from the start is often preferable; in cases like Liberia, an opportunity may arise to manage separate mechanisms in an integrated manner. Recognize and respond to needs identified in midterm evaluations and make strategic adaptive management decisions, as necessary. Integrating the work plans of all three activities is ultimately contributing to stronger development programming that is expected to support Liberia’s journey to self-reliance.

Address underlying governance challenges to achieve biodiversity conservation.

Recognize when natural resource conservation programs are not achieving intended biodiversity conservation goals; in this case, broader forest governance challenges hindered achievements. Embrace adaptive management based on evaluations or other evidence and re-design activities with an integrated approach. Integrating sectors can increase development effectiveness and impact.

Increase coordination and collaboration, both at the Mission and among implementing partners.

Engage implementing partners in activity re-designs. Direct implementing partners to coordinate their efforts. Mandate increased coordination among implementing partner staff to facilitate integration on the ground.

Consider integration at all stages of the program cycle, from design to implementation to evaluation.

Budget time to synthesize results and findings from across the activities to ensure integrated monitoring, evaluation, and learning and improve understanding of how integrated approaches contribute to development results.

It is not always possible to achieve biodiversity conservation without also addressing underlying governance challenges.

USAID/Liberia realized that the Mission’s primary natural resource conservation program, as originally designed, was not achieving its biodiversity conservation goals because of broader forest governance challenges. The Mission made an adaptive management decision based on the learning from a mid-year evaluation to re-design the activities with an integrated approach. This experience highlights how integrating sectors can increase development effectiveness and impact.

Increased coordination and collaboration are key to integration, both at the Mission and among implementing partners.

USAID/Liberia engaged their implementing partners in the activity re-design and then directed them to coordinate their efforts. This mandate helped to increase coordination among implementing partner staff, which has been instrumental in facilitating integration on the ground.

Integration is best when considered from design to implementation to evaluation.

Whenever possible, USAID/Liberia staff suggested that integrated activities should budget time to synthesize results and findings from across the activities to ensure integrated monitoring, evaluation, and learning and improve understanding of how integrated approaches contribute to development results.

Learn More

Explore more case studies on the USAID Biodiversity Integration Case Competition website.

Learn more about biodiversity integration with other USAID technical sectors on the Biodiversity Conservation Gateway.

Visit USAID’s website for more information on USAID/Liberia’s work on biodiversity conservation and Democracy, Human Rights and Governance; Economic Growth and Trade.


Yoel Kirschner, Water and Sanitation Team Lead, Office of Infrastructure, USAID/Afghanistan; former Natural Resources Officer, Office of Economic Growth, USAID/Liberia (2017–2019)

Ian Winborne, Natural Resources Officer , Economic Growth Office, USAID/Liberia