DR. IBRAHIM KAMARA
Growing up near the foot of the hills of Freetown, Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s, life was a pleasant mix of childhood bliss and bountiful surprises from family and neighbours. The evenings were characterized by playful groups of children running down the street to welcome relatives returning from work carrying small bulging polyethene bags that surely contained gifts of candies, or the very popular doughnut called “Sweet Mother”. It was every child’s dream to be the proud recipient of a Sweet Mother doughnut so that they could proudly show their peers and share with them. Life then was full of happiness and joy. I can still feel the rays of the morning sun at dawn on my cheeks, the smell of the flowers on fruit trees as they blossomed, the cold and refreshing morning breeze, and the beautiful spectacle in the distant horizon of the sun setting in the evening which was a reminder that soon our elder siblings would come to ‘drag’ us home because our excuses of “I am coming” never worked.
My favourite sight was seeing pigeons chirping in the trees and a variety of other species of birds returning home from their daily exploits into the tall trees in the hills overlooking Freetown. The ecosystem of my Freetown Mountain District community was vibrant. It was because of the excellent environmental health status of its population characterized by a habitable environment where community and parental care were key ingredients in raising children, and the source of family and community happiness and growth.
Fast forward to 2019, and you are quickly saddened by what the same community of Mountain District has turned into in just over two decades. My parents could barely recognize it when we visited. The beautiful hills, trees, and forests have given way to commercial houses and factories. The community must now deal with harsh noise and environmental pollution generated by the daily roaring of diesel generators constantly pumping carbon monoxide gas into the air within residential dwellings . I heard my father say to my mother; “Today our hill is dark, the trees are gone, all the butterflies have broken wings, the birds and other wildlife have either migrated or have been wiped out, and the people of our community are seriously exposed to diseases due to deforestation.” My mother was distraught as we left what was once our home, a place of solace, still intact, but now empty of hope. Uncontrolled urbanization will always be linked to deforestation and destructive geo-hazards , and Freetown was never an exception.
Freetown was much safer than most parts of Sierra Leone during the civil war; hence, this led to the in-migration of people from different regions of the country seeking safety . Post-civil war, its population continues to grow as it offers attractive socioeconomic opportunities compared to other parts of the country, thus requiring that more space is needed for residential land dwellings . Furthermore, given that certain forms of land usage, such as agriculture, cannot compete with urbanization , some inner-city habitants who cannot afford the steep rental prices in the city, are forced to relocate to areas of minimal rent, such as forest, mountains and wetlands, in the outskirts of the city.
Figure 1: Map of Freetown indicating land cover in 1986
The relocation of people into forest and mountain areas of Freetown, led to abrupt deforestation processes, given that the primary economic activities of most migrants are farming, logging, quarrying and sand mining . The combination of these activities and population growth, combined with the suburban sprawl, set off environmental degradation in the city [3,6]. This is evident from the numerous flooding and landslide disasters in the city, which should provide insight into the city’s increasing environmental degradation.
Figure 2: Map of Freetown indicating land cover in 2015
Given the 2014 flood and mudslide in Regent, Freetown , the need for intervention strategies to combat deforestation could not be more overemphasized. As a health promotion practitioner, I firmly believe that Freetown needs a radical public health policy fiercely supported by the national government, and the Administration of the Municipality of Freetown. The plan must be skewed in favour of health promotion. It must include, among other things, interventions designed to combat deforestation, which ought to reflect the core values of health promotion – equity, participation and empowerment .
Availability and accessibility of the requisite funds for such interventions have always been daunting for activists and organizations advocating on behalf of the Freetown community to the government of Sierra Leone. The participation of the government and its willingness to allocate funds to combat deforestation will be a significant factor in determining the success of public health policies. Emerging from the Ebola epidemic that swallowed half of the annual government budget , the government of Sierra Leone continues to prioritize the health sector on paper. However, the current government health expenditure of Sierra Leone remains 10.8% , thus creating a potential obstacle. Building partnerships with potential external sources of funding such as The World Bank and the World Health Organization may help to eradicate health inequity due to deforestation across Freetown, as evident from the recent mudslide disaster .
Funding could be used to develop and implement payment for ecosystem services (PES) policy. PES involves paying people to keep the forest intact, to reduce deforestation, and maintain carbon sources and habitats for threatened species . It is a program that is effective and efficient, and has been widely used successfully to mitigate deforestation in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uganda, reducing health inequities and disasters due to deforestation . It has proven to be highly cost-effective and beneficial to governments, non-governmental organizations (NGO), and local and national communities, as it strengthens community actions by creating a healthy and supportive environment [13,14]. Also, these funds could also be used to create greener pastures such as employment and good low-cost housing in the other cities, thus reducing encroachment into Freetown, which subsequently reduces deforestation in the city.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of the PES policy and the development of healthy cities or rural regions would need to revolve around empowering the Freetown community to adopt behavioural changes over time, bearing in mind that behavioural change is a process and not an event, and individuals do not have the same level of motivation to embrace change. Addressing behavioural change will require implementing a community-based participatory approach, starting from the grassroots to understand why people do or do not practice health-promoting behaviours. Such behavioural change could include awareness and education on risks related to deforestation, especially on human health and the ecosystem.
However, once the community understands and appreciates the benefits of environmental preservation as part of being directly linked to their health outcomes, the momentum behind behavioural change will (all things being equal) at worst be maintained, and at best surge upwards.
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