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How forest guards in Liberia protect the sacred rainforests

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In West Africa, communities have set aside forests and bodies of water to be protected at all costs. These are sacred spaces where rites of passage and spiritual ceremonies take place. But increasingly, the forest in countries like Liberia are under threat, as Ricci Shryock reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RICCI SHRYOCK, BYLINE: A prayer to the fish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SHRYOCK: This local resident in Barconie (ph), a town on the west coast of Liberia, sprinkles gin, a boiled egg and rice into the murky blue water of a lagoon. No one is allowed to kill any of the animals that live here, in a small expanse of water nestling between the mangroves and the Atlantic Ocean.

ALPHONSO DENNIS: All of the fishes you see in the water there? You have all the people in a community.

SHRYOCK: It is a sacred space to residents, explains Alphonso Dennis, the town's chairperson.

DENNIS: If you kill one of the fish, somebody in the community will be affected.

SHRYOCK: In West Africa, many communities have set aside sacred spaces like these to be protected at all costs. It is a relationship with nature that has been handed down generation to generation.

BORBOR KEALAH: (Non-English language spoken).

SHRYOCK: "We have to protect the forest," Borbor Kealah tells me. "So I protect it to prevent damage. We cannot let anyone spoil it." Borbor Kealah is a guardian of this stretch of forest. Together, we walk along the edge of the trees, forbidden from stepping into the shade of the nearby tree canopy.

Liberia is home to half of the remaining rainforest in West Africa, but in 2021, it lost over 100,000 hectares of natural forest due to deforestation, according to a report by the Global Forest Watch. For more than 40 years, Kealah has ensured that no trees have been cut down in the space. It is also a space where community justice is administered. The initiated enter the area and discuss local conflicts until a resolution is found in.

KEALAH: (Non-English language spoken).

SHRYOCK: "If someone has a problem in the home," he says, "this is where we bring them to make us understand their case and take control of the problem."

Further down the road, on the edges of a sacred forest, Anthony Gardrea hacks a machete into palm trees as he clears a space for his pineapple farm. Despite his desire to expand his crops, he does not dare to chop down any trees in the sacred area. As Borbor Kealah explains, the relationship with nature is about finding a balance.

KEALAH: (Non-English language spoken).

SHRYOCK: "The love of humanity and the love of the forest are both possible," he tells me. "We love both sides. We cannot pick one side and then drop the other side."

Nearby, a special gravesite is marked for those who have protected the forest before Kealah. Vines grow over the blue-green headstones. When the time comes, I will be buried there, he says, and the next generation of leaders will protect these same trees, he hopes.

Ricci Shryock for NPR, Barconie, Liberia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ricci Shryock