The Efficacy of my Decision to be an Environmentalist: How My Life Changed

by Borwen Sayon (ELP 2018) | Deputy Managing Director, Forest Development Authority, Liberia

Growing up as a child amidst 14 years of civil crisis, I remember conversations with my parents about my future career choice. I always wanted to be a doctor, and we all agreed on that fact. However our perceptions were different. While my parents envisioned me dressed up in a white coat curing the sick, holding hands, and being comforting; I wanted to be a doctor who would prevent people from becoming sick and dreamt of a world without illnesses. I envisioned a safe environment free from all harms. A world where people interacted with nature and everything was ‘alright.’ 

When I went to school pursuing an undergraduate degree in Biology (pre-med), my father was proud of me. But, when in my final year, I told him I wanted to be an environmentalist, my father’s expression was something I will never forget. He exclaimed “What?!! What does that even mean?" I will always remember the disappointment on his face as I had shattered all his dreams. 

I became a Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) Fellow in 2009 at Conservation International, in a dramatic-last-minute-interview only by confessing that I knew nothing about conservation or environmental work. Technically, I was an idiot being hired for the job. However, this was one of the criteria – to build leaders in the field of conservation, you needed to start from the beginning. I was hungry and passionate to learn and apply new concepts to improve the balance between human societies and nature, especially in my country, which is affected by cascading effects of poor natural resources governance. I wanted to be a champion of safeguarding biodiversity and improving the quality of human life.

Throughout my career, I have been privileged to arrange and manage conservation agreements around the East Nimba Nature Reserve (ENNR) and other protected areas. I have worked tirelessly, beside several unsung heroes to design a system that fosters community stewardship in conservation, improve and diversify community income base to alleviate poverty, mitigate conflicts in protected areas establishment, and safeguard biodiversity. But that would not have been possible without a secret weapon in our arsenal – "women’s involvement into conservation." Our society was, for a long time, a male dominant one and for many years, women were relegated to performing only domestic duties. However, in post-war Liberia, with the election of our former President Her Excellency Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf, there has been a paradigm shift and the platform has been set for women participation in decision-making processes, especially in sustainable natural resource management. In most places, we have had to depend on the local women’s involvement to own and lead behavior change activities to achieve conservation outcomes and sustainable natural resource governance. We have been successful in creating a sustainable income base for hundreds of fringe communities around protected areas by introducing green job schemes such as Community Watch Teams, Frontline Conservation, Bio-monitoring programs and other Communication, Education and Public Awareness campaigns. The sole goal of these programs are to allow communities assist the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) to better manage Protected Areas and safeguard biodiversity while improving community livelihoods. Today, there are many women serving as rangers around the parks, working on bio-monitoring research teams; serving on community, and national governance committees for forest management. Women are also contributing to national efforts for reducing deforestation specifically by utilizing improved varieties of rice in farming as well as reducing the bushmeat trade. Through all this, we are mastering our systems for demonstrating conservation outcomes through perception and behavioral change surveys and a Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool (METT) scorecard evaluation exercises. Despite all this, I have always been a kind of disappointment to my father who still occasionally asks me “so what do you do for a living?”

Last year, when I was appointed by our former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the Deputy Managing Director for Operations at the FDA, my father was the 5th person who called me yelling “congratulations, I am so proud of you” on the phone. I was like “yeah, I told you so, Papa!!” I was proud and happy to make it through passion and humility.

As one of the leaders in the sector, it was imperative to sustain the gains already made by previous administration as well as envision key priorities to become an effective institution. Through stakeholders’ engagement with our partners, we agree on a few deliverables, which included:

  • Developing a new 10 years Strategic Plan and roadmap for implementation that will enhance institutional efficiency and technical delivery of programs at the policy and site levels. 
  • Consistently implement comprehensive communication and strategic stakeholder engagement which deconstructs and integrates the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), Rights Based Approached (RBA) and Participatory Rural Appriasal (PRA) to facilitate public awareness and participation in natural resource decision making process.
  • Facilitate the implementation of the Feedback Grievience Redress Mechanism (FGRM) process for conflict mitigation and resolution through transparent engagements.
  • Establishment of a stewardship program in rural communities within the fringes of protected areas which are “quid-pro-quo” arrangements based on the economic concept of opportunity cost to incentivise communities through sustainable livelihood opportunities for performing conservation actions.
  • Agree with communities on frameworks for protected areas management, improve research and biodiversity threat reduction initiatives, as well as implement periodic monitoring and evaluation utilizing the Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool (METT) scorecard to determine PA viability.
  • Establish a Conservation Trust Fund through commitments and biodiversity offset to achieve conservation outcomes through sustainable financing.
  • Developing a system to ensure logistics, training and manpower development are continuous. This means, the FDA regains its financial autonomy consistent with the NFRL, 2006.

But I was soon faced with a challenge of dealing with a major conflict with the communities around the Sapo National Park. Two of our rangers were attacked and one killed by illegal gold miners in the forest. This shocked us, but we pursue a path of peace with the communities. We designed a "resolution system" which would improve the FDA's relationship with local communities.


Today, I am happy that the systems we have designed have been used to establish and launch two new protected areas the Grebo-Krahn National Park (96,149.89 hectares) and the Gola Forest National Park (88,000 hectares) located in Southeast and Northwest of Liberia. I have seen the impacts of women involvement to foster community ownership and relationship with the FDA.

By conserving forests, sustainable livelihoods can be achieved; we can mitigate climate change impacts, safeguard biodiversity, and facilitate biomedical research on flora species to discover new medicines that can cure illnesses. When I look around and see various stakeholders actively participating and contributing to finding these solutions, this brings me the satisfaction of a pursuing successful career as well as hunger to achieve more.

When I finally got into the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (BELP) after over seven years, yes! seven years of trying, I never hid my excitement of learning and sharing so much with my colleagues to improve my perspectives, and still, contribute to the challenges of ensuring that "people and nature can thrive harmoniously." I am excited that BELP has sharpened my edge and desire to contribute more to life and I hope to continue making my country proud of me.