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Villagers Resist Environmentalists Around Guinea's Mount Nimba

Environmentalists trying to save chimpanzees at a UNESCO World Heritage protected area in Guinea are facing resistance from villagers who say their needs are being ignored. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from the Mount Nimba nature reserve, in eastern Guinea, about the difficult balance between environmental and economic concerns.

Scientists and guides marvel as one of the 13 remaining chimpanzees from Bossou does an acrobatic treetop demonstration of quickly picking berries from one branch and the next.

After the impressive display, scientist Sakho Djemory walks toward plants he has been cultivating. Djemory has been arranging a natural corridor of plants chimpanzees like to eat.

Djemory explains the idea is for the mostly male Bossou chimpanzees to travel to other parts of the reserve where there are more female chimpanzees, like on Mount Nimba, so they can reproduce. Chimpanzees travel where they can find food they like.

But Djemory say many of the plants have been burned down by people.

He says scientists explain to villagers why the planting is taking place, but says some villagers keep repeating that it is their land that is being taken away.

Local guide Pascal Gomis, who leads a group of scientists into dense forest to see some of the other chimpanzees, says people have much to learn from the animals and should be proud of having them close by.

"I see chimpanzees as important, as important as human beings, and very intelligent," Gomis said. "A chimpanzee cannot marry a sister, and a sister cannot marry a brother. So they are intelligent animals."

But he says villagers are sometimes jealous that he has a job working for Japanese researchers, while they do not.

"Some people, they are jealous, because they do not have money, food, when they see their friend getting a job and some small, small money there," Gomis said. "They cannot understand. They cannot understand, because they do not have anything to eat, they do not have money."

As he speaks, a forest fire lit for hunting purposes can be seen on one of the hills in the distance, in violation of international agreements.

UNESCO, the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization, lists Mount Nimba as a strict nature reserve, meaning it cannot be used for cultivation, hunting, or mining.

The reserve harbors rich flora and fauna, including endemic species like viviparous toads, which give birth to live offspring, not eggs.

It was inscribed on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites in danger in 1992, over concerns about mining projects and an influx of refugees from the then-conflict in Liberia.

In 1993, a World Heritage committee and Guinea's government agreed on new boundaries for the site as well as the establishment of a government management center to handle all environmental and legal questions.

Residents in the village of Serengbara at the foot of Mount Nimba say if they got as much help as is given to the environment, they would be happy too.

Village chief Bakada Siomy says the thousand or so people here have little food to eat, and very little land.

A dozen or so children, many of them sniffling, some of them with distended bellies, a sign of poor nutrition, lazily play under a setting sun.

Another villager shows fish ponds which have been set up by environmentalists behind the village. But he says the fish ponds do not always work well, and that anyway most villagers do not really like fish.

He says it was much easier before Mount Nimba was a protected area, when villagers could cultivate land, and got along fine with chimpanzees.

Keamou Haba, a government official whose job it is to monitor and evaluate different projects on the reserve says rare fauna and flora constitute riches for Guinea as well.

He says it is always difficult to balance environmental and economic interests.

He says it is even more difficult on the Ivorian side of the border, which also has protected land, but is currently under rebel control.

Haba denies reports by outside environmentalists that his own Guinean government has been trying to start uranium mining in the mountain range. He says there is no proof there is uranium on Mount Nimba.

If there were uranium, he says, it could be exploited, but arrangements would be made for the environment to be protected. That is always extremely important, he says, for the future and everyone's livelihood.