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The Bid to Save Nigeria's Rainforests

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Issue date: 
31 May 2012
Publisher Name: 
Think African
Armsfree Ajanaku
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With the lyrics of American rap legend Tupac Shakur pumping from the car stereo, 36-year-old Steve Okoikpi manoeuvres his Mercedes Benz through sharp bends on the road. The destination is Akasanko, a forest community of about 500 people on the outskirts of Calabar, the capital of Cross River State. Cross River lies on the coastline of Nigeria’s oil-rich, but heavily impoverished Niger Delta region.

Some 30 minutes later, Steve is welcomed in Akasanko by the chief of the community Edet Offiong.

As Project Officer at the Cross River Forestry Commission, Steve is one of the government officials charged with ensuring that a programme for conserving the forests is implemented. He works in tandem with a Forest Management Committee, which is made up of, and run by, members of the local community.

Inside the forest, which looks somewhat bare due to the many trees that have been felled for firewood, Steve makes the rounds inspecting nurseries and lecturing youths on why the forest must be regenerated. The farmer, Steve says, is allowed to grow pineapples because he agreed to help tend the nurseries and take care of young trees. Everyone else has been shut out.

“Three people who entered this forest for game and to cut wood were arrested and prosecuted last year", Steve explains.

“Here in Akasanko, we are trying hard to regenerate the forest by planting more trees. We have made it clear to the people that this is in their interest. In Cross River, we don’t cut trees anymore because we want them for carbon concession, so there is a ban on farming, logging and bush burning.”

Carbon concession is a climate change mitigation strategy. In Cross River, forest communities and businesses are agreeing plans to conserve trees which absorb carbon dioxide, rather than chopping them down.

Nigeria was recently approved $4million from the United Nations Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) programme to conserve rainforest trees. Part of this was used to carry out “REDD readiness”, a series of workshops and campaigns aimed at forest communities and oil companies. The aim is to help them get to grips with conservation and the importance of curbing carbon emissions.

Most of Nigeria's UN REDD money will be poured into Cross River, a reward for what its officials describe as government’s "conscientious efforts to save the forests". In a country that has lost over 90% of its lowland rainforests, Cross River has been recognised as Nigeria's environment capital and contains over 50% of Nigeria’s remaining rainforest. Many on the ground are already aware of the REDD money and expectations are high.

The impact on the rural population

Chief Edet, who heads the Forest Management Committee in Akasanko, seems eager to drum up support for what the government is doing. He doesn’t expand upon the project except to say everything is going well. And from the way other villagers pay obeisance to Steve it appears, on the surface at least, that many have fallen into line. Fear of prosecution for those caught engaging in illegal activities inside the forest is real and the new laws impose heavy fines and jail terms of up to two years on villagers who make unpermitted forays into the forests. In spite of this, however, some illegal logging still goes on.

Arikpo Arikpo, a member of the Cross River Forestry Commission, says the major challenges to ending illegal logging are poverty and a lack of alternatives. “This was not just challenging in terms of livelihood, but also in terms of access to wood for basic activities. People are not so ignorant; they know the value of the forests and, all their life, they have been dependent on it. Their forefathers had protected the forests, but because of the level of want or need, they are forced into doing illegal things in the forests.”

Manus Eme Olory, who lives in a forest community in Cross River state, is familiar with the predicament. “It has been difficult for us to hear that government is preserving the forest, and we can’t generate money from it for now,” he said. “What we have done in our area is to earmark some areas for farming. That is what we have called the land use plan, and it has really worked well, such that we now know where to farm and where not to.” Olory, however, went on to explain that he does appreciates the government’s efforts, saying, “even before the ban on logging in the state, people in my community had long decided that there should be no logging in our forest. We have mapped the boundaries of the forest to monitor what goes on.’’

Edwin Usang, Executive Director of the Calabar-based Coalition for the Environment was also hesitant to praise the government. He thinks that not enough is being done to provide alternatives and, as a result, people have continued to undermine the government’s efforts, albeit surreptitiously.

“There is still a lot of logging going on, and complaints about timber coming out of the forests,’’ he said. Usang suggests that ‘‘the government should come out with a policy, not to say don’t log, but this is how logging should be done. That is what I term sustainable logging and sustainable development. If you go to the community and say 'don’t cut down this forest', you must provide an alternative.”

Indeed, one of the major talking points at the climate talks in Durban last December was how to ensure money from international climate financing initiatives reaches the ground. In fact, how to dissuade poor communities from chopping down trees was frequently asked. In Cross River at least, many people in forest communities are eagerly awaiting money from projects like UN REDD so they can leave the forests to breathe, and mitigate climate change in that small but significant way, without completely losing their livelihoods.

This feature was produced by Panos London.

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Extpub | by Dr. Radut