Andy Esiet, Calabar
Devastated Ekuri forest
Forest communities in Cross River state and the state government are worried as 60 percent of Nigeria’s Flagship Ekuri community forest project in Akamkpa Local Government Area of the state is gone.
Accordingly, a non governmental organization in the state, Worthy Association for Tackling Environmental Ruins (WATER) that is into conservation, sustainable forest management, climate change and is working particularly with Ekuri community in the conservation of Ekuri forest and the people of Ekuri have raised the alarm that if nothing urgent is done by the state government, the international community and the general public, “in next two years the remaining 40 percent of the Ekuri community forest will be wiped away”.
The Programme Coordinator of WATER, Chief Edwin Ogar in a statement yesterday said “Ekuri forest, as we all know, has a very good history of conservation over the years, making it the best communally managed forest in the whole of West Africa, which had attracted International recognition by United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) in 2004, recognising Ekuri as biodiversity hotspot, as well as the community using the Ekuri forest to ensure that poverty is reduced and the forest is managed properly”.
But at the rate a private company, Ezemac International Limited and others are going, “in less than two years, the forest would be gone, irrespective of the size because already, the other side of the forest on old Ekuri axis is almost gone, logging there was done by more than 100 individual loggers and the community did not have the capacity to stop them. Ekuri is a minority community that can do little or nothing to stop them because the financial and technical capacity, in terms of raising resources to sustain such a matter, is not there.
“We have 33,600 hectares of forest. The logging has taken more than 60 percent and what is left is an estimated 40 percent and going by the current rate of deforestation, in less than two years, the forest will be gone and only then would it dawn on us the need to have protected that forest because the issue of water scarcity in not just Ekuri but communities downstream, would arise. The issue of non-availability of non-timber forest products is there, the issue of polluted air would also be there”.
He stated that the Ekuri forest that has been acclaimed the best communally managed forest in West Africa “is now the envy and heaven of loggers. Currently, there is a ban on logging, instituted in 2008 by the government of the state, meaning that trees are not supposed to be cut for timber. That ban is still subsisting but unfortunately, the present regime has disregarded the ban and has approved logging concession in Ekuri without seeking our consent of which we are in court already. By virtue of the ban on logging, government cannot approve logging concession and approving it is against the ban”.
Ogar argued that Ekuri forest “is not a forest reserve that government is holding for the community on trust, rather, it is owned by the community and as it stands, any company wishing to do business in any community in Cross River State is supposed to obtain permission from the community as the owners but this company never did so. The company is Ezemac international Nigeria company limited. Without permission, he and over 100 individual illegal loggers have ravaged New and Old Ekuri forest.
“Government should take responsibility in ensuring that the environment is sustained because if they do not, they will bear high cost of health issues because the absence of environmental services also causes a lot of issues. Various old and new diseases will come up, and government has no resources to finance these health issues that will come up. The forest plays a very crucial role in terms of stabilising the nation because firstly, it is a source of economic survival both to government and individuals”.
In a reaction, the Chief Executive Officer of Ezemac International Nigeria limited, Chief Ezenwa Daniel Igwe in telephone chat said his men entered part of Ekuri forest unknowingly but “the state government and the State Forestry Commission are aware of my activities in the forest and I paid money to the state before entering the forest. I also have an agreement with the village people”.
The Chairman of the State Forestry Commission, Chief Tony Undiandeye said his commission is equally alarmed at rate of deforestation and “I cannot agree less. We are very thoroughly embarrassed with what is going on now. It is not easy for us to enforce the law without security agencies and when they connive with loggers, it is difficult. Government should take responsibility and give impetus to the commission to carry out its responsibilities and Security agencies need to have government’s approval. Some military men are used by loggers but feign ignorance when we seek their help”.
He said, “there is nothing we can do now. The ban on logging has not been lifted. We have the capacity to contend with the ban but we are helpless. The security agencies are not on our side, as they collide with loggers. To worsen matters, we are not funded. I have proposed to government many times on the need to lift the ban and increase the attention of the communities”.
On permit, he said “we do not give and we have not given permit to anybody since the ban on logging was put in place. I am not sure that company( Ezemac) paid money to anybody in government, at least not under my chairmanship. Some of those matters predated when some companies came to say they want to open a road to new Ekuri in 1999, and when they came, we suspected they wanted to log and such approval has not been re-validated”.
“We need more proactive consciousness of government to direct the affairs because you do not just give mandate with no power, no vehicle, no impress, and others. When you cannot give money to your staff for investigation, the matter remains in a file. People can say all sort of things against the commission but we are not in position to do all things. If government gives priority to law enforcing logging, we will put check to it. How will you imagine we supporting them (loggers)?
“Government may not have the resources to manage the forest because globally, issues of forest cannot be funded only by government and at the same time, globally, economic recession is affecting funding of the forest. It is very expensive. Forest bearing communities on their own depend on it for survival but merchants are the ones benefiting, and not the community or government”.