From, Andy Esiet, Calabar
Following the invasion by illegal loggers, Cross River most treasured Ekuri forest is on the verge of extinction as forest communities and the state government have accused each other of abetting current reckless illegal logging going on with over 10,000 hectares out of 33,600 hectares of Ekuri forest land gone so far.
Last week large number of persons, men and women from these forest communities of Ekuri, Edondon and Okokori took to the streets of Ochon protesting against the brazen and indiscrete illegal logging going on in their forests which constitutes the few of the remaining rain forests in Nigeria.
The peaceful protesters carried banners and placards reading, “Forestry Commission stop the destruction in our forest, Our forest is our life, Stop the illegal logging in Ekuri, Health and wellbeing is endangered, Our wildlife is vulnerable, Forestry Commission stop aiding and abetting illegal logging ” and many others.
The hitherto Ekuri virgin forest preserved for years without any logging is today being deforested with reckless impunity as logs of timbers of different species littered the entire stretch of the bad 20km road from Ochon junction to New Ekuri while the tractors and trucks that do the loading and evacuation were seen parked at strategic points waiting for next operations.
The community people and the state government seem to be helpless as they trade blames on each other.
The Village Head of Ubiofor in New Ekuri, Chief Edwin Ogar said, “the demonstration is going on because of the illegal exploitation of the Ekuri forest as well as the destruction of the roads, that has impeded movement of goods and services to Ekuri.
“As community dwellers who are practicing farming, we cannot bring our products, because the loggers have gone ahead and destroyed the roads that we built by our own selves and later then Governor Liyel Imoke’s government intervened and did few kilometres that terminated at Edondon. Now they have defaced the road and. is not easily passable, and that is why we laid series of complaints to the government to stop this illegality, unfortunately, government is not listening to our cries”.
Ogar said, “it is true that the loggers are working in concert with a few natives, who are selling the birth right of their community. We do have constituent authorities in this community, it’s not as if the chiefs asked them. Only a few, woke up and began to bring loggers to Ekuri forest, without the consent of the chiefs of this community, because the chiefs have the customary rights, they are the chief custodians of our land, and in the normal way, they are supposed to approve any ongoing activity going on in Ekuri
“This forest is as old as when the destruction of the world by the flood happened in the Bible. The forest has been there for years. I met that forest here and my great grandparents told me that they met the forest here. The size of the forest, particularly in Ekuri, as we have taken the ground survey is 33,600 hectares of forest land, but by virtue of this logging, from our estimation, we found that 10,000 hectares has gone down the drain. So, what is left now is about 23,000 hectare. And then, there is pressure, the same group logging here, went and brought another company, to come and log the other axis of New Ekuri.
“New Ekuri is the last bus stop along this road. And then there is also a forest part to Iyamittet in Obubra, the Ekuri, are in Akamkpa, but there is a forest part to Iyamitet, so they went and arranged with the forestry commission, and approved an illegal logging concession of Ekuri forest, and we protested. They signed a concession for 99 years and for 20,000 hectares to a company, meaning that Ekuri forest has just 16,000 hectares left.lef”.
On the effect on the people, Ogar said, “you know, we are in the era of climate change that is bringing devastation to the entire world, the Ekuri forest, helped to stabilize the climate, unfortunately, this logging has aggravated climate change and that is why last year, and this year, my Ekuri people suffered a lot, we could not farm on our lands because of the weather change. When it’s supposed to be season for rain, it wouldn’t come on time, and when the crops were planted, the yield was not fruitful, because the crops were planted around this period and the crops never matured enough to be harvested. That is one of the things that affects us. And not just that, the forest products that we have in the community, are not yielding the right dividend for us. They are been eroded, in terms of productivity and because of that, we suffer due to financial difficulty. For instance, bush mango is no longer yielding, and these are the kind of things we depend on. We are a forest dwelling community, we depend mostly on farm products and forest products. Last year, for instance, bush mango did not yield and that also affected our income and livelihood. And it is making the people very poor”.
When asked who they were directing their protest to, Ogat said, “we are specifically directing this protest to the governor of Cross River state. He is in charge of forestry in Cross River state as the forestry falls under sub-national jurisdiction. The only thing is that the national body comes up with policies that the state will adapt to. But the management of forests are in the hands of the state government and the state government has not been living up to expectation. And we in Ekuri are a pride to Nigeria, in terms of conservation in Cross River and Nigeria at large.
“We have been named as the best community forestry in Nigeria, the largest, most well managed forestry in the whole of West Africa, therefore, for the government to have turned it’s back against Ekuri, is a real abomination, a taboo. Because, this forest has helped both Cross River state government and the national government be at the forefront in terms of environmental multi-lateral agreements entered by the government of Nigeria. And then, all of a sudden they are no longer taking care of the forest”.
Sounding helpless to the entire situation, Ogar said “on our own, we have tried our best to keep the forest, because we know that it is for the good of the present and future generation yet are in poverty and there is no road. For us, the marginalized and few persons in the community, decided to keep this forest, because it is our inheritance. We inherited it from our forefathers and therefore, it is crucial for us to keep that forest alive so that the future generation will benefit from it rather than us mortgaging it and then tomorrow, there will be no benefit”.
Also commenting on the deforestation issue, the Executive Director of Development Concern (DEVCON), Mr. Martins Egot said what is happening now “is a system collapse, a system failure in the sense that what the community people are coming out here to say, is that there is a failure in the forestry sector, there is a failure in government. The government that is supposed to be responsible for forest protection in Cross River state, has failed.
“The people are demonstrating that they have seen that forests and the natural resources are not being protected and the system that is supposed to be doing that, is not doing anything. So, that is why they have come out; to shout. Another thing is that, I see that the community of Ekuri, have a whole lot of awareness. They know that they have these resources, they know that this is their life support system and that is why they are coming out to shout.They are coming out to say look there is a whole lot that is wrong with our resources and those who are supposed to be helping us are not helping and so the world needs to hear us, people need to come to our rescue’. That is why they are coming out and I want to applaud them. It is very important that they are doing this because if they don’t come out and shout that something is wrong with their resources, nobody will do it for them. It shows that they have a high level of awareness”.
Egot said, “we know the Ekuri people have a history of conservation. The Ekuri community is one community that the world knows are the leaders when it comes to conservation and forest protection, so I am not surprised that they are coming out to tell the world what is happening. And I want to also say that wherever this protest is going to get to, people need to stand out and support these people. The state needs to wake up. In fact, I want to re-emphasize that the state government needs to wake up because if you go through the whole of Ekuri, wood is littered everywhere and this is a state that as at 12 years ago, declared a moratorium on forest logging. So, if we have a moratorium that is supposed to seize all of these illegal activities, what are we doing now, what is happening now? There is a higher degree of loss of forest, even when there is a moratorium, so what is the government doing? Already Siba Wood Agricultural company is invading the Iyamitet flank of the Ekuri forest and nobody is stopping them as they claim to have concession from government .
“I want to applaud the community and I give them kudos for doing this. As a development person, this is something that we have been shouting for, this is something that we have been saying. And we have at different quarters, called on government, asking what is happening. This is 12 years running, that we have had a moratorium in place, we see our streets, our communities littered with wood. There is a high level of deforestation, what are they doing?. They pretend to be helpless. So if the state government and the forestry commission are saying they are helpless, then where do we run to?”
The Chairman of the State’s Forestry Commission, Chief Tony Undiandeye on the other hand accused the forest communities of conniving with illegal loggers to deforest the forest.
He said, “how is the commission responsible for the illegal logging. Is the commission living in the forest? The communities are the ones responsible. Do people come from outside to enter your forest and you don’t know? I have gone to Ekuri through that bad road more than five times to tell them not to do logging, now they turn round to blame the commission. The most we can do is call the community and talk to them.
“The Police is compromised, the Army is compromised…To combat criminality you need the cooperation of the people, the law enforcement and government. Government alone cannot handle the issue of criminality especially at the scale of what is happening in our forest right now”.
He said, “the forests are not situated in the bedroom, they are situated in a community and government has done much to educate the community on the dangers that the continuous deforestation can cause to the community and then the global environmental issues of climate change and so many consequences.”
Also rising in defense of the state government, the Special Adviser to the Governor on Afforestation, Biodiversity and Conservation, Mr. Bette Philip Obi said, “government is on top of the matter. The trend is very difficult to checkmate because of the number of persons involved in the illegality. It’s not true to say that the state is not doing anything about the situation. Of course, you know that his Excellency the governor, is a Professor of Environment and he is fully committed to making sure that this menace is checkmated”.
He stated that the governor has “put in place a taskforce and directed the Chairmen of to enforce the Forestry Commission Law by ensuring that no unauthorized person enters the forest to cut trees any further. By his directive, we also have a court order to impound and auction any truck used for the illegal logging”
On the issue of permit to a company to log, Obi wondered “how would a state that has placed a ban on logging issue a permit to any anybody to log?, That story is not true. I am sure the community is funny. If you go and investigate, you will realize that what I am telling you is true. We don’t give permits, even when I was chairman of the Commission.
“We are about to meet, we are going to review the ban. The ban was supposed to last for two years but for about 12 to 13 years now we have not been able to review it. We have to review it and see the amendments to make so that the communities would be involved. Right now the communities are not getting royalty, so they prefer to deal with the illegal loggers directly.
“Before now, we had what we called Forest Management Committees in every forest community. Today, they are no longer there. So those structures have to be revived. Because, actually, they were working better than it is today. So if the Committees are there, the Commission is there, the Communities are there, the local government is there and all of us, I am sure that this illegal logging would reduce. Because, as I said, we can’t eradicate it.”