Andy Esiet , Calabar
Depleted Ekuri forest
International organizations are foot dragging funding conservation in Cross River and Nigeria at large as loggers deplete community and government forest reserves.
As it stands the state government and Nigeria stand the risk of losing funding from international organizations like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) as Nigeria has failed to keep in line with the international standards of forest sustainability.
In an interactive session with some newsmen in Calabar at weekend on the extent of deforestation, a Community Leader in Ekuri, Chief Edwin Ogar, said the extent of deforestation “is quite disastrous, taking into account that Cross River State is a state that has been earmarked for the REDD project. It’s a big project that has been on in Cross River State. There’s also big plan that if the forest in Cross River State is there it’s going to yield the right dividend in terms of financial resources to both government and communities.
“The first phase of the project has rounded off the REDD readiness stage. And now government was supposed to facilitate the second phase of the project, but unfortunately this issue of logging has come to take place. People are not just logging in Ekuri forest, they’re logging all over Cross River rainforests, including the mangrove, so there’s no peace. There’s no relative peace in terms of the sustainability of forest in Cross River State”.
He said one of the companies logging anyhow in Ekuri forest and others is Ezemac International logging company that “has logged the entire Okpon forest reserve. There’s no tree there. And the more the forest is logged the more farmers are entering the forest to plant. So the Okpon forest that has been conserved over the years is no longer there in the Iyametit, Agoi Ibami and Agoi Ekpo axis. It’s all gone. What you see there now are farmers. The access roads constructed to carry woods is now the basis by which farmers enter the forest to cut down the few trees that are still there”.
Ogar who is the Programme Coordinator of Worthy Association for Tackling Environmental Ruins (WATER), said ” when you go to our neighboring Cameroon here you will see that a programme that started some 30 years to keep the forest, that forest is still there. If you go to Ghana you will see that a programme that started 40 years ago they are still keeping that forest. In Cross River State it’s not so. In Nigeria it’s not so. Whenever we say let’s keep this forest, it is only when the funder is around.
He stated that “when the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) came during the military regime to support the Forestry Commission to conserve the forest in Cross River State, the size of forest was large. Between when they left and when they came again for the second phase, the forest had drastically reduced. After the implementation of that project the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) came again and supported Cross River Government to do what Ekuri is doing – community forest. And when they left the forest also reduce in terms of size.
“And then REDD was here. It was basically as a result of the activities of Ekuri community. They were so fulfilled that Ekuri has done so much, and that if the larger communities in Cross River State should emulate it, it’s going to benefit them. So they came. Spent some years here. The initial stage was the REDD project. And then as soon as they left, the forest reduce. What is left is very small” .
From this scenario, Ogar said nobody is really interested in keeping the forest. What is left now is not important. The donors are not willing to spend their money without the sustainability of such project…Delay REDD is not forthcoming and they are still dragging their foot is because of the fear of the survival of this forest. What is the essence of spending so much of millions and after that the forest is devastated. And then another group come. Spend so much and the forest is still degraded to an extent you cannot comprehend. My fear is that this will automatically impact the REDD project and will also contribute to its non continuation of the project in Cross River State”.
Emphasising on the importance of the forest, Ogar stated that “the trees in the forest purify the air, and air does not have border as the air from Ekuri is also contributing to the good air in other countries in Asia, Europe, America. Ekuri play a crucial role in stabilizing the world. We have been doing this conservation business since 1982 till now. We are really happy that at least we have taken a lead to keep our forest protected and conserved. And we have used the resources from that forest to do our own internal development because government does not know us. Even if they know us government has not done anything for us both at the federal, state and local government levels. Government had only supported in terms of providing materials for us when we wanted to build culverts.
Logging in Ekuri forest
“Most of the projects in Ekuri are done by community efforts – schools, roads, town hall and scholarship. We are not recognized because we are minority. To worsen the situation, most of our people are not resident at home. They are outside here struggling for their daily survival. And as a result, government does not see any need for Ekuri to be developed, rather development is done by Ekuri for themselves. We use the forest as a development yardstick, and without it we cannot do anything. With the forest we are likely to get support from the outside – international development institutions, donors and funders. So the more the forest is there we are quite assure that there’s going to be sustainable development for Ekuri community, that’s why we are all out to ensure that our forest is conserved”.
Ekuri community according to him, has gone ahead to establish indigenous community conserved area to protect the forest and the indigenous community conserved area has equal status with the national parks. All national parks are registered with the United Nations Environmental Programme and World Conservation Monitoring Centre and same is what Ekuri have done but “we became surprised despite the fact that there’s a logging moratorium in Cross River State, meaning that no cutting of timber neither in the community forest nor forest reserve. But the present government decided to approve logging despite that moratorium. The moratorium put in place since 2008 has not been cancelled” and loggers are having a field day logging indiscriminately.
He therefore called on the international community, federal and state governments to step in and stop the reckless logging in Ekuri and other forests in the state.
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 (in the Okpon 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” .