Architects, urban planners must build nature into plans, says Onoja
Dr. Joseph Onoja is the Director General, Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF). He spoke to VICTOR GBONEGUN on how economic valuation of natural and environmental resources will conserve biodiversity.
Conservationists believe that wildlife species render valuable services in the ecosystem and contribute to environment sustainability, but there are instances where forest communities still hunt these animals for meat. How do we ensure sustainable livelihood for these communities and reserve the wild life?
That is a major concern actually. For instance, Pangolins have been known to consume over 70 million ants and termites per year. That is, they are protecting over 50 football fields of forests.
Now, if you remove these Pangolins from the environment, the population of termites and ants will increase and even displace human population. On the other hand, the communities also need to provide proteins for themselves and need to hunt these animals.
However, what we are trying to do over the years is to provide alternative livelihood in terms of source of proteins for communities that are close to the forests. NCF through some of its projects provide alternative livelihood like rearing of grass cutter and poultry. These provide protein to them and also serves as a means of income to discourage them from going into the forest to hunt. The Pangolins are the most trafficked animals and we need to protect them.
Experts have made case for economic valuation of nature to protect or restore ecosystems and their services. What are the merits of such exercise?
Very necessary and that is what we call eco-capital accounting. We need to know the contribution of nature to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) because sometimes, when people don’t know the value of something, we abuse it. If we know what nature does, then it helps us to put value into it.
For instance, the carbon sink that we have in forest produces oxygen and if we are to quantify the amount of oxygen the forest produces for us, we will be careful in destroying it.
The cost incurred on healthcare may be due to the damage done to nature because some of the diseases that come to human are because we tampered with nature and we now pay in terms of healthcare cost. It helps us to put into proper perspective the contribution of nature to what we do.
Governments and corporate organisations have aided recovery of lost forest cover through the protection of the environment and the ecosystem. What part has NCF played in green recovery in the country?
In mid-2000, NCF came to the realisation that our forest cover was dwindling very fast. At a point in time, Nigeria had the highest rate of deforestation.
Between independence and now, we have lost over 94 to 95 per cent forest cover. What we have left is between five to seven per cent in the country. Whereas, we are supposed to have 25 per cent of our landscape as forest cover.
We saw that there was a need for a concerted effort to recover our landscape and that was why we launched the Green Recovery Nigeria. The project targets tree planting in degraded landscape, while protecting places that are still green. We are doing that so that we won’t be planting trees and be loosing forest at other end.
We are planting the right species of trees at the right places, right time and right quantities. We are trying to restore what was in existence before and not changing the landscape for the ecosystem of a particular location. If we bring an alien species, there are other biodiversity for instance, the bees and birds that pollinate these plants. They will not be able to fit in if we bring exotic species.
So, we brought the native species of trees that was in existence. We know that we cannot do it alone and that is why we are partnering with individuals, governments, corporate organisations and communities.
We have planted about 2.1 million trees at NCF and currently protecting over 76, 000 hectares of land across the country to avoid deforestation. Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari gave us 262 hectares of land in Abuja to protect.
Dredging and reclamation activities have continued in Nigeria’s coastline and wetland areas, which is capable of causing havoc to buildings and infrastructure. Can we relate the recent flooding in the country to such activities on wetlands and how do we get out of this?
The recent flooding in the country is caused by a combination of factors. Deforestation is one of the factors because when areas that are supposed to be forested are cleared and when it rains, there is run off and there is no place to absolve the water.
Under such circumstance, there is no delay in the release of excess water, it hits the ground and there is flash flood. On the other hand, there is increase in the intensity of rain because of climate change.
Deforestation made a lot of rivers to be silted and so rivers are not as deep as they should be and they cannot absolve as much water as they should. That also leads to more flooding.
Then, you have the issue of dredging and sand filling of our wetlands, which are supposed to absolve excess water but most of those places had been sand filled. Once you do that, water will always find its level.
It is good for us to allow nature to play its part. Nature will do its work and do it in a more cost-effective manner than trying to do it by ourselves after destroying nature.
It is advisable that if we want to develop, we should develop with nature. We encourage architects and urban planners to see how we can build with nature instead of building against nature.
Architects, urban planners must build nature into plans. We need to start thinking innovatively so that development or increase in population does not affect nature. If we tamper with nature in trying to develop, nature will react.
Efforts to control plastic pollution in Nigeria’s environment have not yielded much result as the streets are still overwhelmingly littered with plastics of various types and sizes. What are the best ways to manage plastic pollution; what should government’s policy, be to ensure manufacturers take responsibility for pet bottles?
There is need for ‘political will’ to deal with it. If there is political will, there will be the enactment of law that bans single use plastics. If there were law on plastics use, it would take care of single use and recyclable plastics so that people don’t dispose plastic anyhow. The law will also take care of the framework and mechanism of waste sorting and ensure awareness creation.
As you know, a lot of people are ignorant of the effect of plastic pollution. By the time we dispose plastics indiscriminately, it ends up in the water bodies and fishes end up feasting on the plastics.
When we eat them, we are bringing in micro-plastics into our bodies and people will start falling ill with undesirable sicknesses, classified as cancers. Whatever, we give to the environment; it gives us back in a painful manner.
The government has to put in place policy and framework to curtail single use plastic. The political will of the government must override self-interest of individuals and those producing plastics must be responsible for their wastes.
Some political parties have released their manifestos. With what you have seen so far, are they addressing environmental challenges?
The truth is that we have not seen any strong environment component in the political parties’ manifestos and that is why we will continue to engage. We understand the situation, whereby many people are concerned about the social-economic situation of the country and usually, environmental issues are below the pile.
Many people are not aware of the importance of the environment not knowing that by the time we solve all the socio-economic issues and environment is not healthy, everything will come to an end. We have to put the planet first in every thing that we do before thinking about the people and prosperity will follow. We can’t prosper without a healthy environment.
There should be a clear-cut manifesto on issues such as deforestation, climate change, wildlife loss and protection, as well as how they will be able to implement them.
There must be template on how to tackle pollution generally both plastic, air pollution and how to transit between fossil fuel uses to green energy. We need to have a transition that is equitable and just.
As we head to your 2023, what are the actions needed to promote and enhance conservation among Nigerians particularly the younger generation?
For me, it is awareness. Awareness is very important because the younger generation needs to realise that the future is theirs. They must imagine how the world they want to live in should be. They need to be concerned. In NCF, we have a programme to engage young people to get involved the environment.
On the back of that, we need conservation interventions. More young people are getting involved in issues of climate change because it is becoming real and people are experiencing it. As many young people get aware, we will be able to drive a change. They have the passion, strength, social media and global linkages to drive a change.
NCF is marking its 40th anniversary this year, what has the foundation achieved over the years?
We have been involved in a lot of issues in terms of policy, projects and livelihood enhancement activities. NCF has been involved in promulgation of endangered species decree (1984-1985), which was reviewed in 2016 as endangered species Act. The foundation was also involved in the national conservation strategy and the Federal Environment Protection Act, which metamorphosed into the Federal Ministry of Environment.
NCF’s projects led to the rediscovery of the Cross River Gorilla that was thought to have gone into extinction in 1987, and ever since, the foundation has been involved in the protection of the species in collaboration with other partners to build capacity for Masters students and PhD students.
We have also been involved in other projects in the North East like protection of Hadejia-Nguru wetland in Yobe State, protecting the landscape. The project started with the visit of Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, that is where the funding came with some of our international partners.
We were able to start a project to protect the landscape and also empowering the local communities. The place is very important because when migratory birds come from Europe; they fly over the Sahara Desert to the location in winter. We have been maintaining over 142,000 birds there in about 56 species. It is a very important place for migratory birds conservation.
We have been managing different sanctuaries like the Okomu National Park. We have had projects that deal with the Cross River National Park, Yankari National Park before it became Yankari Game Reserve.
NCF is a member of the board of the National Park Service. We established environmental education where we empower people to study conservation education in Glasgow and Edinburgh. We also established conservation education in College of Education in Edo State and University of Calabar.