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Azibaola… Mission to save Niger Delta rainforest

By Guardian Nigeria
23 July 2022   |   4:21 am
Humans and wild animals face new chalenges for survival due to climate change. More frequent, intense drought, storms, heat waves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and warming oceans can directly harm animals, destroy the places where they live, and wreak havoc on people’s livelihoods and communities.

Scene from the Bonfire Night in Otakeme

Humans and wild animals face new chalenges for survival due to climate change. More frequent, intense drought, storms, heat waves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and warming oceans can directly harm animals, destroy the places where they live, and wreak havoc on people’s livelihoods and communities.

Sea levels are rising and oceans are becoming warmer. From polar bears in the Arctic to marine turtles off the coast of Africa, our planet’s diversity of life is at risk from the changing climate.

Late last year, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Climate Change Bill into law. Buhari had earlier made a commitment during the world leaders summit of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow, UK that Nigeria would cut its carbon emission to net-zero by 2060.

The Climate Change Act, which owes its origin to a bill sponsored by a member of the House of Representatives, Sam Onuigbo, provides for, among other things, the mainstreaming of climate change actions and the establishment of a National Council on Climate Change. The Act also paves the way for environmental and economic accounting and a push for a net zero emission deadline plan in the country.

As part of his contribution to the global fight against climate change, Robert Azibaola, the Bayelsa State-born environmentalist, social thinker, entrepreneur and lawyer, has taken the campaign to his Niger Delta region to sensitise communities on the need to protect the rainforest zone.

The campaign saw Azibaola embark on a 14-day expedition into the deep rainforest of Bayelsa to showcase, first-hand, how climate change is affecting the local people, their ways of life and the use of the rich biodiversity of the Niger Delta rainforest.

The journey into the rainforest, by Azibaola and his colleagues at Kakatar and Zeetin Groups, saw the team traverse the deep forest of Bayelsa with so much excitement and gusto, aired on the African Independent Television (AIT) on June 5, 2022. In that documentary, Azibaola told the story of his people and the abundant natural resources inherent in not only Bayelsa but also the entire Niger Delta.

Azibaola, who was obviously in a familiar terrain, in the process encountered strange fishes (such as the snake fish, which is a snake but is actually a fish!), reptiles such as Iguanas, and rare tortoise, and other animals such as the pangolin, which inhabit the forest.

He seized the opportunity of the adventure to campaign for the preservation of these rare animals, which are fast going into extinction, as corroborated by local hunters in the documentary.

“At the end of the day, we had a minimum of 25 kilometres to make it by foot to where humans live. Being here is a kind of experience that makes it worthwhile. There is no other pleasure than being in the depth of the forest of the Niger Delta,” Azibaola said.

Determined to drive home his message on the importance of environmental protection on the people of the region, Azibaola recently stormed Otakeme village, his birthplace, in Ogbia Local Council of Bayelsa State, for a programme dubbed Bonfire Night.

Staged at the village square, just by the bank of the river, the open-air event attracted leading traditional rulers from Ogbia Kingdom, men, women, youths and environmentalists who were in the community to support Azibaola on his mission to save the Niger Delta rainforest.

With three huge bonfire kilns providing unceasing illumination that lit the night sky, the women had the task of roasting plantains, fish and meat, even as they swung to the drums on the youth that got many, including Azibaola and his family, to the dance floor.

Though some of the traditional rulers and environmentalists got slots to speak to the obviously excited audience, the evening was spiced with musical performance by a cultural troupe, and the live band that treated guests to some vintage traditional songs. Indeed, it was a celebration of the rich cultural heritage of the Otakeme people; not even the rains could stop the fun galore.

Obviously, Azibaola knows his people; he found the right approach to reach them and his message was clear.

“We have a rainforest here that is being pilfered. People are logging trees that would take 20 years to grow. Our ancestors left it for us for more than a century, and someone from here goes into the forest to log wood and sell outside the community.

“Everything I knew as a child is gone. One person is going into the forest to cut them down, depleting the oxygen in our environment,” he began.

“In Ogbia tradition, as I knew it in those days, places were named after trees. It was used to give directions for medicinal trees and even geographical locations. There is need, therefore, for action because government has failed us. I’m not campaigning against government but I’m campaigning against people who are depleting our rainforests.

Some Ogbia chiefs at the Bonfire Night

“As a tradition, Ogbia people don’t eat foxes. Now, I go into the forest and there are no foxes there. Our forefathers knew that if you eat them, they would go extinct. That was why they were never eaten then. In our culture, we don’t eat snails.

“When I was a child, I saw pangolins in our forests and, right now, you can’t get them again. It’s contraband in the world right now. We need to do something about it.

“Everything is gone! All the chiefs need to know about what we have to do. If you don’t act now, your children may not have anything to inherit. The fishes are gone.

“We cannot allow that. We, as Ogbia people, were one of the greatest wrestling champions in Nigeria. We can have champions who can use their brains to change the tide now.

“This thing that is happening in Ogbia is not happening here alone. It’s all over the world and the Chinese, Americans and others are taking charge by stemming the impact of climate change and deforestation,” Azibaola, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Zeetin Engineering Limited, said.

In a chat with The Guardian, Azibaola explained the motive behind the campaign. “This is what God or nature entrusted me to do. At every point in time in the history of mankind, someone must take responsibility for a particular cause. In this instance, it’s my responsibility. Again, looking at it, I was born in this community; I lived here, I schooled here. I passed through all the phases of growth here; I know the pains people are passing through here. I know what I met when I was a kid and I know what has been lost since then. Someone must do something and I feel passionate about it.

“These are inbuilt passions that I have, but the difference now is that I’m able to do it myself without asking for support. Otherwise, if I were one of those that barely survives and I’m asking people for funding to engage in these activities, people will say I’m doing it for the financial gains. But God has blessed me with small resources and it behooves on me to contribute back to the people and nature, to ensure that I did something during my lifetime,” the environmentalist said.

While urging every African to take positive action against climate change in their own little way, the Azibaola observed: “It appears that in Africa, we wait for the western world to do something for us before we start. The whole world is talking about climate change; we the Africans, we the Niger Delta people, we are part of the world. Whatever that is happening in China, happening in Russia… we are also having a contributory factor; we receive and we impact. The climate change issues are happing deeply in the Niger Delta; issues of environmental pollution as a result of crude oil exploitation, mindless plundering of economic trees and forest. This is a rain forest, if you enter that forest, you will meet a swamp; these are natural swamps inhabited by rare species, including pangolins. We have so many rare species here that you cannot find anymore; they’ve fallen pray to hunting and man’s encroachment.

“Trees that take 100 or 200 years to grow, one single individual will go there and cut it down and sell it for N100, 000, and the communities are helpless. So, we need to galvanize the community to warn them that whatever they are doing here has it’s own negative impact on the environment and themselves.”

While warning on the dangers of deforestation, especially in the Niger Delta, he said: “All of mankind breathe in oxygen and emits carbon dioxide; oxygen is produced by trees. Once there’s no tree again, oxygen will cease to be produced and man will be in jeopardy. So, all these trees you are seeing here are precious commodities; they are much more precious than crude oil.”

While urging Nigerians to play their role in protecting the environment and to promote local tourism, Azibaola quizzed, “Why should we only think of tourism as something that should be enjoyed outside the shores of Nigeria? If we have swamps like this, we should have people coming around to look at the species that are there. I’m very mush concerned that the world is moving in a direction and we are moving in a different direction, because people here — both government and the local authorities— have failed to regulate the use of the forest.”

“In a saner society, if you are cutting one tree, you plant 10. But here, nobody plants; every tree that you see here grows naturally.

I’ve been an environmentalist and in those days when I left the university, we used to write proposals for funding from foreign agencies. But God has blessed me with small resources to do it myself. This is not about financial gains, it’s about passion,” Azibaola declared.