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Alarm over fast depleting forest resources

By Eno-Abasi Sunday (Lagos), Anietie Akpan (Calabar) Oluwaseun Akingboye (Akure) and Charles Akpeji (Jalingo)
16 September 2018   |   4:25 am
When a recent report revealed that the country was recording a four per cent forest loss yearly, the average Nigerian could not fathom the depth of the problem...

When a recent report revealed that the country was recording a four per cent forest loss yearly, the average Nigerian could not fathom the depth of the problem, but conservationists knew that it was time to sound the alarm.

Nigeria’s four per cent annual loss of forest is considered as the highest in a world, where forest loss alone is responsible for about 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon, which is a prime contributor to global warming and climate change.

In the last decade or thereabouts, experts have cried out about rising global temperatures, and the alteration of local climatic conditions, which have led to heat-related fatalities, as well as, spread of infectious diseases, malnutrition, disruption of farming season, dehydration, damage to public health infrastructure, migration of both man and animals, and also destruction of properties.

Interestingly, this extremities are not brought about by metaphysical or some alien forces, but by different human activities, which are responsible for the changing global climate, most especially the spike in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, resulting from reduced forest reserves.

It is on record that the country’s colonial government kick-started the establishment of forest reserve territories at the end of the 19th Century.

At the onset of the 20th Century, about 970 square kilometres had been given to forest reserves, and by the end of the 1930s, about 30, 000 square kilometres were given to the reserves. In the 1970s, the forest reserve fund covered an estimated area of 93, 420 square kilometres.

With this massive efforts and preparations, it was only a matter of time before the country emerged as Africa’s largest wood producer, with an annual harvest of more than 100 million cubic metres by 1998 estimates.

In addition to this, the country used to be a major exporter of timber resources. This is evidenced in its industrial round wood export in 1964 standing at 781, 200 m3 and a corresponding value of US$ 36.10 million. This dropped to 26, 900m 3 in 1976. To date, that scenario, which played out in 1976 has refused to abate, rather it has deteriorated at great speed.

Now the country is not only a net importer of wood, but the depletion of her forest resources has plummeted to pathetic depth.

Consequently, except for the Afi River Forest Reserve and the Ekuri Forest Reserve in Cross River State, which forms over 50 per cent of the country’s remaining forests reserves, the other forest reserves in the country have been badly depleted. They include Akure Forest Reserve, Oluwa Forest Reserve, Okeluse Forest Reserve and Idanre Forest Reserve all in Ondo State; Edumanom Forest Reserve in Bayelsa State; Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve in Mambilla Plateau, Taraba State; Oba Hills Forest Reserve in Osun State; Okumu Forest Reserve in Edo State, and Ise Forest Reserve in Ekiti State.

Specifically, the depletion of the country’s forests has found expression in several ways including the fast-vanishing wood industry and the manner in which forests in many states are giving way than they are replenished.

Also, in most of these states, there are conservation plans whatsoever or replenishment programmes, which would have aided forest regeneration.

The inability of many states to ensure controlled or sustainable logging has opened their forests to aggressive wood consumption, especially for export, leading to the disappearance of choice woods.

In echoing this concerns last week, the Director General of the Nigeria Conservation Foundation (NCF), Dr. Muhtari Aminu-Kano described the country’s loss of 96 per cent of her forest to deforestation as “catastrophic,” while Founder, Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE), Dr. Newton Jibunoh, who recently spoke on the subject insisted that the threat of desert encroachment and desertification were assuming frightening dimension.

According to Aminu-Kano, who said the country currently has only four per cent of its original forest cover, “About 96 per cent of our original forest have been lost; it is catastrophic… It is sad that we are losing vegetation cover and there is absolute need to make concerted efforts to grow more trees because the more the merrier not only in Lagos, but across the country.”

The NCF helmsman said the foundation was exploring ways of increasing the country’s vegetation from four per cent to at least 25 per cent in the next 30 years, explaining that one way of doing that is to plant more trees and stop felling of trees as fuel for cooking and furniture purposes.

Said he: “We are exploring ways of gaining back some of what we have lost through the Green Recovery Nigeria Initiative that will bring stakeholders like the government, faith leaders, traditional rulers and others to thinker on solutions.

The DG added: “We could also explore tree plantations for timbers so that we do not cut down our forest for the purpose of furniture.
“It also means leaving trees on farmlands so that we do not just clear everything and plant perennial crops, thereby reducing our forest cover.”

In the view of Jibunoh, trees improve the local climate, and in doing so, they also help to save energy used for heating by 20-50 per cent, adding that their strategic placement in urban areas could cool the air by up to 8 degrees Celsius, would reduce air conditioning needs by 30 per cent.

In addition to trees helping to reduce noise pollution and shielding homes from nearby roads and industrial areas, he said, “local population use the fruits, nuts, leaves, and insects found in urban trees to produce food and medicines for use in the home, or as a source of income.”

Forests within and around urban areas, he explained help to filter and regulate water and also contributing to high-quality freshwater supply to millions of people.

Despite being home to over 50 per cent of the remaining rain forest area in the country, with thinning high value timber species like, Mahogany, Mimusops, Ebony, Black Afara, Opepe, Apa, Cedar and others, Cross River State is not totally free from the clutches of illegal loggers, who are constantly combing the nooks and crannies of forests in the state in search of fortune.

Commenting on the massive logging and deforestation that are going on in parts of the state, Tony Atah, a consultant on environmental issues said forests around Ekuri-Iko, Iko-Esai, Agoi and Okpon in Akamkpa, Obubra, Yakurr axis, as well as forests in Boki and Etung local councils, which are all rich in choice woods are all threatened.

He said: “A study conducted by the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (UN-REDD) programme in 2014 on drivers of forest degradation between 2007 and 2014 revealed that we lost 40, 000 hectares of land and because of the ban, we lost 167, 382 hectares of land and forest. Much of the loss is due to illegal logging, but between 2014 and 2018, there is no information. With all this, our forest is reducing.”

The study, he added, further showed that, “in 2000 we still had forest, but from 2007 the forest started receding and by 2014, the forest had become less. By 2040, our forest will go if nothing drastic is done as the forest then was going at rate of 2. 9 per cent every year.”

For Project Officer, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA) and Coordinator, Forest and Biodiversity, Friends of the Earth Africa (FoEA) Rita Uwaka, “Nigeria’s deforestation record will continue to soar if urgent and deliberate efforts are not taken to curtail it as over 350, 000 to 400, 000 hectares of forested landmass are being deforested every year. Before now, Nigeria had the fourth highest deforestation rate in the world and the second highest in Africa after Sudan.

“From 1990 to 2005, Nigeria lost 35.7 per cent of its forest cover, which is around 6, 145, 000 hectares. This development is disturbing considering the importance of forests to man and mother earth. Nigeria’s forests have continued to shrink in size largely due to industrial plantations, unsustainable logging, oil spill and forest fire (in the Niger Delta) leading to the destruction of complex forest mangroves.”

It was the rapacious illegal logging in Cross River State that caused then Governor Liyel Imoke in 2008 to announce a moratorium on forest exploitation in order for the state to benefit from the UN-REDD programme, to allow the state control logging activities and key into the UN-REDD carbon credit programme and other conservation activities.

But even with the moratorium and introduction of a taskforce, illegal logging did not abate, and this forced forest communities to call on the state government to lift the ban.

A communique signed by the Village Head of Iko-Esai, Aita Obhort Obi Owai, on behalf of the participating communities at a programme facilitated by Development Concern (DEVCON), with support from Heinrich Boll Stiftung Nigeria recently, said the ban has failed to yield results and now to the detriment of communities.

They said: The communities are not benefiting from the ban on timber as the ban has not been lifted and people are logging. We as communities are ready to conserve; we are seriously in need of support to conserve our forests because many people are logging and farming recklessly…”

Commenting on the issue, the Executive Director, Development Concern (DEVCON), Martins Egot said: “It is clear that much timber is still leaving forest communities and the moratorium is supposed be a period of correction; where a faulty system is stopped and going back to the normal practice. But for 10 years now, the situation is even going worse and I am advising the government to go back and see what went wrong, and put things in place to ensure that the proper thing is done in terms of forest protection.”

Experts have also raised concerns that the construction of the proposed Cross River State 275-kilometre digital superhighway may consume over 250, 000 giant trees. This number excludes thousands of different species of younger trees that abound the Oban, Old and New Ekuri, Okokori, Edondon, Etara, and other communities in the 180 communities that will be impacted by the highway.

But the Special Adviser to the Governor on Technical Matters, Mr. Eric Akpo, promptly countered that less than 25, 000 trees will be affected, even though he pointed out that logging is not the intention of the project.

He, however, explained that as an environmentalist, Governor Ben Ayade if he is taking out 25, 000 trees from the ecosystem five million trees would be planted to extend the rainforest from the Central Senatorial District where it terminates further into the Northern Senatorial District.

The Chairman, Cross River State Forestry Commission Mr. Bette Obi, at a workshop on “Sustainable Fuel Wood,” organised by state government, in collaboration with the UNDP confirmed that that the mangroves and other forests were increasingly threatened by the unsustainable exploitation of fuel wood by local consumers.

While Obi admitted that the exploitation has become a challenge developing states have to face squarely, objectively and purposefully, the state Commissioner for Climate Change and Forestry, Dr. Alice Ekwu, added that the ministry was working with relevant agencies to commence the planting of trees for fuel wood purpose so that the forest can be left alone.

In Ondo State, the long, reverberating and re-occurring sound of wood felling and sawing machines, as well as, sights of dangerously loaded timber trucks, are a constant reminder of the continuous depletion of the state’s forest reserves.

Despite the fact that the state was captured among the few to benefit from the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation Plus (REDD+) programme, nine types of wood in the state are on the verge of extinction.

Frequently logged, (especially along the Imafon/Alagbaka route through Akure metropolis) and carted away in trucks daily are, Terminalia Ivorensis (Idigbo), Militia Excelsa (Iroko), Tectona Grandis (Teak), Mansoma Altisima (Ofun), Khaya Ivorensis (Oganwo), Antiaris Toxicaria (Oro), Cordia Milleni (Omo), Afzelia Africana (Apa) and Anogeissus Leiocarpus (Ayin).

While this continues, the public is highly skeptical of government policies to keep off encroachers and replenish forestry stock, even though Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, flagged off a 10, 000-hectare afforestation project at Omotosho, Okitipupa Local Council last year May, in partnership with a Chinese firm, Wewood Limited.

Sequel to this, timber traders under the aegis of Timber Traders Organisation (TTO) urged the state government to put in place a robust reforestation initiative to replace and restock woods that have been depleted.

In one of their recent congresses in Akure South Local Council, they lamented that the process of restoring and recreating had been dumped by subsequent governments in the state while new trees were not put in place.

TTC Chairman, Ayodeji Omotosho, revealed that despite the group’s efforts towards reforestation, the state government has failed to encourage them, adding that they made payments into government coffers to ensure that every tree removed at any point was replaced in order to guide against deforestation.

He lamented that despite all these, the trees have not been replaced for a long time saying, “most of the areas we have in the forest were either planted or replaced during the days of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and subsequent governments have failed to follow his footsteps.

“These tress might be a thing of the past in this part of the country if we fail to plant new trees. We must go back to the days of our great leaders who put in place better plans for us, and we must also guard against the extinction of our trees.”

Another threat to the forestry in the state is the thriving Indian hemp plantation.

In recent times, there has been series of clashes between timber farmers and the Indian hemp farmers, while the former alleged that some government officials are conniving with the latter for financial inducement at the expense of timber owners.

Last year, the National Drug and Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) swooped on Indian hemp farmers and destroyed over 5, 000 hectares of hemp plantation.

The Guardian reliably gathered that there is an influx of people from Edo and Delta states, who have cultivated over 600 hectares of Indian hemp without any restriction or hindrance. To find space, they allegedly set parts of the forest on fire, killing the trees so that their illicit plants can thrive.

Because of the proliferation of this illegal activity, a timber farmer of 22 years standing, Mrs. Adenike Adeolu, accused government officials and their cronies of aiding and abetting the planting of Indian hemp.

In a petition to Akeredolu, Adeolu, the farmer who was allocated Compartment 124 Akure/Ofosu Forest Reserve, alleged that a certain Sunday Gowon and Dele Angazi were arrested in 2014 and made to sign an undertaking to stop Indian hemp plantation in the reserves.

She also petitioned the NDLEA, Ondo State Command, alleging that one Mrs. Funmilayo Fayeun planted and harvested the illicit substance on her compartment, after which the forest was set ablaze.

Adeolu lamented that several complaints she has made to government agencies, ministries, and the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Agriculture, Pastor Akin Olotu, for assistance, have been to no avail.

“The SA in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Mr. Fatai Lawal and other officials in the ministry have been using their offices to victimise me without any good cause. I was even banned unjustly through a stop work order, preventing me from doing my legal business just because I resisted the plantation of cannabis on the farmland which we inherited from our forefathers,” she said

But Lawal denied the allegation against him and the ministry, saying the timber dealer has been violating government laws due to her relationship with past governments, and in a bid to cover up her illegal activities.

Rising against the ugly trend, the Association of Olus and Baale Ala/Akure Ofosu Forest Area on February 28 sent a “Save Our Soul” letter to Akeredolu, informing him that some of his aides and appointees were rubbishing his government.

Meanwhile, the state government has moved to regulate the activities of encroachers.

The state Commissioner for Agriculture, Adegboyega Adefarati, said the registration and documentation of encroacher farmers in the forest reserves, handled by Deltech International Investment Concepts Limited, an expert in forest management was ongoing.

“Government decides not to eject them outright because their means of livelihood and that of their families have been tied to their farms in the forest reserves.” the commissioner said, noting that efforts were on to regenerate depleted areas of the forest reserves by planting economic trees and ensuring effective monitoring of the reserves.

He warned against building permanent structures in the forest reserves, maintaining that new encroachers would not be tolerated while those not captured during the registration would be ejected.

Illegal harvesting of timber in Taraba State, especially Rosewood, has made many timber dealers, as well as, some government functionaries smile to the bank, while forest depletion continues unabated.

In the face of the mindless logging, the inability of the government to enact laws, or put in place measures that would halt the practice remain worrisome, even as some of the finest woods in the state are daily stuffed into 40ft containers and carted away to China and other foreign destinations.

Some forestry workers who bared their minds to The Guardian, expressed displeasure at government’s failure to kit them to perform the assignment diligently.

In fact, some of them alleged that the trend was continuing because some top government officials were benefiting heavily from the business, which daily depletes forests resources.

“We are frustrated and cannot put an end to this ugly business because most of our government officials are benefiting from the business,” one of them said, adding, “the boys destroying our forests are being sponsored by top government officials, top politicians and civil servants.”

While recalling how two of his colleagues were withdrawn from the forests for attempting to prevent illegal logging, he stressed the need for the state House of Assembly to enact a law that would ensure the preservation of the state’s forest reserves.

The Conservator of the Gashaka-Gumti National Park, Yuhanna Saidu, also blamed illegal human activities as a major threat to the survival of the park, as well as, the forest reserves.

He said the park “has had its fair share of human pressure being exerted on it as illegal activities like poaching, illegal grazing, mining, fishing, farming, logging among others, are fast becoming sources of concern.

“The current spate of illegal logging of Rosewood, popularly known as Madrid is much more disturbing than any other thing. Rosewood is a valuable timber used for many purposes, including as forage for livestock; medicine, dye for cloths and luxury furniture. It is unfortunate that in Nigeria today, Taraba State happens to be the last point where Rosewood is found and illegal logging is intense. These activities, if not urgently checked, will result in dire environmental consequences not only within the immediate areas, but also the country at large.”

At both the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Environmental, their commissioners were not on seat when The Guardian visited, and top officials of the ministries declined to comment, even though they agreed that the situation was “very disturbing.”