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Economic diversification without harnessing forest resources

By Eno-Abasi Sunday
19 March 2017   |   2:16 am
Forest are pregnant with resources that can change the economic fortunes of any nation. And for nation’s that are blessed with abundant forest resources, the sustainable management of these resources can become a great foreign exchange earner.

Forest are pregnant with resources that can change the economic fortunes of any nation. And for nation’s that are blessed with abundant forest resources, the sustainable management of these resources can become a great foreign exchange earner.

Decades ago, especially before the commercial exploitation of crude oil, Nigeria benefited immensely from the hundreds of forests spread across the country, especially timber products.

Specifically, in the country’s pre-independence era, forestry and agriculture dominantly sustained the growth of the country’s economy as trade in timber accounted for a sizeable chunk of its earnings.

Reliable government data estimated that the number of people that were engaged in different types of forestry activities stood at 170, 000 in 1933, moved to 360, 000 in 1947 and was up to 568, 000 in 1961. This included management staff, and the labour forces in all forest-based industries. This happened at the time about 80 per cent of the country’s rural population engaged in agro-forestry and other agro-allied activities.

Across the world, export value earnings from timber is obtained mainly from products like log, sawn wood, veneer and pulpwood. And it is on record that export revenue from forestry in the country grew at 4.1, 8.0 and 28.8 per cent between 1950 to 1960, 1960 to 1970 and 1970-80 in that order. Had this continued, and the country’s forests sustainably managed, the impact of the forestry sector on the country’s socio-economic development would have been enormous.

All these took place before stable demand from countries like China and India forced the prices of African sawn wood down. In the last 20 years or thereabouts, the forestry sector has experienced a gradual decline in income generation to government, partly due to the over exploitation of some of the best timber species in previous decades, and partly as a result of the fact that the sector is still largely oriented towards exporting raw materials.

Last year, at the 14th Annual Chief Shafi Lawal Edu Memorial Lecture, which was at the behest of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), in collaboration with Chevron Nigeria Limited, in Lagos State, stakeholders ventilated their dismay that a country so endowed with enormous land mass and diverse types of vegetation has failed woefully in sustainably using and managing the forest resources, with the attendant impact of climate change.

Before they departed from that lecture, the stakeholders, however, urged governments at all levels to invest heavily in the sector owing to its massive potentials in addressing the nation’s emerging environmental, social and economic challenges, especially in the light of the present administration’s efforts to shore up its revenue base through non-oil resources.

Across the world, not so many countries are blessed with the amount of forest resources that Nigeria is blessed with, but which it has failed to sustainably administer.

At the lecture, which had, “Valuing Nigeria’s Forests: Issues and Context,” as its theme, President, Forestry Association of Nigeria (FAN), Prof. Labode Popoola, sadly informed that the country’s total land area of 923, 678 per square km, plays host to a continuously declining forest area owing to its increasing population, heavy demand for wood for construction, and other purposes that are wood-based, which in the final analysis encourage logging and lead to large-scale deforestation.

Popoola stressed that non-forest policies, especially, energy policies, in addition to illegal exploitation and export of timber, have continued to pose grave threat to the country’s forests.

According to the FAN president: “The last major forest resources assessment in Nigeria took place between 1996 and 1998 through a $4m grant provided by the African Development Bank (ADB). The database established from that assessment was expected to be updated frequently, through a Forest Information System (FIS) in each of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), with a terminal at the Federal Department of Forestry.

“The gains of the Forest Resources Assessment of 1996-1998 have been completely lost. As of today, there is nothing on ground in this regard. Also, there has not been any updating since then. Forest cover remains under pressure as a result of human activities such as agricultural development, where vast lands are cleared without conservation considerations, large-scale per-urban housing project development, fuel-wood generation, uncontrolled forest harvesting, including poaching for logs and poles and urbanisation,” Popoola added.

The university teacher, who enumerated the environmental, socio-economic, socio-cultural services that forests provide, also regretted that the deforestation rate in the country stood at about 3.5 annually, a development he said translates to a loss of about 350, 000- 400, 000 hectares of forest land annually.

He went on to blame obsolete forest laws, poor funding, governance issues, lack of data/information, education and research, corruption, among others, as factors militating against valuation of Nigeria’s forest, saying: “Moving forward, Nigeria will need to invest heavily in the forest sector because of its continuing topicality in the global discourse for sustainable development and the inherent huge potentials the sector has in addressing emerging environmental, social and economic challenges.”

Historically speaking, the Federal Department of Forestry was established in 1970 to coordinate forestry and conservation activities, with some of its functions being to initiate and formulate national forest policy and foster forestry and environmental development; promote and fund projects of national interest, coordinate and monitor federal government/donor supported forestry and conservation initiatives in the states, as well as ensure institutional development.

The department, which was transferred from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to the Federal Ministry of Environment in 1999, by a presidential directive, has a vision of ensuring that 25 per cent of the total land area of Nigeria is brought under sustainably managed forest cover aimed at producing forest resources (flora and fauna) in perpetuity and fostering environmental stability.

According to an unofficial compilation of the most valuable lumber exports 2015, which identified exporters with the fastest-growing international sales of wood from 2011 to 2015, Africa exported $3.6 billion worth of timber. Leading the pack on the continent was Cameroon with $745.9m. Gabon was in second place with $474.7m, while Nigeria came in third in $400.2m.

If the circumstances were normal, this should count for something, especially in the light of the economy being primed for diversification. But that has not been the case.

Governments’ efforts to tap into forest resource as an income earner and its plans to also conserve the forest have at best been sloppy while illegal exploitation and export of timber benefit.

For instance, in several timber producing states, including Ekiti, Adamawa, Cross River, Taraba, Kogi, Ondo, Ogun, and Kaduna, businessmen are taking advantage of the predominantly loose regulatory and enforcement environment, glaring absence of government policy and direction, loopholes in existing laws, to continue the plundering, paying scant heed to the grave consequences that awaits the environment and the economy.

An investigation carried out with support from Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting revealed that since the last days of 2013, Nigerian timber merchants working for Chinese businessmen having been moving from state-to-state depleting the rosewood resources in their forests, and leaving behind blighted and raped landscapes without minding the enduring effects of unrestrained harvesting of the product on the environment, while they smile to the banks.

Rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus), an ornate specie of wood locally known as Kosso, the investigation revealed, has since late 2013, fuelled an unprecedented frenzy of illegal logging of wood that is fast depleting the nation’s natural forestry resources.

This large illegal export of rosewood from the country to China, is used to feed a taste for ornate and luxury furniture by the country’s middle and upper class.

The experts also added that apart from the effect on the environment, there are palpable fears that the illegal activities of these local and Chinese merchants will also have telling economic implications in the near future on many communities where the forests that are being violated are located.

Even as most wood exported from the country is illegal, the report added that Nigeria has now become the single largest exporter of rosewood to China, accounting for 45 per cent of total imports to the country. What this means is that at the end of 2015, 30 containers (20 feet) of rosewood were leaving Nigerian ports for China, daily.

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