Sunday, 1st October 2023

Robert Azibaola: Saving Bayelsa’s rainforests

By Bridget Onochie, Abuja
26 June 2022   |   2:39 am
To actualise this, the Bayelsa State-born environmentalist, social thinker, entrepreneur and lawyer, who later turned engineer, recently embarked on a 14-day sojourn into the deep rainforest of Bayelsa.

For Robert Azibaola, a man is not complete except he embraces life from different perspectives.

To actualise this, the Bayelsa State-born environmentalist, social thinker, entrepreneur and lawyer, who later turned engineer, recently embarked on a 14-day sojourn into the deep rainforest of Bayelsa.

For Azibaola, it was a return home, to showcase to the world, the rich flora and fauna hidden in his home state of Bayelsa. This is the story of an indigene going deep into the depths of the forest, an exploratory voyage, if you would, into the depths of Bayelsa’s rich forest and, through his eyes, we see the impact of human interactions, over the years, on the environment, and how some flora and fauna are endangered as well the huge economic potential lying waste in the Niger Delta.

Robert Azibaola holding a rare animal

Just as Everton- Nigerian player, Alex Iwobi, is championing wild conservation efforts, Azibaola a believer in Climate Change, returned to 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 rain forest.

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.

The first story is that of a bush canoe, which is practically left in the bush, for the use of whoever comes across it, in high or low tide, but has the burden of keeping it in pristine condition, for the next user!

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 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.

In the course of his voyage, he exposed the inherent medicinal plants embedded in the forests which God has blessed man with. To back up the action with words, some plants were extracted and their liquid extracts were applied to a section of his entourage. All Azibaola wanted to prove was that there is healing in Nature and the forests have natural, effective treatment of ailments of all kinds that afflict humans.

In the documentary, Azibaola explained that the expedition into the deep forest was 25 kilometres radius of any civilisation, a vast land of freshwater forest, with no human community.

“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,” he said and added that alongside his team, they covered over 400 kilometres of fresh waters, continuous tree canopies, and swamps while experiencing the rich biodiversity of the Niger Delta.

Asked why he embarked on the expedition, Azibaola replied that he is a believer in climate change and that the world has now realised the adverse effects the negative use of the environment has caused mankind.

“There is a lot of environmental damage that has caused clamour for a break in the use of earth’s resources across the globe. The Niger Delta rainforest is a precious forest that gives mankind oxygen, just like the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. “Africans need to take action on climate change issues and link up with the global community so that our inactions will not derail the global efforts. It is important we know that mankind’s survival in the future depends on the careful use of the environment.

“The Niger Delta rainforest needs protection as are other important forests across the globe. This could be done by exposing the issues and proper education of the local people. “And, this is the reason why I decided to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime expedition.”

Speaking on what he set out to achieve, Azibaola said his aim was to highlight the negative impacts of the use of the Niger Delta rainforest, such as indiscriminate wood logging, environmental pollution as a result of crude oil exploration, indiscriminate hunting and killing of wildlife, cutting down of trees which affects the oxygen levels.

“It was also important to educate the local people on issues around the depletion of scarce forest resources and the beneficial use of the rainforest for the benefit of future generations. It is also imperative to create an alternative means of livelihood by highlighting the diverse beautiful nature of the Niger Delta rainforest and encourage national and international tourism to create employment for indigenous people and curb dangerous crimes amongst youth that breeds insecurity in the region.”

He, however, said a solo expedition would have been a wrong move.

“The choice of going with the Karkatar and Zeetin team, instead of going solo, was for more inclusive participation of all segments of society, including women and youths, to give a sense of ownership of the issues. It is also intended to be an annual expedition and the quality and number of participants of this first edition were carefully considered and selected,” he said.

On experiences learnt from the expedition, Azibaola disclosed that they found out that their fears were confirmed that the Niger Delta rainforest was being indiscriminately decimated.

“That there is a high rate of deforestation taking place daily; trees falling for farming, wood logging, crude oil spillages. That the ability of the forest to produce oxygen is being inhibited. That the community people are ignorant of the lasting impacts of the negative activities. They are ignorant of issues of climate change and forest protection and conservation. They are ignorant of the alternative use of forest resources for income generation. There are no forest regulations such that few individuals are economically benefiting from indiscriminate cutting down of trees for timber. Government has abandoned its role of regulating the use of forest resources; no enforcement of the rules. That there is a need for the education of communities on issues of climate change, beneficial use of forest resources, the importance of rainforest to humanity and the conservation of rare species of animals. That there is a need for strength and that research institution across the region should undertake studies on the rainforest for a better understanding of its use.

“We found that if efforts were not intensified to conserve the biodiversity of the Niger Delta rain forest, the forest and all of its species will be lost in the very near future,” Azibaola averred.

He, however, laughed at suggestions he and his entourage could have been consumed by wild animals in the forest.

“…We were sure, based on our findings, that the likelihood of being attacked by wild animals was remote. We took all the precautions necessary for our safety. While we did not go into the forest to destroy wildlife, we were careful to keep away from them too.”

Azibaola concluded by proffering solutions government can employ to preserve the animals in the forest from going into extinction.

“Government must set up a strong regulatory framework for the use of the forest resources. Indiscriminate cutting down of trees, which are the natural habitats of wild species must be checked. Government needs to reinvent the old age practice of forest guards, akin to forest police, to prevent people from harvesting the forests without government approval. State governments across the region must cooperate in this regard. Multilateral and multinational institutions in Nigeria and across the globe must also help in this regard in the area of training and capacity building, as well as resources for effective enforcement. Other corporate institutions must move away from the idea of equating the Niger Delta to oil exploration.

“That there should be national frameworks and legislation that will strengthen local institutions. There should be budgetary provisions for an action plan for the Niger Delta rainforest regeneration and conservation. This shall include setting out buffer zones for regulations and enforcement.

“There need to be linkages between local, national and international institutions and NGOs for the practical conservation of the Niger Delta rain forest so that lessons learnt from elsewhere can be brought to bear in the Niger Delta so that the people of the Niger Delta can as well participate on issues relating to an international conference on climate change.

“Efforts need to be made to reintroduce species that have gone extinct in the forest.

“There should be efforts n creating buffer zones for the preservation of forest species. “There is a need for the domestication of trees. These trees are searches that are going extinct that cannot and are not yet domesticated and need to be domesticated in the Niger Delta,” Azibaola rounded off.