Egot: Only effective forest management policies can stem deforestation, ensure sustainability

Egot

The Executive Director, Development Concern (DEVCON), and Board Chairman, Ekuri Initiative, Mr. Martins Egot, told Deputy Bureau Chief, South South, ANIETIE AKPAN, that catastrophic consequences await the country if it fails to halt the massive illegal logging and sustainably manage its vastly depleted forest reserves.  

The Director General of Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), Dr. Muhtari Aminu-Kano recently said that about 96 per cent of Nigeria’s original forests have been lost. How catastrophic is this?
That is correct. In fact, the situation if looked at very well is frightening, very alarming and dangerous to the nation, and by extension, the world because we cannot overemphasis the importance of forests to humanity. The effect of the loss of forest reserves on our communities includes landslide, erosion, drying up of streams and the deterioration of health situation in communities that are totally dependent on water from the stream. Generally, the loss of forest reserves causes a whole lot of harm to the ecosystem.

With the amount of vegetation cover lost, there is absolute need to grow more trees. Is the “Green Recovery Nigeria Initiative,” planned by the Federal Government capable of restoring the much that we have lost?
Yes, the Green Recovery Initiative by government is capable of restoring part of forests lost, but it depends on government’s interest and political will. It is not a very easy thing to do because if you want to regenerate the forest, if you are not doing it through natural regeneration, it means you have to plant. If you are planting, there is a whole lot that has to be considered like, what species are to be planted; where they are to be planted, and what strategies to adopt to ensure that the planted trees develop.

Tropical plants take a long time to grow to maturity to be able to give the natural forest cover, and even some experts doubt the possibility of that happening. That is why they encourage natural regeneration because in planting, you are reintroducing new species and you do not even know how it they are going to adapt to the area. It is a whole lot of challenge that needs so much study to ascertain its success.

Again, the commitment level of those carrying out the programme is also suspect, given the fact that the governments that we have been having want to do their thing in just one or two years just to score political goals. That for me is a big challenge, but we should encourage natural regeneration as much as possible.

How important are forest reserves to our national economy?
If we want to quantify financial gains from our forest reserves, I would say that we should not expect too much from it because reserves, from what they are, are meant to be intact, and to serve as a reserve of our forest heritage. That is not to say that they cannot be of economic gain.

Apart from the ecological benefit that we get from them, most forest reserves are now used as areas where people can come and do eco- tourism; people can use them for recreation and other things from which money is generated. Except we begin to develop that sector to meet up with our tourism potentials, then it will be difficult to have some reasonable economic gains.

For us to have forest cover that will protect the environment generally in terms of ecological services that they render, then the national parks or forest reserves would be wonderful. I will say again that the gains cannot be quantified because it is so much important to the general livelihood of people and the society.

Forests in many states including Cross River are giving way at a faster rate than they are replenished. In what specific ways do the depletion of forests affect the society vis-à-vis our daily lives?
Very clearly, the depletion of forests has affected our daily lives. In years past, former Bendel State (now Edo and Delta states) and few areas around there depended on timber. There was massive exploitation of timber and now, that is nearly all gone. The big companies that depended on timber there have now folded up and those that were working there are jobless or redundant. Crime level definitely will rise, and that is why there is pressure here in Cross River where the forest and timber are intact. There is so much pressure here so much so that if we are not careful, or control what happens in our forests, in a few years time we will also use up a lot of our forest resources and bring to bear attendant problems.

Some woods that are native to this environment have gone extinct because export companies cut them with little or no regulation by authorities. Why is such practice still ongoing despite the consequences?
It is very alarming now. Even in Cross River State that we have some level of control, you see that there is extinction of very important species. Woods like Apa, Ebony, Black Afara, Mahogany, Teak and others, are difficult to get now. You can only get those species in Ekuri, where the forest is still visibly intact. If you look at the logging that is taking place around here, the woods that you would see are the soft wood. For loggers to access species like Mimusops Elengi, Mahogany and other high-level furniture wood that are getting out of the way, they need to go deep into the forest. If you give them five years given the rate of exploitation these species will be completely extinct because we cannot grow them easily.

It is important to point out that despite laws and regulations, illegal logging is still going on in all parts of the country because of the economic benefits some individuals derive, and because there is poor monitoring and law enforcement on the part of the government.

In Cross River State, there is a moratorium, but illegal logging is going on everywhere because these regulations are not working.

What are the short, medium and long-term consequences of consumption of forest resources without replenishment?
Form the Cross River State example; I can tell you that because there is a moratorium in place, what is being taken away is being done illegally. So, when the timber stock is completely depleted, the non-timber products are also completely depleted in the process. When this happens, it would definitely affect the life-support system of communities in the country.

If you ask state governments generally how much revenue they make from the massive exploitation we are seeing now, they are likely going to tell you that nothing is remitted to government because what they are doing is illegal; because there are no standards, or regulations. It is only a small group of people or timber dealers that are gaining or having a field day exploiting while the communities are the ones that would suffer both in the short and long run.

I can tell you authoritatively that in states that there are no clear regulations and strategies on timber exploitation; deliberate plans to replant trees that are cut; keep track of whatever is taken out of the forest and the amount of revenue that is coming to the state or communities therefrom, and the entire process properly articulated, followed and monitored, there can be no assurance of sustainable management of the forest.

For now there is no benefit at all. If there is any it is to the cartel or people in government who are enjoying what is happening as personal gains. In the long run the forest will disappear and the society will suffer.

Illegal logging does not only destroy biodiversity, it also exposes the country to harsh effects of climate change and global warming. How can we effectively stem this tide to avert disastrous consequences?
For me illegal logging is a disaster and it is happening everywhere in Nigeria. Again, if I bring it down to Cross River State, which is a very big case study now in Nigeria (because this is where the concentration of forest is), there is a big problem. Here, what the government can do to stem the problem is to set in a moratorium as it was introduced in Cross River State as a strategy, but if not properly implemented, it can be a disaster in itself.

If you put a moratorium, which is a ban, yet lots of illegal activities are going on, there is the likelihood that there will be a surge in demand and when there is high demand, then there will be a high market value. So, if you have a high market value people will take the risk of exploiting if you don’t have a strong mechanism to monitor what is happening. Even when one big tree is felled, a lot of small trees go with it. So, you agree with me that this is a disaster.

So, there has to be a strong political will to change the system. In Cross River State, we have the Forestry Commission, which is supposed to check all these, but there is a gap in their function, perhaps that is why the moratorium was put in place because the sector had issues. Every moratorium has a time frame, a direction, or a target to achieve within a space of time, unlike the case with Cross River State, which was supposed to be two years, but now in its ninth year going to 10 years of no control in the forest. The analysis that was done clearly showed that within the period of the moratorium the forest has depleted vastly. So, I will recommend the Ekuri Initiative approach as a natural means of sustainability, and to avert any disastrous consequences.

What is the Ekuri Initiative and how can it be replicated to ensure that forest reserves are sustainably managed?
The Ekuri Initiative was arrived at by the people of Old Ekuri and New Ekuri in Akamkpa Local Council of the state. The communities came together to form the initiative to protect themselves and the forests because they saw themselves completely neglected by government in the heart of the forest, with no roads or sundry amenities. So, through WWF, they learnt how to appreciate the environment around them and they formed a policy of forest governance. They have 33, 600 hectares of forest and they put a management on ground that regulates the use of the forest sustainably. With the land use plan and forest management plan that they have, they have a clear strategy on the use of the forest. Today the Ekuri Forest is not wasted or depleted and they know that in the next 10 to 20 years, they will still have their forest intact.

There is a move to replicate the Ekuri model around communities in the state in order to ensure that what is remaining of Nigeria’s forest (50 per cent of which is in Cross River State) is preserved. Right now, if you look closely at forests in Cross River State, more than half of it is around the Ekuri block. So, we want to spread that initiative across the state, and to other parts of the country, where the forest is completely lost because that is where the issue of regeneration can come up.

In addition to illegal logging by businessmen, some state governments are still putting a lot of pressure on forest reserves as part of revenue generation. For how long can we continue like this?
Yes, some states are putting pressure on forest reserves as part of revenue generation. In Cross River State for instance, through the proposed superhighway and the deep seaport projects, the government is putting pressure on the forest reserves. Yes, part of what Governor Ben Ayade said to justify land grabbed for the projects was that in terms of carbon dioxide, younger trees are better than the old ones so the old ones should be cut down and replaced with new ones. What we need is just the political will and knowledge of how the forests benefit the environment.

For me, it was really an unfortunate situation because my governor says that he is an environmentalist. So, for an environmentalist of his standard to say that Cross River State is not benefiting from the forest is disappointing because I know that benefits of forest to humanity can be catalogued. Generally, what people see Cross River State for is the forest and we have been able to preserve it.

Again the governor should have understood that the community people benefit from the forest as their only source of survival. So, I think the governor should begin to have a rethink of his position on forests in Cross River State.

Can remediation of forest resources ever come to fruition when government fails to practice sustainability?
If governments fail to practice sustainability, that means that they are not even encouraging the communities to practice sustainability because for me it starts with the immediate owners of the forest. So, if governments are not practicing sustainability or addressing problems related to sustainable forest management, then there is no hope for the survival of our forests. The Federal Government should begin to partner with civil society groups, work with communities and state governments to articulate the way forward for sustainable management of forest reserves. In areas where the community people see forests as government property to be handled recklessly, that impression has to be corrected. Importantly, government has to begin to look at sustainable forest management policies, otherwise remediation of forest resources would never come to fruition in our lifetime.

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