Depleting Forest Reserves: Eating Today At Expense Of Tomorrow

Forest-2In the last 20 years, Nigeria’s forest reserves has continued to deplete, mainly due to human activities, with the country’s forest cover reducing to about six per cent, as against the 25 per cent global minimum recommended. However, forest depletion is a challenge not peculiar to Nigeria, though the rate at which Nigeria’s forest is diminishing is on the high side. This is because while the world lost 3.5 per cent of its forest between 1990 and 2015, Nigeria lost 21 per cent of its reserves.

On the average, Nigeria is said to be losing about 3.5 per cent of its forest annually, which is between 350,000 and 400,000 hectares of forestland. Also, a research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) revealed that between 2000 and 2005, the country lost 55.7 per cent of its primary forests, and the rate of forest change increased by 31.2 per cent to 3.12 per cent, per annum.

The study also stated that from 1990 to 2010, Nigeria nearly halved its amount of forest cover, moving from 17,234 to 9041 hectares, with the combination of extremely high deforestation rates, increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall. This contributed to the country’s desertification, with the carbon emissions from deforestation said to account for 87 per cent of the total carbon emissions of the country.

States like Bauchi, Gombe, Borno, Yobe, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto,Zamfara and Kebbi, which lie north, are facing serious threats of desertification. According to experts, this is due to over exposure of the fragile environment, mostly through deforestation, improper farming technique, overgrazing by livestock and occurrence of frequent fires and drought. The ugly trend of deforestation is aggravated by increase in the rate of fuel wood extraction, especially by communities near forest reserves

An environment activist, Nnimmo Bassey stated that over 30 per cent of Nigeria’s forest cover has been lost in just the last two decades, noting that there are a lot of pressures on the country’s forests and a number of factors contribute to the decline of the forests. For him, they could be traced to socio-economic as well as political situations.

“We have been running a highly extractivist economic system for decades now and this has basically meant exploiting nature’s resources for sale in the local as well as export markets. Logging has had a free reign.

“Forests have been depleted because we live for the day and have given very little thought to the future. Our trees have been treated the same way we have treated the so-called excess crude revenue, or even worse. Our forest resources have been damaged by reckless exploitation.

“Our forests have been converted into plantations. They have also been decimated by petroleum sector activities – including the cutting seismic lines, clearing pathways for pipelines, roads and canals for movement of equipment. Oil spills degrade forests, especially when poor cleanup methods are used and forests end up being set on fire.”

In many rural communities, to catch bush animals like antelope, hunters and farmers sometimes do not mind setting a large portion of bush laden with trees on fire to apprehend such.

This was why Bassey said, “Talking of fires, what do we say of rampant bush burning in the country? And what of uncontrolled grazing and land conversion for agricultural, construction of highways, including super highways, and destruction of wetlands for real estate development?

He noted that as oil revenues dwindle, the nation would turn to other sources of revenue beyond the recovery of looted funds. And one direction that the government and people will definitely looked at is the mining sector and an increase in solid mineral activities, he said, will definitely have impacts on our forests.

“We must not forget the dire state of energy access in the country and the dependence on fuel wood for cooking by a large proportion of both rural and urban households. This alone contributes a hefty percentage of tree cover losses in the country.

“As you can imagine, some of the actions that lead to deforestation may not even readily appear to be causative factors. We can sum all these up as lax enforcement of laws and regulations in an integrated manner. A socio-political system that condones financial corruption will also throw up resource corruption.”

Noting that the loss of forest cover across Nigeria is really alarming, he argued that with the unpredictable rains and other impacts of climate change, the loss of forest and tree cover accelerates – floods and droughts will increase.

He further stated that in the East, there is bound to be more gully erosion. “Elsewhere, we will experience more land–related conflicts between competing uses. Loss of forests result in loss of food sources, jobs and livelihoods. Loss of tree cover degrades soils and lowers their productivity.”

The negative implications for the future, he said go beyond the country’s borders, because it would mean an unliveable future with run away climate change. “Just think of Northern Nigeria overtaken by desertification and a denuded South. It would be an explosive situation of hunger, water stress and conflicts; direct threats to human security. I am sure no one wishes to bequeath such a future to our children and those that will come after them.”

Bassey maintained that it is time to get serious about rejuvenating the forests, bearing in mind that they are the lungs of the world. For him, if forests disappear they go with knowledge, traditions and cultures.

In moving forward, considering these negative consequences, he said the forest situation in the country requires holistic rethinking. He maintained that there is certainly a place for tree planting exercises and these must continue, suggesting Nigerians should be encouraged to plant two trees for every one tree that is felled.

“And we should actively promote the greening of our cities and communities. Above all, there should be a high premium on community forest management. With adequate knowledge of the intrinsic value of the biodiversity stock in their forests, communities have high incentives to protect and sustain their forests. Sharing of information on the stick of biodiversity in our forests with communities should be integrated into the overall management of our forests.”

To ensure a more fruitful tree-planting culture among Nigerians, away from the symbolic action of government officials, Bassey stated that government must realised that without integrating communities in a serious way in the whole exercise, tree planting is little more than just a ritual. “Even so, more still needs to be done. My suggestion is that our officials should take a trip to the Sahelian communities in neighbouring countries and see the tree planting efforts of citizens.”

Painting a scenario, he said, in early 2015, he met a group of farmers in Northern Burkina Faso that engaged in planting indigenous trees, sharing the seeds and using local knowledge in the cultivation methods.

“They have been so successful in the semi-arid area that one of them told me he could make any type of soil fertile. These farmers network with others in Mali and Niger Republic have an annual seed sharing festival. If Nigerian farmers are not connected to such networks, it may be a good idea to seek them out. Farmer-to-farmer knowledge is very useful in exercises of this nature. The farmers own the seed and own the trees. This is culture smart agriculture and not the so-called ‘climate smart’ agriculture.”

Most of the country’s forest reserves are the in rural areas, where poverty is high and people rely on wood fuel for energy. With the rate of deforestation, no doubt, there is need to encourage rural people to look at other alternatives of revenue and energy. But with the subsidy removed on kerosene, recently, by the Buhari led government, some of the rural dwellers, who rely on kerosene for energy, might migrate to using wood fuel, which could compound the country’s deforestation crisis.

A professor of Agricultural Extension and Rural Development at Landmark University, Kwara State, Akangbe Jones, wondered what alternatives are there for the rural dwellers and “if your mind is on kerosene and gas – what access do they have to them and how many of them can afford it?”

He insisted that whether subsidy on kerosene is removed or not, the rural people will continue to depend on wood fuel because it is easily accessible and almost free except for the labour of cutting and transporting home. “Wood fuel is very convenient for the rural dwellers,” Jones said.

Most rural people still practice subsistence farming, which means that they often fell trees as well as engage in bush burning to claim land for farming. To ensure that they are encouraged to plant trees, whether on their farms or at home, especially, planting two trees for every one pulled down, Jones said that farming now is supposed to be business for money making, and most rural farmers produce a little more than what the family will eat, such that they can make money to buy other things they cannot produce on the farm. He thus argued that to encourage farmers to plant trees on their farms might be difficult, meaning that a portion of their farms will be designated for tree planting, thereby, reducing greatly their farm sizes.

He noted that most peasant farmers have average of two hectares or less; so to now commit part of it to tree planting will certainly reduce farming area and reduce their production and income.

“If government is sincere about afforestation, they may be willing to pay for every tree planted. It could be joint planting, per family, per year, and all paid for by the government. You will also note that rural farmers are not the ones cutting trees in the bush, but usually they fetch dried trees as fuel wood. Most wood used as fuel are cut out by the bread makers used in their bakery. In addition, there is vast land in Nigeria untapped and not put to cultivation. Before it can become major problem, it will take a long time. Meat hunters should be discouraged from bush burning to preserve vegetation such that forests can be properly constructed.”

Asked to x-ray some policies by governments aimed at encouraging afforestation and discouraging deforestation and why those policies failed, Jones stated that every policy in Nigeria, including that of afforestation, is good and well-constructed on paper, but the problem of implementation and in particular attitudes of the people are the big problems.

It takes years for trees to get matured, but not usually more than an hour to cut down a tree. So what strategies could be put in place to easily replenish trees cut down, Jones urged government to enforce planting of trees, including paying for every tree planted, map out areas and designate them for purposes they are meant for, which should be backed up with legislation and then discourage felling of trees and in particular burning of bushes.

The professor of agricultural extension and rural development said that the three arms of government have been failing in the proper preservation of the forest by making beautiful and laudable policies, but with poor implementation and in some cases, the policies are not being backed-up with both financial and material resources.

If the forests are well managed, what are the economic benefits of forest resources and what would be its contributions to the country’s GDP? Jones said that forest reserves protect wildlife and economic trees. “It may result into games reserve for tourists’ attraction and provide herbs for healing and maintaining good health,” he said.

In the past, rural dwellers did not fell trees for wood fuel, they go into the bush to look for dead trees and tree branches, but that is not the case anymore. No doubt, in moving forward that old culture could be brought back. But a professor of Forest Resource, Labode Popoola, noted that because rural people inhabited very close to abundant forest in the past and their wood fuel requirements were not huge, it was convenient and adequate for them to hew wood from fallen branches and dead wood, with little or no negative impact of the country’s forest reserves.

“There is however, no need to encourage this practice any longer. A better option would be the introduction and provision of clean and alternative energy. If wood fuel becomes necessary, establishment of woodlots should be encouraged,” he stated.

On why government policies meant to encourage afforestation and discourage deforestation have not been impactful, Popoola noted that Nigeria is never short of policies, observing that what was probably lacking were good and workable ones, and the country’s penchant for inconsistencies as well as poor policy enforcement.

He said, “At least, there are two recent policies/projects that may have enhanced forestry development in Nigeria. There is a subsisting presidential approval for a Presidential Initiative on Afforestation (PIA), which if implemented transparently, would fast track the recovery of the forest sector from its current parlous state. In spite of the imperfection or anomaly associated with the implementation of this initiative, some 40 million seedlings were raised and distributed in the first phase of the programme.

“This initiative should be given the desired impetus and sustained. The Great Green Wall is another project that can enhance the resilience of the environment. What I think, is required is the political will to make these policies and projects work for the desired impacts. I have great hope in the ability of the current Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed to bring about the much desired change.”

Popoola said that development cannot be stopped, however, to be meaningful, it must be sustainable, which will include considering the impact on environment in all development plans and activities.

“From time to time, forests may have to give way to development, particularly, when public interest is overriding. What we discourage is indiscriminate felling of trees, which is illegal, anyway. However, the extant laws are so obsolete and weak to be able to act as deterrent to illegal acts in the forest sector.

“To replenish our depleting forests, we will need to embark on massive afforestation and reforestation. Nigeria still has large expanse of marginal lands that may not be used for the next 50 years. Such lands should be put under special afforestation programme. The private sector should be encouraged through incentives to utilize such lands. Of course, individuals can also raise small wood lots and also practice agroforestry. What is important is the net gain or addition to our forests.”

Many of the country’s timber merchants and charcoal traders are businessmen, who do not have forest plantations or deliberately plant trees and often care less about replanting. To make sure these categories of businessmen have forest plantations and ensure they do not contribute to deforestation, Popoola said that what should be done is to continuously create awareness and embark on advocacy to encourage private participation in the forest sector.

“This is what applies in the Nordic countries. It is a big business, which private concerns in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland compete to get involved in. However, the role of government in creating an enabling environment is key to success. For example, the Land Use Act must allow long-term investment in forest development; investors in the sector must also have some concessions to import equipment required in the field. They may also be granted tax holidays to cushion the impact of the expected huge investment in afforestation. In the final analysis, beyond the financial benefits to the investors, the society will be better off in terms of job creation and a sustainable environment.”

On checking desertification in the north, the professor of forest resources said that there are forest technologies to tackle desertification challenges, noting that some of these technologies have been implemented in Nigeria, until recklessness in virtually all facets of the polity wiped out the gains. “Shelterbelts, woodlots, wind breaks, agroforestry and dedicated grazing reserves are all technologies that can remediate this negative scenario, not just in the northern parts of Nigeria, but in other fragile terrains.”

Popoola said that the benefits are multifarious, ranging from employment creation, food security, shelter and good quality environment. “Indeed, the five basic needs for human survival: Oxygen, Water, Food, Shelter and Sleep, all depend on the forest. The economic benefits are equally enormous: foreign exchange earnings, industrialisation, carbon credit earnings among several. GDP would be enhanced by well-managed forests, but GDP doesn’t say it all. What we need, and which the forest sector can immensely contribute to, is sustainable development.”

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