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A tale of two Nigerian reserves underscores importance of community - MONGABAY

APRIL 09, 2020

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Mongabay Series: 


  • Differing levels of deforestation in two neighboring forest reserves in Nigeria, Ekenwan and Gele-Gele, have highlighted the importance of a community-led conservation approach.
  • The Ekenwan reserve is managed by the government, but illegal activities such as farming, logging and hunting are rampant.
  • In Gele-Gele, local communities working with NGOs and funded by an oil company are in charge of ensuring sustainable forest use and wildlife protection, resulting in a much lower rate of deforestation.
  • However, community leaders say they’re under-resourced to tackle incursions by outsiders, while some community members complain they haven’t seen the benefits of the conservation program.

Dark stumps of half-charred trees, dry cassava stems and dead tree trunks cover a large   swath of land on the way to Ikpako, a small farming enclave outside the Gele-Gele and Ekenwan forest reserves in Nigeria’s southern state of Edo. Ikpako is 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the trip’s starting point in Evorokho, but the muddy road riddled with potholes opaque with brown water makes the trip long and arduous. Still, the road is busy. Trucks loaded with logs and vans packed with bunches of plantains wobble along, spewing dark exhaust fumes. Motorcycles convey laborers to plantations. Farmers talk and work in adjacent fields.

Activity here has increased recently as farmers rush to take advantage of rains in February and March to prepare the land for planting. However, not all of this land may have previously been farmland.

Farmers clear land for planting outside Ekenwan and Gele-Gele forest reserves. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Nigeria’s forests are disappearing. Satellite data from the University of Maryland show the country lost nearly 9% of its tree cover between 2001 and 2018, with the rate of loss more than doubling between 2016 and 2017. While some of this loss may have come from the harvest of tree plantations (satellites can’t distinguish between natural forest and planted trees), Global Forest Watch shows much of it came at the expense of the country’s dwindling primary forest.

Forest reserves (or lack thereof)

Protected areas like forest reserves are not immune to deforestation, with many experiencing heavy clearing over the past decade. One of the most affected in Edo state is Ekenwan Forest Reserve, which comprises some 332 square kilometers (128 square miles) of land surrounding a tributary of the Ossimo River. Satellite imagery shows most of Ekenwan has been taken over by plantations, urban expansion and farmland, with only a ribbon of primary forest left along its main river.

On paper, Ekenwan is a protected area.  There are laws that are supposed to control logging, oil exploration, hunting, farming and other activities in the reserve. However, loggers told Mongabay that a few papers and permits are all that are needed to legally exploit Ekenwan’s forest.

“Loggers and farmers enjoy Ekenwan. All those loaded logging trucks are coming from Ekenwan,” says Trince Monday, who heads the Ekewan zone of Edo state’s Timber Management Association, which has about 1,300 members. “Also, most people displaced from Gele-Gele [a neighboring forest reserve] moved over to Ekenwan as farmers and loggers. The pressure is now on Ekenwan.”

Logs harvested in Ekenwan Forest Reserve feed many industries in Nigeria’s expanding urban centers. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Government officials say its operations in Ekenwan are mindful of biodiversity and it includes a tree-planting clause on all logging contracts.

“Aside [from] the fees set aside for regenerating some of the reserves, we are on a campaign to ensure loggers plant a new seedling in place of any logged tree,” a top government source in the Ministry of Environment told Mongabay on condition of anonymity. He says more than 2.5 km2 (1 mi2) have been replanted in Ekenwan with “fast growing species.”

He admits, however, that the present approach is not enough to reverse or even control the depletion of the forest.

Logging isn’t the only thing impacting Ekenwan’s forests. Over the years, news of the reserve’s fertility and suitability for growing cocoa, plantain and rubber has attracted both small farmers and industrial plantations.

A rubber plantation in Ekenwan Forest Reserve. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.
A plantain plantation in Ekenwan Forest Reserve. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Sources say the state government has directly encouraged the clearing of forest by granting large swaths of land in reserves for conversion to plantations in return for financial gains. This has resulted in “de-reservation” of these so-called protected areas, according to a senior government official who spoke anonymously to Mongabay.

“Many of the forests in the state are only forest reserves [on] paper but in reality, those forests don’t even exist,” the official said. “The government rents these lands to rich and large-scale cocoa, rubber and plantain farmers, including parts of Ekenwan.”

According to the official, the government deploys guards who monitor the compliance of loggers and farmers in forest reserves, but overall lacks the workforce and logistical capacity to do so effectively.

A different story next door

Gele-Gele Forest Reserve lies adjacent to Ekenwan’s southwest reach. Here, the forest has remained largely untouched compared to surrounding areas, and its primary forest is still mostly intact — particularly when compared to the tatters of Ekenwan.

Native rainforest towers overhead in Gele-Gele Forest Reserve. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Gele-Gele’s undulating rivers, valleys and creeks provide important habitat for many plant and animal species, and researchers say its forest is biologically invaluable.

“It was a great choice for conservation because of its rich biodiversity,” says Edosa Esusa, an administrative officer at the Nigeria Conservation Foundation (NCF) in Edo state, who manages the biodiversity project in Gele-Gele and the neighboring Urhonigbe Forest Reserve. “But most importantly, it holds some sizable pristine forest.”

In 2004, biologists at the University of Benin described a new species of land snail, Streptaxidae gelegelei, in the reserve. During a 2009 survey, researchers at the same university recorded 20 mammal, 11 reptile and 46 bird species, along with 33 woody plant species — and cautioned that this biodiversity was threatened by deforestation activities.

Many of the species that inhabit Gele-Gele are already threatened with extinction. During its 2007 survey, NCF researchers recorded white-throated monkeys (Cercopithecus erythrogaster), red-capped mangabeys (Cercocebus torquatus), dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis), forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis)  and African manatees (Trichechus senegalensis), which are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Endangered species like the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) also call the reserve home.

Gele-Gele and Ekenwan are also in one of the few remaining areas in Nigeria where endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti) still exist. According to the IUCN, there may be fewer than 6,000 individuals surviving in the world, making it the rarest and most threatened chimpanzee subspecies.

While some species are declining in Gele-Gele, another is gaining ground: humans.

Osas Onoma, a former plantain and cocoa farmer, says population growth, poverty and a lack of jobs are putting pressure on people who live around Gele-Gele and other protected areas and driving them further into the forest. According to figures from the UnitedNations, Nigeria’s population quintupled from 36.7 million in 1950 to 158.3 million in 2010. Onoma says inherited family lands are not able to accommodate younger generations.

Satellite data show Gele-Gele Forest Reserve has experienced less deforestation than Ekenwan Forest Reserve over the past two decades. However, both reserves show new large areas of forest loss. Source: Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch.
Satellite imagery show areas of primary forest were recently burned in eastern Gele-Gele Forest Reserve. Source: Copernicus Sentinel-2, Landsat 8 OLI, Planet Labs.
This plantation in Ekenwan Forest Reserve has doubled in size over the past four months. Source: Copernicus Sentinel-2, Landsat 8 OLI.

Compounding the issue is that decades of farming have depleted the nutrients of Nigeria’s farmland. Unable to afford modern means of replenishing soil fertility, farmers shift deeper into formally protected areas where the soil is still rich.

“The chemicals to reclaim the fertility of the soil is too expensive. It’s cheaper to move deeper into untapped areas. The lands are old and exhausted,” says Christian Nicholas, who heads the Ikpako farmers’ cooperative.

Farming isn’t the only activity that has put pressure on Gele-Gele. Oil companies are also interested in the reserve — or, more specifically, what’s under it — and have maintained a presence in the reserve for decades.

A community approach

Unlike with Ekenwan, the state government does not manage the enforcement of Gele-Gele’s conservation regulations. In 2007, this responsibility was transferred to the communities in and around the reserve who, with assistance from organizations such as the NCF, created bylaws and administrative and management structures for Gele-Gele with the aim of maintaining sustainable forest use while protecting wildlife. Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria provided funding for the program’s first five years.

The community management structure has two primary arms: the Grassroots Consultative Committee (GCC) and the Forest Management Committee (FMC). The GCC is tasked with making administrative decisions and heads the day-to-day running of the reserve, and its members are elected from each of the 14 communities residing in Gele-Gele. The FMC operates in each community, and its members include representatives from various community sectors who coordinate and implement conservation regulations within their own territories; they provide feedback and receive support from the GCC.

Traditionally, Gele-Gele community members make their living through farming, hunting, logging and fishing. “It was difficult getting the people to accept this idea of conservation,” says Esusa from the NCF. “But when they did, it was whole-hearted.”

The GCC divided Gele-Gele into three layers: core, buffer and transition zones.  There is strict protection of the core zone, with no resource use allowed. Local sources say it is kept entirely pristine.

In the transition and the buffer zones, farming and logging are permitted but regulated, while hunting is allowed only within the outer transition zone. Farming must also stay within 10 km (6 mi) of the communities at the margin of the forest reserve. Levies, fees and penalties apply, all approved by the GCC. For example, loggers pay 5,000 naira ($13) to apply for a permit that allows the logging of a single tree in the buffer zone; it costs 25,000 naira ($65) annually to use a hectare of land in the transition zone for farming. New oil palm and cocoa plantations are prohibited.

A farmer cleares lands for the new farming season on the road to Gele-Gele Forest Reserve, Edo state, Nigeria. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Construction of dams, roads or buildings in the reserve area, as well as violation of any other regulations, attracts fines of between 20,000 and 50,000 naira ($52–$129), six months in jail, or both.

Financial resources are gathered in a central account, some of which is reinvested into management of the reserve, while a larger chunk is shared: 70% to Gele-Gele communities, 20% to the state government, 5% to the local government, and another 5% to traditional institutions.

Recently, the communities agreed to use a portion of the funding to recruit 14 forest guards drawn from the communities, who patrol the forest reserve to enforce laws and arrest offenders and encroachers.

“We have made so many arrests,” says Onoma, a forest guard.  The guards say they arrest up to five encroachers weekly, who mainly come from other parts of the country, rarely from the local communities. “Those invaders are our biggest challenge.”

Some, however, say there are bigger problems facing the reserve’s conservation approach.

Challenges intensify

Despite some success, those involved with Gele-Gele’s community management say they lack the capacity to completely stem the destruction of the reserve. One of the main issues is that the 14-person patrol team is too small to monitor and enforce regulations in all areas of the reserve, creating opportunities for illegal encroachment. Because the team lacks boats, areas along rivers are particularly difficult to patrol.

“Farmers and loggers from other states infiltrate the forest and there is nothing we can do,” says Fred Oduagba, the GCC chair. “They can be in the forest for a year or an entire planting season and no guard would be able to reach them because we lack the mobility to patrol the forest effectively.”

The impacts of these problems can be seen around the reserve as vans filled with plantains and trucks loaded with logs ply roads from the reserve to markets in the cities. Deforestation data show forest loss began to intensify around 2015; by the end of 2019 clearings had pierced the center of Gele-Gele. Satellite imagery and data from January-March 2020 indicate this trend shows no signs of slowing, with deforestation pockmarks increasing in size and number.

A vehicle loaded with bunches of plantains struggles on the muddy road outside Ekenwan and Gele-Gele forest reserves. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Further complicating things is growing discontent among local residents who say they can no longer support themselves due to stifling regulations and unfulfilled promises of alternative livelihoods. Onoma says he was jobless for nearly a decade before taking up a role as a forest guard. But even that, he says, is nothing compared to the income he made from his farm in the past.

“When the conservation people came, they drove us away from the farms,” Onoma says. “They took away our livelihood, the only thing that fed us. That’s why we took a protest to [the GCC] office.”

Enoma Osaretin, a community leader who represents the village of Egbatan at GCC meetings, says he is assailed with demands, accusations and even threats from members of his community. Some allege he is collecting money behind their backs. Others insist he pull the community out of the conservation project.

Osaretin says he pleads, explains and apologizes, but residents are getting tired of waiting for an uncertain future. Sources say Gele-Gele’s fate depends on increasing conservation funding to take the burden off those reliant on the forest for their livelihoods.

“My people know the value of conservation. For example, we know it can make this place a global attraction,” Osaretin says. “Still, the people’s patience is running out. Maybe, one day they would riot. For now, I really can’t say how long [relief] or revolt would wait.”


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