But now this natural treasure, and the age-old lifestyle it supports, is under threat from a major infrastructural project that symbolises a road to the future for Africa’s biggest economy. A “Super Highway”, spanning 12 lanes and stretching for more than 260km, to link the neighbouring state of Benue with a proposed deep seaport at Bakkasi on the Atantic Ocean.
For the government of Nigeria, the highway is seen as the harbinger of an economic boom that will create jobs, boost tourism, and open a new corridor of growth and opportunity. But for the forest-dwellers of Etara, and the even larger rain-forest of Ekuri to the west, the highway is seen as a force of destruction, cutting a swathe through the environment and the traditional way of life of its communities.
Mr Clement Urom, the Chairman of Etara Eyeyeng Forest Concerns, a community based non-profit organisation, says that commercial timber concessioners have been exploiting timber from the forests around Etara since 1980, many of them under the guise of acquiring lands for agriculture, which they abandon soon after starting their logging operations.
The community has bylaws in place which govern the use of the forest in order to protect biodiversity and their natural heritage. If the Government goes ahead with the Super Highway, believes Mr Urom, Etara faces the possibility of losing its ancestral land and forest forever
Deforestation directly affects the livelihood of the community. During the clearing for the Super Highway, many farms were destroyed. Add to that the loss of biodiversity, and the fact that deforestation exposes the soils to erosion, leading to soil infertility.
Mr Urom’s concern is echoed by Mama Janet Iyamba, an 80-year-old great grandmother, who says: “This forest has supported us over the years. If it is destroyed as the government is proposing, what will my children and grandchildren depend on?”
In spite of its central location, Etara forest is not under organised protective management and is undergoing widespread logging and clearing, in spite of the State’s ban on logging.