A Highway Through the Forest

One of the last remaining reserves of forest in Nigeria, and the traditional life and livelihoods of the communities it supports, is under threat from a super highway project.

By David Michael Terungwa, for the African Climate Reality Project.

A controversial Super Highway

In Cross River State in southeastern Nigeria, in a vast tract of land that shows as green on the map, lies a community called Etara. Here, the forest provides.

The people of Etara, more than 6,000-strong, earn their living largely from forest-gathering and subsistence-farming. Some engage in small commercial farming activities, cultivating cocoa, banana and plantain. The women spend days in the forest gathering bush mango, which is used in preparing ogbono soup, popular in Nigeria.

The trees of the forest provide fruits, nuts, seeds and sap. There are edible mushrooms, fresh vegetables and a wealth of natural medicines that take root in the fertile soil. Clusters of trees serve as a natural wind break, providing a buffer for wind-sensitive crops. There is an abundance of small wildlife in Etara too, from bats and songbirds to owls and foxes.

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.

Deforestation

Once in the heart of the tropical rainforest belt, Nigeria has the largest net forest loss in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). From 1990 to 2010, Nigeria nearly halved its amount of forest cover, from 17,234 to 9,041 hectares – a loss of around 8,193,000 hectares, equivalent to an area four times the size of Cross River State.

The combination of high deforestation rates and decreasing rainfall as a result of climate change are contributing to the desertification of the country. In Nigeria, forest is cleared for logging, timber export, subsistence and commercial agriculture and the collection of wood for fuel.

Agriculture and land use are the major culprits, although much of the allowance for deforestation comes from the demand for fuel wood. Seventy per cent of the population relies on it as the main energy source for cooking. As a consequence, desert encroachment in the Northern part of Nigeria is reaching alarming rates, while coastal erosion is ravaging the Southern states.

Nigeria’s wide biodiversity of 899 reported species of birds, 274 mammals, 154 reptiles, 53 amphibians and 4,715 species of higher plants, is also strongly affected by the negative impacts of deforestation. The numbers of the rare Cross River gorilla have dwindled to around 300 because of poaching by locals and mass habitat destruction.

Nigeria’s forests contain 1,085 million metric tons of carbon in living forest biomass. According to FAO data, 37.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the country came from land-use change and forestry in 2011. Deforestation poses a serious threat to the environment, by releasing considerable amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming and climate change.

About 50% of what is left of Nigerian’s primary forest is found in Cross River State. In 1991, the government set up the Cross River National Park to protect Nigeria’s last large remaining area of rainforest. This forest is particularly important because it is one of the most species-rich in Africa.

Many endangered animal species live here, including gorillas, leopards, chimpanzees, forest elephants and drill monkeys. Around the park is a belt of land called the Support Zone, which is also mostly forest. It acts as ‘buffer’ area between the park and farmland further away. There are 180 villages in the Support Zone.

Cross River National Park holds some 3,000 square kilometers of lowland rainforest. It’s a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site and recognised as a biodiversity hotspot because of the many unique species there facing pressure from humans.

The rarely seen and critically endangered Cross River gorilla, numbering perhaps 300, inhabits a separate section of the park. The sharp increase in deforestation can be linked to the increase in developmental activities in Cross River state, particularly in the agricultural sector.

Fighting back

Now the threatened communities of Cross River State are fighting back. The Ekuri community has 33,600 ha of primary forest, the largest communally controlled forest in Nigeria. The community consists of some 6,000 people, who belong to the Nkokoli tribe and speak the Lokoli language.

In 1981, the Ekuri community conceived the idea of a formal community forest management initiative, to sustain the inheritance of forefathers, safeguard livelihoods, promote community development, and reduce poverty.

Chief Odigha Odigha, popularly called the chief priest of Ekuri forest, says that the Forest of Old and New Ekuri is under severe threat. The Super Highway, he says, is a ploy by the Cross River State government to log forest, displace communities and take over community lands.

We are not against a road project, but it must be sustainable and should avoid encroaching into the remaining portion of the only primary Tropical High Forest left in Nigeria.

The project threatens to destroy the Cross River National Park and the associated ecosystems, as well as forcibly displace more than 180 indigenous communities and over one million indigenous people, while destroying their livelihoods and cultural inheritance.

‘’I have not seen or heard of any road project in any part of the world where the right of way from the centerline of the road is 10 kilometers to the left and another 10 kilometers to the  right,” said Chief Odigha. “Only here in Cross River State, Nigeria.”

Mama Lolencia, a 68-year-old widow who lives in Ekuri, says she had a farm on this exact location. The bulldozers came and cleared her farm without any form of compensation. She says that the portion of land that was cleared for the Super Highway was a “good spot”, where she collected herbs for the treatment of common ailments.

She now has to walk several kilometers further into the forest in search of the herbs. Curiously, of all the trees felled during clearing of the forest, none was found on the ground. They were all taken away. This clearly shows that logging is a motive behind the Super Highway project.

Although pending court cases have brought the project to a halt for now, there is anxiety and uncertainty among the forest-dependent communities.

Nigeria recently signed the Paris agreement on climate change. If the Super Highway project is allowed to continue, it will be a major setback for Nigeria’s re-forestation campaign.

“We are not against a road project,” Chief Odigha says, “but it must be sustainable and should avoid encroaching into the remaining portion of the only primary Tropical High Forest left in Nigeria.”