•Monarchs, stakeholders bemoan vanishing heritage 

From Judex Okoro, Calabar

The massive deforestation of Cross River State’s tropical rain forests has continued unabated as illegal loggers and hundreds of timber merchants have invaded forest communities, felling thousands of trees worth hundreds of millions of naira and destroying the ecosystem.  

The rain forest, which cuts across the six communities of Akamkpa, Obubra, Etung, Ikom and Boki, is of high ecological and economic value to the local people, state and nation at large. The forest is rich in medicinal and terrestrial biodiversity. It is also one of the major sources of rural life sustenance in the above-named communities. The forest also plays a vital role in ecosystems stabilisation. 

 Before now, the colonial, regional and state governments saw the rain forest as a revenue resource. The indigenous people saw it as part of their treasured heritage and existence.  

But today, the people’s heritage is vanishing. The forests are depleted as the “forests bandits” have invaded the host communities, cutting down trees and felling timber in collaboration with some locals and government officials. Statistics showed that about 79 companies and individuals are involved in “salvage logging” in the state. The statistics further showed that, between 1991 and 2001, the state lost 3,000km square of forests, amounting to 24 per cent of its forest cover.

Checks by Daily Sun revealed that the administration of Donald Duke banned Chinese company, WEMPCO, the then biggest consortium of illegal lumbering, while that of Liyel Imoke brought in one Mr. Hekins to put a stop to illegal logging in the affected communities. 

The proliferation and duplication of committees on anti-deforestation under the incumbent Governor Ben Ayade seems not to be yielding positive results as the state has rather witnessed what environmentalists described as “massive deforestation and unprecedented illegal logging.” 

The checks further revealed that activities of loggers in Etung and Boki communities have been on the increase as thousands of timbers are felled and millions of logs evacuated out of the state on a daily basis through the northern part of the state to other parts of the country, thereby raking in several millions of naira.

Investigations by Daily Sun revealed that the government has not lived up to its claim of preserving the ecosystem. All sorts of policies, including permitting salvage logging, granting concessions to commercial agricultural ventures  and carrying out infrastructure construction, have contributed to destroying large sections of forests. 

A source in Boki confided in our reporter that illegal logging has become a booming business that community leaders, youth groups and even top government officials are all engaged in now.

A community leader identified as Emma Abang said: “These NGOs are just wasting their time. They cannot stop it now because it brings fast cash to communities, individuals and top government functionaries. Illegal timber logging is the most lucrative business, especially in Boki Local Government Area. 

“If you pass through Ikom-Boki-Obudu federal road, you would see not less than 10 to 30 long trucks loading wood to the eastern, northern and western parts of the country. And they move in convoy without molestation by the so-called forestry commission and even the forests guards paid by government. So, what is happening in our forests is devastating and unbelievable in a government that promised forest protection and preservation.” 

Decrying massive forests destruction, the paramount ruler of Boki LGA in Cross River Central senatorial district, HRM Fredelime Amarda, said their forests have been massively destroyed and depleted, leaving the people with no alternative means of livelihood.

Amarda said, beside the issue of climate change, many of the animals in the forest have become endangered species while the ecosystem and ecotourism have been significantly affected, calling for help to arrest the wanton destruction of the forests around his domain. 

Also speaking at a town hall meeting held at Ikom LGA, His Royal Highness Ntoe Boniface Ndoma said they would try and mobilise their subjects towards safeguarding the remnants of the hitherto rich forest endowments of state from ongoing massive deforestation, appealing for government intervention.

Bemoaning illegal logging, Senator Sandy Onor, representing Cross River Central senatorial district, where the business thrives, expressed dismay at the impunity displayed by these illegal loggers and the syndicates who are, daily, depleting the rich forest endowments of the state with alleged tacit support of government agencies.

Onor said it has become imperative to checkmate the nefarious activities of timber merchants who have invaded almost all the forests in Akamkpa, Obubra, Etung, Ikom and Boki, engaging in all forms of illegal logging activities, even when government of the day claims there is a law against logging in the state.

According to him, these timber merchants, with their state collaborators, have hugely depleted the Cross River forest once regarded as the richest tropical rain forest in the world. 

He said: “It’s terrible and disappointing that, under the watch of Governor Ben Ayade, who brandished himself as an acclaimed environmentalist, our tropical forest, which harbours some unique endangered species like gorillas, chimpanzees, lions and elephants, is now the commercial nerve centre for illegal timber transactions. 

“Our rare timber products are now being cut into logs and exported with alleged full complicity of the governor’s cronies who share the loot on a daily basis. The standard we set for the State Forestry Commission and the task force units to guarantee sustainable exploration, which attracted global support, have been debased. 

“The commission has now become an avenue for allegedly empowering Ayade’s boys for their loyalty and commitment in the readiness for the forthcoming elections through illegal logging pastime. Our forest is now bleeding, while they erect monumental edifices or smile to the bank.  We are aware and we call on community leaders for intervention.”

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Narrating his ordeal in trying to stop illegal logging in Boki LGA to no avail at a multi-stakeholders conference by We The People (WTP), in partnership with the Rainforest Resource and Development Centre (RRDC), in Calabar recently, the chairman, Pastor John Ewa, blamed the increasing deforestation of Boki and other forests in Cross River to change in government.

He said: “We have failed our people. We have failed our forest, the forest have not changed, the people have not changed, the same forest, the same size but what caused us to lose our forest is the change in government. Our chiefs are timber dealers. There is no family in Boki that does not do timber. The police have compromised also.”

Narrating her own experience, Ms Florence Kekong, a farmer from Boki, said: “The incessant logging of wood isn’t a good omen for the future. Unlike before, when loggers had the fear of being arrested for cutting down any tree in the  forest or even at owners’ residential homes, the increasing offensive noise from the loggers’ operational engines is cause for concern.

“The environmental damage being caused daily by these people destroying our forests is enormous. The sounds of these engines are destroying our farms daily. The loggers have thrown caution to the wind. They care not about the damage they are causing to our lives, our forest. Now, our women farmers cannot get the natural things that grew on their own in the forest. They cannot drink the natural clean water from the streams around their farms. We need a leadership that can save the people.”  

Expressing worry at the destruction of the forest estates by what they described as “armed forest bandits, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at the WTP conference, blamed the Cross River State government and highly placed citizens of the state for deforestation.

The stakeholders from civil societies lamented that large-scale tropical forest timber was increasingly being logged illegally in the entire Cross River, adding that lack of political will, non-implementation of laws and policies were some of the factors aiding deforestation in the state.

Executive director of WTP, Ken Henshaw, said of the remaining 10 per cent of Nigeria’s forest cover, Cross River has the largest with total forest cover of 7,920 square kilometers in 1991, but sadly the rate of deforestation has increased drastically on account of illegal logging and agricultural activities.

Ken lamented that despite ban on all forms of logging activities placed by the state government 14 years ago, “at the moment, logging activities are taking a sinister dimension in Cross River State. W

e have also seen that the actions of Cross River State Government in the last one and a half decade have intensified the destruction of the rain forest.”

Frowning at alleged negligence and complacent by the Cross River Forest Commission, the Executive Director, RRDC, Odey Oyama, said preliminary field survey carried out by the organisers of the conference revealed what he described as severe destruction of the forest estates by armed forest bandits despite government’s ban on all forms of logging activities in the state.

He disclosed that findings have confirmed that large scale tropical high forest timber are increasingly being logged illegally, day and night, resulting in extensive eradication of the remaining pristine rainforest in the state.

According to him, the activities of these illegal loggers have brought untold hardship to the host communities as there are no compensations, royalties and loss of employment opportunities just as it has caused destruction of the resources of food security and gross aggravation of poverty. He added that unsustainable logging operations violate the prescription of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) law.

Also decrying the deforestation, the former chairman of Cross River State Forestry Commission, Dr. Odigha Odigha, said Cross River must have a leadership that has the political will to wrestle deforestation of forest estates like what the state had during the administrations of Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke.

He said: “We are faced with the most serious crisis of our life, we are faced with deforestation. It is the truth that will save us from where we are. Hopefully, by the grace of God, all things being equal, by May 29, we will have a new administrations. Hopefully, we will breathe some fresh air.”

“We should also look at whatever policies and regulations that we have. I think we have a good law, a good policy but implementation is the issue and of cause the third issue is, there must be budget provision or something to fund this sector.”

Odigha advised that deliberate effort should be made to set aside funding for the protection of the forest.

Committed to protect the rain forest, Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River has vowed that his government would go all out to fight illegal wood loggers in the state.  Lamenting recently that the activities of these loggers have led to progressive depletion of Cross River forest reserve, Ayade regretted that communities which are forest bearing have been massively dislocated and their land mass completely eroded, thereby creating huge environmental challenges with a cumulative long term consequence. 

He said: “Cross River State has 58% of the entire forest cover of Nigeria. We have growing concerns about the rate and the speed of depletion of our forests. It is against this background that I am sending a note of final warning that I cannot watch the complete degeneration of our forest as we see illegal logging becoming the order of the day. 

“From now, anybody caught with illegal wood, your vehicle, the driver, the occupants of that vehicle, the destination of the stolen wood, the government official who is colluding, or the security operatives who are colluding or the forest guards who are colluding, will be picked up and dealt decisively with.

“We will ensure that we involve the entire global community to sit and watch and monitor your prosecution to ensure that justice is done. I can see that the illegal loggers have now developed into full-blown armed cartels who are prepared to harm anyone standing in their way.”

He assured that the government is ready to use some people in government, who create an impression that by the appointments they have they can now collude with illegal wood loggers, as scapegoat, saying the administration is fed up with setting up conventional task forces and committees to tackle the menace and will henceforth explore other options, including a special espionage.

According to the governor, “we are tired of the complete cycle of conspiracy and so to buck passing trend and an unknown task force which is a complete espionage on the criminality that is going on in our forests will be set up.”