The road to the Ekuri forest community in southern Nigeria is calm and serene, with lush green leaves, blooming flowers and giant trees. This calm betrays no signs of an embattled people and their endangered ancestral forests, farmlands and wildlife.
Amidst protests, bulldozers backed by armed, rampaging soldiers stormed one of Africa’s largest surviving rainforests last spring and cut down trees — all in pursuit of the newly elected government’s agenda for rapid development. Within a space of a few hours, large expanses of forests and green areas, which were natural habitat for certain wildlife species along the Okokor village, had been torched and reduced to bare earth and red mud.
This episode marks the beginning of a fierce and protracted crisis with political undertones, diplomatic intrigues and international interest.
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It started last year in Nigeria’s Cross River State, which boasts more than 50 percent of the country’s rainforest, when Governor Ben Ayade unveiled his ambitious infrastructure plan for the region: a $3.5 billion, 260-kilometer, six-lane so-called Superhighway that would link a yet-to-be-built Bakassi deep-sea port in Calabar farther down south to Benue state up north. The highway would cut through several protected forests reserves and abut the western boundary of the Cross River National Park.
To drum up support for the plan, the governor invited the newly sworn-in President Muhammadu Buhari to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for his proposed roadway. According to the state, this highway would become the first in Nigeria with first class satellite antenna and fiber optic cable to deliver unlimited internet access. It would also bring with it 24-hour ambulance service, motels and gas stations.
Ayade’s critics have accused him of stifling dissent over the roadway, failing to consult with the Ekuri and not undertaking the required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIM) before commencing a project of this magnitude. The environmental assessment is now completed, but the environmental ministry in Nigeria’s capital Abuja has said that it falls short of international standards. The project is currently on halt.
Protests against the Superhighway have rocked the typically calm and tourism-friendly Cross River State, as the people of Old Ekuri and Young Ekuri villages (that are collectively known as the Ekuri Community), led by their village heads, have marched to register their grievances. “This is a nonviolent struggle…in the defense of the people’s rights,” says Steven Oji, a community leader and spokesman.
“The construction of a Superhighway is welcomed, however, we don’t desire a highway that will render us homeless, destroy our ancestral forests, land and all the wildlife,” says Chief Abel Egbe, an Ekuri community leader. Though they initially supported the project, the Ekuri withdrew their supportearlier this year, calling it a land grab in guise of a development project.
Leading human rights activists have supported the Ekuri’s grievances, arguing that their right to their ancestral land must be respected by the government.
There are serious environmental concerns about the project as well, since Cross River is host to the largest remaining rainforests of Nigeria. The Ekuri rainforest is in the buffer zone of Cross River National Park, one of the most biodiverse sites in all of Africa, that’s home to several rare and threatened species, including the Cross River gorilla, Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, drill monkeys and some of the last forest elephants in West Africa. The Oban Hills, a range of hills which lie within the Cross River National Park, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.
The unfolding social and environmental crisis has even attracted foreign-based NGOs like the Rainforest Rescue and Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement, among others.
Deforestation is a significant environmental problem in the region. Since the early 90s, more than a third of the country’s forests, upon which many forest-dwelling communities depend, have been significantly degraded. Of the some 34 forest communities in Cross River, the Ekuri community has actually had some unexpected success in the protection and management of their inherited forest land.
In fact, the Ekuri community has become something of a darling of Africa in terms of land conservation through community effort without government input. The unparalleled developments recorded by this united group, whose land totals 33,600 hectares, has attracted international attention.
The United Nations Development Program gave the Ekuri community its Equator Award in 2004 in recognition of their pioneering community forest-management efforts that reduced poverty, attracted social infrastructure and preserved the forest and wildlife from illegal logging and extinction.
This initiative was born from years of neglect suffered by these Indigenous people by both the federal and state governments. In 1981, the Ekuri community held a meeting where they conceived of a community forest management initiative that would protect their traditional lands and at the same time provide a source of livelihood for the poor farming populace. More than a decade later, in 1992, this community concept gave birth to the body called the “Ekuri Initiative.”
This nonprofit promotes community forestry and sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products from communally owned forestlands. The initiative has a board that plans selective timber harvesting from two 50-hectare plots and maintains a few cash crops like bush mangoes and yams. Revenue from the sale of these products has enabled the Ekuri people to build a low-impact road connecting them directly to the closest market, thereby increasing household incomes and eliminating costly middlemen.
Up until 1992, the Ekuri had nothing like schools, health centers, electricity, markets, water, or any other means of boosting economic activities and personal comfort, yet were still able to resist the temptations from illegal loggers who promised to provide a road for them. Until 1994, when a Chinese company constructed the community’s first-ever trunk road in exchange for timber, the only known means of transportation here was walking. Nineteen years later, in 2013, the efforts of these Indigenous people attracted attention from the European Union, whose intervention brought about the reconstruction of the 20-kilometer Ekuri community trunk road, which is still in need of more upgrades.
The Ekuri’s management model has since been replicated by the Cross River State Forestry Development Commission in nearly 33 other Nigerian villages. The Nigerian Conservation Foundation has also replicated the Ekuri’s model in nearby Taraba State as well as in several communities from different nations, including Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa. If the superhighway project goes through, the Ekuri stand to lose much of their ancestral lands and carefully managed forests.
Ekuri Initiative Chairman Martin Egot accused the Governor Ayade of revoking all rights of occupancy of their ancestral lands of thousands of villagers who are dependent on this forest for farming and survival.
While the bulldozers are on hold now as a result of international pressure, this may only be a temporary reprieve. The state government is making every effort to secure the needed clearances for the project.
The rumbles of crisis may have subsided, but the tension remains high on both sides.