Ibrahim Musa Goni, Conservator-General, National Parks Service of of Nigeria tells NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI why it has been difficult to wade off encroachment into Okwangwo Division of the Cross River National Park and other conserved areas.
What processes are undertaken before a National Park is created. I ask this in the context of the fact that the indigenous people see the reserved areas as their land which government prevents them from accessing?
I really want to appreciate your zeal, Nkrumah for undertaking this chase of the wild environment, especially at the Cross River National Park in Cross River State. Not many journalists would be interested or would have the courage to undertake such expedition. So, I really commend your effort. Yes, as regard the acquisition of land to be declared a National Park, Nigeria as a country has a Land Use Act. And under the Land Use Act, the Federal Government does not possess land. States own land. Based on the provisions of the constitution, the forests and game reserves are on the Concurrent List, meaning that they are the prerogative of the State governments. And all the National Parks in this country were once either forests or game reserves, were the owners – if I say the owners, I am referring to the governors of those States – voluntarily handed those pieces of land to the Federal Government to be declared as National Parks. In that process, if you follow the trend as I have told you, that is, the Land Use Act, the ownership of land and so on, the governor of the State must indicate interest that the Federal government should take over a piece of land and declare it a National Park. That is what the Act establishing the National Park, Laws Cap 64 of 2010 says. Section 19 of the Law spells out the procedure for establishing or altering the boundaries of a National Park. Part of that section reads: “A proposal to establish a National Park or alter the boundaries of a National Park shall be accompanied by: One, A positive environmental impact assessment, EIA report. Two, A recommendation based on a comprehensive study of the matter by or under the direction of the Service, ie, the National Park Service and such report must be approved by the Minister of Environment. Three, the consent to the proposed establishment or alteration of one, the governor where the National Park falls within the territory of one State. Two, of a majority of the governors of the States within whose territories the National Park is located, where the National Park falls within the territory of two or more governors. So, that is the procedure for establishing a National Park or altering the boundaries of any National Park. Maybe I should quickly educate you on the procedure for establishing a forestry or game reserve. Going by the provisions of the Land Use Act, a State governor who intends to establish a forestry or game reserve should conduct a public hearing. There must be a public hearing. At that public hearing, those people whose land is to be taken over, should indicate whether or not they are willing to give out the land to the government. If they are not, then, the issue of stopping the process or government buys time to get them to key-in comes in. And where they have keyed in, the law states that there must be an EIA report. Under the EIA Law, you must make provision for the local people whose land you are taking over. You either resettle them or you pay compensation to them. Where compensation is paid, that land is no longer theirs, as it has become the property of the government of that State. And where you have tried to persuade the people to buy-in and they refuse, the instrument of Public Interest can come in. Is the interest of the people around the area going to supersede the general interest of the public? So, going by that, it means the public interest will prevail.
Can we then say that some of these Parks that were created during Military rule could have been created by fiat, and the process lacking in the usage of democratic instruments like referendum, consultation and persuasion
Incidentally, it is the Military that promulgated the Land Use Decree, now we call it Act. It is yet to be reviewed by the National Assembly. It is still a military decree. Even though it is a Military decree, there was some democratization to some extent because there were public hearings and referendums. In those referendums, people were advised to indicate by way of writing their names and signing for or against the decision. If the For carried the day, then the Nays just had to give way to majority view. There was referendum even in those days of Military regimes.
I asked because I have met people who say, ‘if you tell us not to go to our ancestral land, what has the government done for us?’
These people asking questions were not there during the referendum. Their fathers or grandfathers would have signed. If you go to the State Forestry offices, you will find the result of the referendum in a gazette. Before the governor would have gone ahead to gazette the area, the referendum would have been attached. The WWF that was working in Cross River, particularly in Okwangwo Division, had that challenge. In most cases, they resorted to asking the State government for assistance where they had issues with the people. In some places, WWF paid compensation where the government didn’t pay. That was before General Sani Abacha expelled the WWF from Nigeria. That is why, uptill today, where WWF did not pay, and the State did not pay, the people are still raising eye brows that we should pay them. As far as we in the Park Service are concerned, we don’t have any linkage with that issue because the lands were voluntarily handed over to the Federal government by the State government. So, where they ask for compensation, we always advised them to go back to the State government.
Given the evolving nature of the cost of land, how do you bounce what was paid against the ever-appreciating value of land?
You were not paid on the basis of the size of the land. You were paid on the basis of the economic trees that were on the land. It wasn’t their households that were taken, it was their farms. The number economic trees determined how much they were paid. And the Forestry Division of every State have an amount they have earmarked for every economic tree. So, based on what they determined for a tree, they calculated based on the number of economic trees found there and then the people were paid.
Given that your organization is absolved of any complicity, and the Parks are now firmly in your hands, having being handed over to you by the State government. What are you doing to protect them, especially the Okwangwo Division where by my estimation, 30 to 40 percent of the rainforest is gone and the adjoining community forests have been completely wiped out by the activities of loggers, poachers etc. I am sure you follow the social media in Cross River and you see the massive logging that is going on there?
A question does not answer a question but I will ask you a question. What’s the percentage of the forests that are not under the National Park Service still remaining? Do you know. Go back to the Cross River Forestry Commission and find out. On their vegetation map, Cross River State is almost yellow now, I think about 75 percent gone. Even the 20-25 left is contributed by the National Park, that is why they are talking about the RDD+. Then back to your question regarding what we are doing at the National Park Service. Again, encroachment into Okwangwo Division of the Cross River National Park is not an isolated case. It is happening all over the country. It is now a global issue that is facing not only Nigeria. Even countries like Senegal are worse off as far logging is concerned. Even Congo DR ishard hit. I think Nigeria is even better and doing well. If you go to Senegal, their Rose wood is gone. If you go to the Democratic Republic of Congo, you will find that their thick forest is gone. And that is why the population of gorillas in DRC is diminished
Just as it is the case with Cross River National Park?
Yes, just like Cross River because they share the same route; Okwangwo-Takamanda-Oban-Korup down to DRC, animals use the same route. That is why I say it is a global issue and Nigeria is even better off because of the regulations and enforcements that the government has evolved. The government has just reviewed the enabling Act 2016 to check the trade in endangered species. When we say endangered species, that does not concern only animals. It concerns plants also. Plants like Rose wood are now on the endangered list and that is why the Federal government has just reviewed the National Forestry Policy to ensure that the Federal Ministry of Environment and the Federal Ministry of Finance, through the Customs and Excise Service take it up as a challenge to ensure that export of wood is seriously checked and export of wildlife trophies is seriously checked too. If you remember, it is not up to two months yet that the Customs Service arrested about a 43-feet container carrying various parts of animals and plants. So, as far as we are concerned, in the case of Okwangwo, there are anthropogenic problems that we inherited. Most of those people who are encroaching into the Park were supposed to have been relocated by the State government before it became a reserve. This was not done before it was handed over to us. Some were still enclaved in those Parks. We advised that they should be evacuated and relocated outside. But till this time I am talking to you now, we still manage some of them, I don’t want to say illegal settlements. That is why you still see people harvesting banana and other crops. Yes, there were enclaved communities residing in the protected area and the State government could not do anything. Now, for us to relocate them, it comes down to opportunity cost. We look at the bill and ask if we can foot it. If we cannot foot the bill against all other priorities, why don’t we manage them, educate them on how to live sustainably in that environment? This is what we are doing with the Okwangwo people. That is why, agencies like the World Conservation Society, WCS, are there. We are working together and we intend to get more support for them.
You admit that there is a challenge. Let me quote a former official in the Cross River State executive council who said “if you lie low on the road to Lagos, you’d see timber coming from Cross River State heading to Lagos.” Is your organization aware of this?
We are aware.
So what are you doing to stop it?
I am not telling you that the whole of that deforestation is taking place in Okwangwo Division. You did mention that you saw people logging there. Yes, they log in their community forest. If you have been to Oban, from Akamkpa to Ere Ukut used to be a very thick forest. But go to that area today and see. Apart from the activities of mining, see what has happened in that place. When you go to talk to them, they tell you that they have not encroached into the Park, forgetting that once they are done with the community forest, they will turn attention to the Park. The bitter part of what is happening is that the logging is not done only by the natives. People come from Taraba State, from Cameroon to log there. Businessmen come from as far as Lagos to log. So, if I tell you I am not aware, on this seat, I will be lying and I will not be fair to government
But nothing appears to be done to check this?
I have told you that several efforts have been put in place by the government. The Act is there, many people have been arrested and prosecuted by the government. The National Park Service Act is there and that is what we are using to enforce the protection of that place. Don’t forget that we inherited an anthropological problem which was not solved before the reserve was handed over to us. If you met a family of ten in those days, now it is fifteen, twenty. Will you say they should not reproduce. So, that is why we are out to get support for States, NGOs to see how we can salvage the situation. And I have told you, one way we are doing it is educating the people to live sustainably with the environment. And this, I think to a greater extent, we have been successful.
I know the Conservator of parks there, Mrs. Olory is meeting with communities?
Yes, there are also conflict with communities sharing boundaries. That is why in the budget approved for us, there is provision for demarcation to be carried out, so we can put beacons.
Yes, I when I was in the forest, I looked for those beacons in many locations but couldn’t find them?
That is why we are retracing them. We started in 2019. We did in 2020 and it has been approved in the 2021 budget.
Another challenge appears to me, to be manpower. I found that policing the forest is abysmally undertaken.
Yes, manpower is a challenge. And it is not only the National Park Service. When you go to the Head of Service, you see plenty applications there, many agencies are seeking approval to either replace or recruit new hands. But the Head of Service cannot blindly give approvals without recourse to the budget. The usual questions are; do you have the resources, do you have the funds to take more people? If you have the funds, they give you approval but if you don’t, they won’t. everything is dependent on the budget. Two, the focus of this government is on infrastructure. That is why, most of the budget goes to infrastructure. By the time we get the infrastructure right, all these issues of encroachment will be reduced to the barest minimum – when somebody from Okwangwo, Okwah 1, Okwah 2 can travel to Calabar within the shortest possible time, he would have nothing to do with the forest. When someone in Okwangwo has electricity to engage in other menial jobs, what time would he have to go into the forest. The capacity of the staff you are seeing is there is hinged on our budgetary resources. For forest areas, you do not require as many staff as you are thinking because with the deployment of technology, most of the job is done. They use camera traps, cyber trackers to compliment the effort of the Rangers. With these, you monitor people who go in there.
But you haven’t brought in drones because the camera traps have their own limitation?
Even the drones have their limitation in the forest area. They can only record the density for you, without showing you what is on the ground
But given that the density in Okwangwo is grossly depleted, the drones can perfectly give you which area is affected. For example, I have images shot with cameras which give a long range of areas that have been completely affected?
I will not say no. But there is a limitation to that too. We have drones, we deploy them to our Park where we have an insurgency and banditry, that is Birnin Gwari in Kaduna State. We deployed drones, even simulators and crackers to Lake Chad Basin where we have Boko Haram. We deployed drones in Kainji where the Airforce Base there is complementing our efforts by flying low. But for now, we have not deployed drones to Okwangwo or Cross River. We are still making do with cyber trackers, camera traps, the GPS and to some extent, the Rangers. The Rangers can embark on a ten-day patrol without coming back home. They move, camp from one place to the other continuously recording human and animal activities.
But they are not armed. What happens if they come in contact with vicious poachers or loggers?
They are armed. The issue is, not all of them have the arms. But where you have ten Rangers, be rest assured that the minimum number of guns they can have is either four or five. Wherever there are ten Rangers, at least seven carry arms so that whenever they encounter such invaders, the three can always be covered by these seven. If you say the guns are not as sophisticated as the ones used by the poachers and invaders, I agree. But that is what the Act provides. And this is what we are trying to change with the creation of ten additional National Parks by the President. We are using the opportunity to ensure that arms that the law provides that we carry are reviewed so that we can now carry lighter arms.
The Ministry of Environment is doing remediation work to restore the polluted environment in Ogoniland. Are you considering any form of reforestation in parts of Okwangwo Division?
You see, areas like Okwangwo where there are enclaves, the management strategy is certainly different. That is why we are currently benefitting from the green bonds. We are trying to revive the community forest in Ekuri in Oban Division of the Cross River National Park through the green bonds. Another area is Oban which is part of the buffer zone of the Park we are trying to remediate the forest there. But where there are no human activities, we intend to allow natural regeneration. It may take years. But is better to allow natural regeneration than to introduce other species that may not do well in the area. So, we have the green bonds and with that, we intend to use it to remediate such areas.
There is suspicion that the destruction of the Okwangwo forest is linked to politics. People tell me that logging is allowed there as a sort of job for the boys or settlement of local politicians. But the Cross River State governor recently said his State’s forest have been invaded by ‘forest bandits’. What do you tell politicians during your advocacy visits, especially given the controversy that trailed the construction of the so-called super highway and the work done there that is inimical to the existence of the National Park?
I don’t want to comment on what the governor of Cross River State said. I am neither a staff of Cross River State or a media aide to the governor.
But he said so in the media?
Yes, he said it for the consumption of the general public not for me to react.
Do you accept that it is the forest bandits who log timber in Okwangwo forest?
That is upto him to proof. If there are forest bandit, did he say in Okwangwo or the entire Cross River State?
Cross River State, Okwangwo is in Cross River State?
He is the number one citizen of that State. So, he is only confirming that there are bandits not only in Okwangwo but in the entire forest areas of Cross River State. I remember when we started, I told you about the status of the forest in Cross River State.About 75 percent has been diminished. This, I told you and you can go to their Forestry Commission and confirm. So, what the Cross State governor said should be left to the governor and the Cross River State people. On the advocacy message, what I say is that the same Cross River State governor should work together with the Federal governor to salvage the situation. That is one important thing we can do, that understanding. The forest guards are working there. It is where the job of the State forest guards stops that that of the Federal forest guards begins. That way, we can complement each other and arrest the situation. On the issue of the super highway, the Ministry stopped it because I am sure you are aware, the governor did not meet the conditions to be given an EIA certificate. And since he didn’t get an EIA certificate, there is no way he can carry out that project. Don’t forget that the initial map drawn for the super highway was reviewed based on our complain. Initially, it was about 45 kilometers into Oban Division of the Park. But because of our complain, that was reduced to at least 5 percent. And even that five percent, there are certain conditions he didn’t satisfy. So, we did not recommend that he be issued an EIA certificate.
It appears to me, as someone who is concerned about conservation that something went wrong with your agency. Service delivery was frozen. That perhaps is why in the heart of Okwangwo Division, you find crops like cocoa, banana growing. And suddenly Rangers are coming around those areas to try and stop the farmers. Why did the farms sprout in the first instance? What went wrong with your agency’s managerial duties?
Don’t forget that I said there were anthropological problems that we inherited
Crops like cocoa as I found in many places, are relatively, newly cultivated maybe in the last five or ten years?
Yes, I have told you, there are enclaves. We cannot stop them from expanding. I said where we used to have ten people, we now have fifteen or more. I ask you, should I say these people should not mate with their wives and have children? Should I say that? In conservation and protected areas management, we have to look at this: is it the people that met the creation of the forest reserve or is it the creation of the forest reserve that happened while the people were settled there. If the creation of the forest met the people there, you just have to manage them until such a time when you are able to evacuate them from that place. But if the people met the forest created already, they don’t have a stance. They must leave that place. This is the situation we are in Cross River. The creation of the forest reserve met the people there. Therefore, we have to manage them until such a time when we are able to get them to live sustainably. Even in the Amazons forests of Brazil and even Malaysia, there are people who are living sustainably in their forests. That is exactly what we are trying to do here too.
***Excerpts from this interview were published in “Inside Cross River National Park, Nigeria’s Stolen Forest posted on this website on 11 June, 2021 as part of Rainforest Journalism Fund(Pulitzer Center) grant to Nkrumah Bankong-Obi.