Read, Debate: Engage.

Nigeria’s Ekuri community fight government, developers to protect forest

August 31st, 2021
topic: Conservation
by: Bob Koigi
located in: Nigeria
tags: climate crisis, conservation, logging, Nigeria, rain forest

Facing constant threats by developers and government construction initiatives, the Ekuri community is fighting to preserve their home in one of Nigeria's last remaining rain forests.

Behind the over 33,600-hectare Ekuri community forest -  located in southeastern Nigeria’s Cross River state - is the story of over 6,000 inhabitants relying on one of the few surviving rainforest in the country and their spirited efforts to protect the land from illegal loggers, government attempts at road construction and competing commercial interests. 

It is a story of resilience that has seen members jailed, but also one in which the community’s resolve to protect their source of livelihood for decades has remained unfazed.

It is a story that has highlighted protection of community land rights and the relationship between these communities, governments and the private sector at a time when natural resources continue to be under increasing threat the world over.

The history of a people and a forest

The Ekuri community has for hundreds of years relied on the rainforest for livelihood and sustenance: getting timber for cooking, plants for medicine, fruits, vegetables and seeds for cooking and bamboo for roofing.

The forest is also home to some of the world’s endangered species, among them drills, forest elephants, Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees, leopards and grey-necked rockfowl.

To coordinate operations of the forests and the interaction of the Ekuri people with it, the community established a committee dubbed the Ekuri Initiative in 1994.

But shortly after it was formed, it encountered its first major hurdle when the local chief allowed an illegal concession with a logging company and gave it the go-ahead to construct an access road. Irked by the decision, community members, guided by the Initiative, took up arms and opposed the move, which also saw the chief deposed. 

Members of the initiative were arrested, charged in court and sentenced to two years in jail. The chief was reinstated and the judge gave the accused a chance to allow the construction and logging to go on in exchange for their freedom, an offer they rejected. This only emboldened the Initiative. 

For years, the Ekuri Initiative has laid down elaborate plans to ensure the protection of the forest while allowing communities to benefit from it. Farmlands and trees in the forest are communally owned, meaning that only the Initiative can authorise any logging or commercial activities in the forest after consultation with the community members. 

This strategy has seen community members directly benefit from the proceeds of the forest, through, for instance, farmer training projects, medical and education support and micro credit schemes. The organisation, with support from donors, has been able to either construct or renovate schools, health centres and civic facilities.

The aggressive conservation efforts of the community saw the Ekuri Initiative win the United Nations Equator Initiative Award in 2004, and their territory became the pilot site for the UN REDD+ programme for maintaining its forest. 

Fighting encroachment

The communities, however, still grapple with attempts to hive off part of the forest for commercial and private projects. 

In 2016, the state government announced plans to construct a superhighway that would have crossed an estimated 52 kilometers of Ekuri community forest. 

The Ekuri Initiative, with support from international conservation bodies, mobilised community members to oppose the move and collected more than 250,000 signatures that were handed to the federal government, which ultimately rescinded its earlier decision and announced that it would reroute the highway away from the forest.

Earlier this year, the Ekuri Initiative was up in arms again after learning that the state’s Forestry Commission (CRSFC) had given a nod to have one company clear a section of the forest to pave way for the construction of another superhighway. 

In a petition to President Mohammadu Buhari, the communities expressed dismay and anger at the disrespect of authorities to conservation efforts by the community and called on Nigerian authorities to respect its fiduciary conservation duty. 

“This action of the government against us is a violation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), which Nigeria is a signatory. It is also a violation of African Charter on Human and Peoples,” read a section of the petition.

The latest petition comes as global forests continue to face threats from governments and the private sector. Such threats continue even as international conservation bodies sound the alarm over the unprecedented plunder of natural resources that are putting millions of lives and endangered species at risk and reversing the gains made in protecting wildlife and fighting climate change.

Image by: YA

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Nigeria
The Ekuri community forest is one of Nigeria's last remaining rain forests.
.
.