• Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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If we must protect Cross River’s forest we need to engage the community – Egot

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Martins Egot is the executive director of Panacea for Developmental and Infrastructural Challenges for Africa Initiative (PADIC-AFRICA), formerly Development Concerns (DEVCON). In this Interview with MIKE ABANG, he spoke on varieties of issues on Cross River National Park and Community forest. Excerpts:

The Federal Government recently gave licence to two firms to mine in the Cross River National Park; what is your take on this?

Apart from the fact that the environmental organisation is very concerned about the environment of Cross River State and its forest communities, we have been in very close partnership with the Cross River National Park for over ten years now. They have been part of building capacity of our community eco-guards that we train and support to take care of, manage and carry out surveillance and protection of community forests. The National Park has been very cooperative and they have been seeing results from our partnership but this same National Park is being encroached. For example, in Ofumkpa, where this mining activity is really happening, for two years now we have been having joint patrols with the National Park officers, Rangers and the community eco-guards that we put together in Ofumkpa, and they have been protecting the forests together. But suddenly, we hear that there is licence given to companies to mine, there is so much disaster in that place and for us, it is very disheartening.

What is your concern?

Our major concern is that for over eight to 10 years now, Cross River State has been suffering from deforestation degradation and timber exploitation recklessly, without control. We have been fighting this throughout with all our might and it has not been easy because we have lost so much in the forest. We have three forest regimes in Cross River state. These are; Community Forest, National Park and the Government Reserve. The community forest and the government forest reserves which are under community and state government managements have come under serious attack and we are losing them massively. Our hope in Cross River State forest is the National Park, that is why we have the bulk of forest left but if we do not take our time, the experience we have been having within the 10 years in the community and government forests, is coming over to the National Park.

As we speak, there are several areas that mining is happening in Cross River State except the National Park. Mining is coming into Cross River State massively and now, they have entered the National Park which is a big worry. If we do not take things more seriously in the National Park, there will be a disaster there and Cross River State will have nothing to show in forest because we do not know how to manage the community and government reserve forests that we have. Government institutions are not helping matters, so that is the major worry that made us to make noise and tell people about it in order to stop the anomalies.

What is the mandate of the National Park?

The National Park Service Act (2006) unequivocally underscores that national parks are sanctuaries meant exclusively for the propagation, protection and management of vegetation and wildlife. Notably, Section 22 of the Act delineates the functions of Management Committees, reinforcing the exclusive dedication of national parks to the propagation, protection and management of vegetation and wildlife.

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Section 29 clearly makes an offence for any unauthorised person to go into the National Park without the permission of the Conservator-General. Mining activities are explicitly prohibited in section 30(1) of the Act which says, a person who, unless authorised to do so under this Act or the regulations under this Act, carries out an undertaking connected with forestry, agriculture, grazing or excavation or does any leveling of the ground or construction or any act tending to alter the configuration of the soil or the character of the vegetation; or does an act likely to disturb the fauna or flora; or engages in drilling, mining, prospecting or exploration of any kind of natural resources, is guilty of an offence.

The National Park therefore, has the mandate to manage and protect the National Park and the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development should not in anyway, give out leasing rights to any mining company in the National Park and they know this. We are trying to get to the appropriate authorities to ensure that this is reversed as soon as possible. As we speak, it is still happening in Ofumkpa.

What are the benefits of the National Park to the state and the people?

Even as environmentalists, we are not completely in anyway opposed to government making money from resources that they have but we are saying that things should be done rightly. The status of Cross River State nationally and internationally, as custodians of the highest and remaining rainforest in Nigeria, is there. They ought to be ecological benefits, international recognitions and even funding to gain from this. At some point, discussions are on the way to begin to pick community and state benefits for having their forests intact. If we do not show working to show that we are compliant to conservation and protection, then we would lose out of it. Conservation is not completely saying do not make money from it, it is saying let us do it in the right direction and the proper way. We have always told people, timber dealers and community people to do the right thing by ensuring that they know the numbers of trees that they are extracting from the forests and ensure that they are of marketable size approved and following best practices as they would still make money from that. The National Park is a reserve that can give us funds from eco-tourism and we would still have our forests intact at that level.

For the Federal Government to designate National Parks, they are for ecological, ecosystem benefits and tourism. Our sons, daughters and people from Cross River state are also being employed and they get salaries being paid as staff of the National Park.

Some people have argued that the National Park was of no benefit to the people and the state; what is your view on this?

You cannot monetarily quantify what you have in the forest, apart from the ecosystem services which is life itself. But if you do real tourism projects in the National Park, there is no way Cross River State would not be making millions monthly from eco-tourism. There are lodges and people come in there from different areas and we make foreign exchange from that.

What is the size of the National Park and fears you may be nursing?

Looking at the Ekuri axis, we have over 50,000 hectares that is for National Park and there is also the Oban axis, bringing the National Park to over hundreds of thousands of hectares, even though some parts of this are suffering from encroachment as we speak.

Is there any specific threat to the communities?

Yes. At some point, we pity them and want to reason with them, even though they are not completely right. I have been engaging directly with the Ofumkpa people, we have been working closely and they have been part of our patrols, listening closely to our conservation debates and discussions and they participate. When this happened, we took them on and they said they are accepting these people because they are promising roads, schools, employment and little stipends for working with them at the mining site. These are the things that really pull and push communities to be part of it and we do not blame them, it is life survival as a community; because these communities neither have good road nor school and the people there are very poor. Our governments that are supposed to be supporting communities with all these amenities are not forthcoming. Again, the National Park authority that is supposed to be empowered to engage well in these communities and provide for the communities, are actually not doing that. We talk about livelihood but what degree of livelihood projects are we pushing to these community people? We empathise and sympathise with the community people and so in that direction, I will be calling on the Federal and state governments, even international NGOs to intervene.

As forest communities embrace illegal loggers and miners to enhance their livelihood, what would you proffer as a solution?

If we must succeed in protecting the National Park, community and state forests, we need to engage adequately with community people, ensuring that we know their problems and support them in solving their problems. If we do not look at livelihood very strongly in communities, our fight would continue and we would have a problem interacting with them. As we speak, I hear they are chasing people because they think those people are coming to deprive them of making money from these companies. Going forward, I think government and international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) should sit on a round table and engage these communities by targeting individuals and households and within two years, be able to check and assess how they have built the livelihood capacity of certain family heads. These are the kinds of things that would help us win this struggle because the struggle will continue in Cross River State forests.