The International Day of Forests is held annually on March 21, to raise awareness on the importance of forests to people and their vital role in poverty eradication, environmental sustainability and food security. The 2020 celebration focuses on ‘forests and biodiversity’.
The Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey, in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Oge Udegbunam, says forests in Nigeria need appropriate attention and care. He also speaks on how Nigerian can benefit from its vast forest resources.
PT: Is Nigeria on the path of achieving the 2030 target for SDGs?
Bassey: For a country whose policies were not already pursuing a pattern of doing things that are just and delivering services for most of the population, being on track to achieving any of the SDGs basically begins with having the right policy framework for reaching the goals.
We cannot say that Nigeria has consciously taken significant actions to build resilience or adaptive capacity to climate related natural disasters. Consider for instance the most basic and predictable hazard such as flooding.
The capacity to predict and warn citizens of flooding has been built, but just knowing that a flood is coming does not result in ability to withstand the ravages of the floods when they arrive. In 2012, over 363 persons died from flooding while 2 million were displaced. About 140 persons died and tens of thousands were displaced in 2018 and in 2019 the number of fatalities was 34 died with over 100,000 being displaced.
In the area of policies, the cardinal one in this regard is the National Climate Change policy which is currently under review. Some of the adaptation and mitigation measures in the policy have components of awareness creation as well as education. Until the policy is approved and implemented through a climate change programme, its recommendations such as mainstreaming in every facet of national life may not go beyond the paper on which they are written.
Funding climate action through the Green Climate Finance mechanism has been generally sluggish. It will be more so due to the unfolding global economic slump being orchestrated by COVID-19 (coronavirus).
SDG 15 talks about managing forests sustainably, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss. These are massive goals and each aspect could be a subject of an interview on its own. Are we managing our forests sustainably or are we on track to managing our forests sustainably?
What does sustainable forest management entail? In fact, we can query the official definition of forests by an organ such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation which includes seeing monocultural plantations as forests!
Can communities manage their forests sustainably nor must this be done through professional conversation groups in ways that exclude the communities from their forests? There are many questions to ask.
Nigeria’s effort towards realising the Great Green Wall can be said to be a pathway towards stopping the spread of desertification. Of course, there are other strategies that can be adopted to achieve this, including measures that are working in Niger – the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration which restores forests and revegetates degraded lands.
In Burkina Faso farmers have used local zai technology to restore damaged soils. These can be adopted to boost the green wall effort and other endeavours.
PT: Nigeria experienced massive deforestation in late 1900s. Have we fully recovered and what measures are on ground to prevent such happening again?
Bassey: The rate of deforestation in Nigeria has been quite high. If we consider the loss of forest cover in the Sahel as well as the mangrove forests on our coastline, it is doubtful that the rate of deforestation has been arrested. It is well known that we have already lost over 90 per cent of our forest cover. A lot of factors contribute to piling pressure on the remaining forests.
These include the conversion of biodiverse natural forests into plantations and for industrial agriculture. Some of these forests-depleting establishments are owned by powerful individuals and corporations, making regulations harder to enforce. We hear of stories of a sawmill and furniture workshop inside a protected forest!
In such situations, the forestry department can be compared to a fire fighting squad, fighting multiple fires on many fronts while having its equipment and other resources stretched to the limits. It is difficult to say that what has happened before has stopped happening.
PT: How can Nigerians interested in tree planting access free seedlings?
Bassey: Free seedlings? Why should they be asking for free seedlings? In any case, the president announced that the country will soon mobilise youth to plant 25 million trees. Those seeking free seedlings should get ready to join the official tree planting brigades. Other Nigerians are willing to plant trees, as their contribution towards tackling deforestation and cooling the planet, should approach the Ministry of Agriculture or go ahead and raise nurseries or buy the needed seedlings.
We should not overlook the fact that there are many ongoing initiatives by youth who are planting trees in their cities without waiting for free seedlings.
PT: Nigeria has been losing some of its flora and fauna resources to deforestation. Is there a way to quantify how much of these resources Nigeria has lost.
Bassey: There are possibilities of computing economic value of certain forest resources like foods or building materials. Other than specific resources, it is futile to attempt to price nature. Our forests provide homes for communities, food and medicines for our peoples as well. They are also places of deep cultural and religious significance.
These cannot be costed in terms of monetary values without falling into the trap of those who believe that nature cannot be protected except there is a financial value attached to it. Such arguments have driven the pathways of market environmentalism, including the costing of environmental services and Green Economists’ attempt to compute the value of pollination by bees and butterflies.
PT: Nigeria has been opening up forests in the name of infrastructural development and housing, are there plans of replanting, knowing its effects on climate change?
Bassey: It is hard to see how those who drive deforestation would also pursue reforestation. It is illogical to expect them to behave in a manner that considers the critical need for trees in mitigating climate impacts. Destruction of forests for infrastructural development often goes with the sole desire to harvest the timber in such forests.
PT: There are policies guarding forest reserves but it seems these are not to be adhered to. What can be done to enforce these policies?
Bassey: What is to be done include more awareness creation, working with communities and granting them the right to manage their forests. Conversation must be decolonised. When people own their forests, they are incentivised to protect them. In addition, the forestry departments must be adequately resourced to do their work and those who encroach on clearly mapped and delineated protected forests should be adequately sanctioned.
PT: Cross River State recently opened up forest reserves for road construction. What efforts did your organisation take to enlighten or stop the deforestation?
Bassey: The so-called Super Highway project of the Cross River State government is a mind-boggling brazen case of planning to decimate forests. That highway was initially planned to cut right through community-managed and nationally-protected forests.
The project initially claimed a right of way of 10 kilometres on either side of the highway – a clear indication that the project was not about a highway at all but a ploy to destroy the remaining tracks of rainforests in the region.
We worked with the forest communities through dialogues, training and learnings, to resist the forest grab. Eventually, the highway was realigned away from protected forests, but while the people desire access roads, they are still resisting and rejecting the highway and all the threats it portends.
There are claims often made that two trees would be planted for one tree cut. What is ignored in such proposals or claims is that a single tree in a forest can be a complex ecosystem on its own and that planting two or more saplings would not replace what was lost.
PT: One of the challenges of deforestation is food insecurity. How can Nigeria tackle this?
Bassey: Forests support agriculture in many ways. They provide food directly from the biodiverse species in them. They protect rivers and thereby secure potable water sources as well as ensuring the availability of fish. Forests are also habitats for pollinators. Destruction of forests directly threatens our biodiversity, food security and sovereignty.
Protecting our forests, supporting our local farmers with access to markets through rural infrastructure, storage and processing facilities will reduce pressure on forests and secure food availability.
PT: Are there advocacy programmes on forestry? What are the results so far?
Bassey: Communities, civil society groups and government agencies are engaging in advocacy for forest protection, climate change, tenure rights and wholesome foods. There are multiple ongoing programmes. Without these, the remaining forest cover would probably have been totally wiped out.
PT: Looking at the farmers-herders clash, do you think tree planting will help stop the clash?
Bassey: Tree planting cannot stop the clash between farmers and herders because the clashes are triggered by multiple factors. They are not clashing for lack of trees. If anything, the clash may be for lack of fodder which is often grass, not trees.
However, tree planting could trigger new economic activities and also help to secure the health of water bodies which in a sense would be useful for all parties and may stop non-strategic migrations which result in violent encounters.