Deforestation in the tropical rain forests is a major environmental concern and one community struggling with its impact is Irele, a sleepy town in Ekiti State.
In the last 10 years, the forest covers in Irele and surrounding communities have shrunk considerably due to the activities of loggers who have continued to cut down the trees indiscriminately.
The high demand for timber and other economic trees have increased the exploitation of the forest, far beyond sustainable limits.
Babalola Medayedupin of the Dignity Center, a community-based organization, explained that the indiscriminate felling of trees began about 10 years ago when settlers from other parts of the country came to Irele and environs to plead for land to farm.
“Within a few years, the farmers started cutting down trees, burying them in the earth and burning them. That was the beginning of the charcoal business,” said Mr. Medayedupin.
Along several roads leading into Irele and beyond, heaps of bagged charcoal can be seen on both sides of the road, waiting for buyers who come regularly in trucks and trailers, to cart them away in trucks and trailers. There, a bag of charcoal sells for N350.00.
Ogbe in Yagba West local government of Kogi State is another community facing a similar challenge.
Last week, during a visit by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) to Irele, Oke Ako and Ogbe, as part of the bid to document impacts of deforestation and educate community folks, Philip Jakpor of ERA/FoEN) described the logging activities in the communities as “frightful.”
“The decimation of the forest is simply shocking. We observed that most of the former forest areas have now become grassland,” said Mr. Jakpor, the Head of Media, during a town hall meeting after the trip.
“The most disturbing find is that the people have started noticing devastating changes in the environment but are ignorant on the fact that their own activities because of lack of proper education on sustainable forest practice are responsible for the changes,” Mr. Jakpor said.
Corroborating Mr. Jakpor’s views, Tosin Akinola, a researcher, noted that if nothing is done in the near future, the forests in the communities would become extinct.
“The baseline findings and observations reveal a total rape of their forests with grievous multiplier effects on the ecosystem,” said Mr. Akinola, who was part of the exercise.
The charcoal Merchants
The charcoal merchants said the community leaders and forest guards working for the state forestry department approve of their activities.
According to thetraders, the forest guards collect a yearly fee of N24,000 from them. In addition, they pay N350 monthly to the forest guards.
Paul Adu, a logger in Ogbe community, explained that the loggers do not “just jump on a virgin land and start cutting down trees.” He said that most of the land are owned by families that they pay rent to.
Mr. Adu, who hails from Benue State, also said that the over 200 loggers in Irele and other communities where they have settlements pay taxes and other revenues to government agents.
“For every truck that conveys 15 bags of coal, we pay them N350 which is the price of a bag. Each bag is 50kilogrammes.”
Mr. Adu further said that felling the trees was not their “original intention.”
“Our original intention when we set out to embark on large scale farming here in Irele was not to cut down the trees,” Mr. Adu said.
“The trees always fall on our crops and damage them after putting so much effort at cultivation so we believe the way out is to cut them.”
“Rather than see the trees waste away after cutting, we bury them and burn them to make charcoal,” he added.
Asked the financial benefits of the trade, he lamented that the charcoal business is not worth the energy he puts into it.
“You can feel the heat we have to bear working under the sun and the flames when harvesting the charcoal from the earth after burning,” said Mr. Adu.
“Imagine what it takes to cut down the tree, cut more trees around to cover it in the earth, dig and cover the heap with earth and the process of removing the sand after the charcoal is certified as ready in a week or two.
“In some cases, the buyers in the trucks you see along the road do not pay at once. Some even default in payment. You may not make more than N5, 000 for all this work.”
Adoki Raphael, another logger from Benue State, lamented about the dangers they contend with when harvesting the charcoal from the earth.
“Some of our people have been burnt badly in the legs when removing logs and other waste from the hot heaps of coal buried in the earth because sometimes they mistakenly slip into the coal where they stand to do it,” Mr. Raphael.
Esther Daniel (not real name), a mother of three, said that there are health hazards when the burning of the coal and harvesting commences.
She explained that the smoke makes the skin itch and causes chest pain during and after the burning.
Mrs. Daniel noted that the charcoal business is not worth the trouble and would be glad to quit doing it if there are ready alternatives.
‘No government protection’
However, the alternatives may not be forthcoming soon as the government has still not paid attention to the environmental impacts of deforestation.
“We learnt from the loggers that some officials of government collect levies from them to allow the indiscriminate cutting down of trees for charcoal,” said Mr. Medayedupin.
Mr. Medayedupin blamed the government for not doing anything to ensure that the loggers keep to sustainable limits of cutting of trees while paving the way for their farms.
“It is very evident that there is need for mass awareness and education in the communities so that they know it is their obligation to protect their forests. This kind of transaction must be stopped,” Mr. Medayedupin added.
For Rebecca Afolayan from Oke Ako, the reversal of the unhealthy trade in charcoal in the communities must be collective and commence without delay.
“We all knew when the forest was rich and sustained us,” said Mrs. Afolayan.
“We are now witnesses to the degradation and lack it has unleashed on us. If nothing is done to halt this trend, we will have to account to our children and grandchildren for sitting back to allow this to happen.”