Indigenes of Kaani, Sogho and Ueken communities in Khana and Tai Local Government Areas on Wednesday protested the alleged forceful acquisition of about 2,000 hectares of their farmlands by the Rivers state government.
The 2000 hectares of farmland was supposedly bullied away from the communities for a commercial banana plantation project without due consultation or compensation. The project would be executed in collaboration with a Mexican firm, _Union De Iniciativa S.A De C.V._
Representatives of the communities told journalists in Port Harcourt that the acquisition of the land by the state Ministry of Agriculture would deprive most family land owners in Nyokhana, Tai and Babbe Kingdoms of their assets.
A spokesman of a Port Harcourt-based rights group, Social Action (SA) – Celestine AkpoBari, said the acquisition is against a pending court
action- No.FHC/PH/CS/556/2011, restraining the government from using armed soldiers to forcefully take over their land. using armed soldiers, who recently visited the area to carry out surveys of the area marked out for the proposed project.
According to Mr. AkpoBari, widespread opposition to the controversial acquisition is coming from Zor Sogho, Luusue Sogho, Barakaani Sogho, Akporo Sogho, Teka Sogho, Okwale, Ueken, Korokoro, and Kaani communities; they condemn the alleged deliberate exclusive consultations with some traditional rulers, without taking their interest into consideration.
It was gathered that the state Commissioner for Agriculture, Emmanuel Chinda, had met with some traditional chiefs, who agreed within 24 hours of the receipt of a letter from the ministry, to transfer the land without consulting other members of the affected communities.
“The surveyed area is entirely farmlands in productive use for community subsistence, rather than primary forest,” the spokesman said. “These farmlands are held by individual families in plots with commonly recognized boundaries, which have passed through inheritance for generations. The traditional chiefs have no authority to allocate or consent to its sale without consultation and ratification from the owners and make use of this land.”
Mr. AkpoBari accused the state government of the land grab as “a punishment on the Ogoni communities for refusing to allow further oil exploration in their land. Mr. AkpoBari said the people had earlier resisted a plan by the Federal Government to acquire a large portion of Ogoniland for a military base, on grounds that too many of their lands have already been taken over for several purposes.
He said most affected families learnt about the acquisition when trucks of military men accompanied the Joint Task Force to survey and mark the land, adding that those who dared to protest were either physically abused or threatened.
“Many farmers were forced to sit on the ground with their hands raised in the air and to stare at the sun for many hours while the military completed the survey, which resulted in severe sickness by the people for several days after,” Mr. AkpoBari said. He said that others were threatened with guns.
The civil society group leader stated that the “Internationally recognized best practice in land resettlement schemes require that when government expropriates lands from communities for overriding public purpose, it must first offer those who have lost lands, an alternative and suitably situated land, acceptable to them and on which they can continue their farming,”
“It also requires that adequate compensation be paid to affected landowners and farmers for crops and other improvements on the land, taking care to compute the life span of perennial crops and the aggregate income landowners and farmers would have earned during the lifespan of such crop,” he added.
Mr. AkpoBari urged the state government to urgently cease the ongoing survey, destruction and seizure of privately-owned farmlands. He called for immediate consultations to be opened with the affected communities, while further action on the project should be stopped until the case pending against the state government, Ministry for Agriculture and traditional rulers has been determined.
On the other hand, the state Commissioner for Agriculture, Emmanuel Chinda, who spoke on phone with _Premium Times_ from Port Harcourt, said there is nothing illegal about what the state government is doing. He said that all the conditions required by law for the development of the state for the benefit of the people have been satisfied.
“Rivers State government acquired land for public good and it is paying compensation as the law requires,” Mr. Chinda said. “The state’s Land Use Act places ownership of land on the government. This requires that if government is acquiring land, it should pay compensation for economic trees and other things”.
“The government acquires the land for a project that would benefit the people. The project is a Rivers State government project. The Chiefs and Paramount Rulers are in support of government. They want development for their people. Any other people alleging anything otherwise are not from the communities.”