As it were, the day already agreed to the prayers of farmers and the congregation of crops as our correspondent set out for Shasha Forest reserve, located in Ile-Ife on October 19.
Soon, a bolt of lightning tore across the sky and claps of thunder followed.
The rain that poured on that day soaked our correspondent and his motorcyclist’s clothes, just as an unnatural darkness enveloped the afternoon and unpaved paths were awash with mud. The journey to Shasha forest from popular Lagere bus-stop lasted for over three hours; the rain never stopped drizzling like a broken tap.
Shasha forest reserve is one of the Osun State government reserves located in Ile Ife. It covers about 310 square kilometres and has a history of a high rate of deforestation by illegal loggers, who are into illicit timber trade.
In April 2016, Rauf Aregbesola, while serving as governor of Osun State, lamented the illegal entry and deforestation on the forest. “It is regrettable that Shasha Forest Reserve in Ile-Ife, which is one of the oldest forest reserves in the country, is at the receiving end of unsavoury development,” he said, at the time.
A month after, the government issued a 21-day ultimatum to encroachers. The Chairman of the committee in charge of rescuing the reserve in Ile-Ife, Labo Popoola, disclosed that the action was to stop the illegal activities destroying the ecosystem.
Despite the government’s order, PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation reveals that many encroachers are still carrying out illicit timber trade in the forest. As this illegal felling of trees for the riches of some pockets continues, this would lead to climate change in combination with habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation.
After several hours of combing the thick forest, PREMIUM TIMES was able to locate several spots where illegal loggers have damaged. One could hear the sounds of chainsaws, left and right. While some persons were felling the trees, others were loading them in the various trucks meant to transport them to different sawmills where they would be cut into different sizes and then sold.
Many of the operators seen by our correspondent questioned his effrontery. The illegal loggers searched PREMIUM TIMES correspondent before they allowed him to inspect their activities.
One of them, who identified himself as Dele, said, “you can’t just enter here without being scrutinized or are you one of those sent by the government?” the shirtless young man said with a wrap of Indian hemp in his hand.
Before our correspondent could respond, the motorcyclist who transported him to the forest took charge. Since he was aware of PREMIUM TIMES visit to the government reserve, he quickly told the illegal loggers that he brought our correspondent for a research on timber business.
“No, he’s not (a) government representative but my brother. He came from Lagos to do some research on timber trade so that he can join the business,” Tajudeen Eluwole, the motorcyclist, intervened.
PREMIUM TIMES understands that the loggers were curious to know the identity of this correspondent because of their experience with security operatives sent by the state government earlier in August.
Explaining the reason for their suspicion, a lorry driver, named Friday, said some of them were apprehended by police in August while some escaped and since then, “we don’t take it lightly with any unknown face seen here because we can’t allow anyone to disturb us for trying to make a living.”
Despite efforts to convince them that our correspondent was not on a state assignment, only one person voluntarily spoke with our correspondent. The man, Saidu Alani, has been into the business as a driver.
“I’ve been a driver since 2010 where I help people transport trees from the forest to Ile-Ife and get paid per trip,” he said. “The business is dangerous because sometimes we often encounter security operatives, who arrest us.”
Asked why illegal loggers continue to carry out the activities against the will of the government, he said the quest for survival made him venture into the business. “I can only speak for myself. As expected, I do the work so that I can feed my family.”
“The job is not a type that gives peace of mind. I don’t have my own truck but I have different bosses who tell us where to go. I can tell you that we have eaten the whole reserve dry. You can hardly find any big and thick trees.
“Hundreds of individuals survive on trees that come out of this forest.” When our correspondent asked him to link us with major dealers whom he has a history of working with, he said “No, that cannot be possible.”
He also explained how he has been able to escape arrests on several occasions when security operatives visit the forest.
“It is usually a deadly battle between the illegal loggers and security guards anytime they make (an) effort to arrest. Look at the scars on my body (he pointed to his left arm); I sustained the injury during an encounter (with) forest guards. I often escape because I know all the escape routes in the forest based on the fact that I have worked here for many years,” he said.
“If you are not strong, with a bit of madness, don’t think about the business,” Mr Eluwole advised our correspondent. He did not explain how much loggers generate from the business but said a driver is paid as much as N5,000 per trip.
Near-death experience with illegal loggers
Some forest guards who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES also shared their horrible experience with loggers.
Joseph Ilori narrated how he was attacked in January on the forest for obstructing three lorries from transporting the trees they fell from the forest.
“I saw them late in the evening moving out with the trees they fell earlier and I asked them the reason why they will be stealing from a government reserve but before I realized, a motor boy alighted from the vehicle saying he was going to kill me if I don’t allow them to pass.”
“Before I could say the next statement, they already brought out their chainsaws with the aim that they were going to kill me. I was beaten mercilessly and survived with lots of injuries. From my experience with the guys falling trees (in the) forest, only military officials can stop them,” he explained.
Another forest guard told PREMIUM TIMES that he spent three weeks in the hospital after he was attacked. He also disclosed that he could not use his eye for nearly nine days.
“My encounter with illegal loggers happened last year while coming out of the forest. Myself and a colleague saw them packing timber and we brought out our identity card as security guards. While we were still interrogating them, some already started running.”
“If I knew they had weapons, I wouldn’t have gone after them. They attacked us, severely injured me and ran away after the attack. Despite the pains I passed through, I am glad that I did not eventually die.”
Aside from physical attacks, the forest guards told our correspondent that some of the loggers are diabolical and many a time use bees to attack the guards. This claim was not denied when PREMIUM TIMES asked Mr Eluwole who has been into the logging business for a couple of years.
In fact, our correspondent had a close shave with the brutality of one of the illegal loggers.
At another axis of the forest, an operator threatened to lynch our correspondent with a chainsaw. He told his colleagues that our correspondent presence in the forest was a threat to their activities.
He said, in Yoruba language, that his instincts told him that this reporter is working undercover and that they “should not allow him return home with (his) complete body.” Meanwhile, other loggers pleaded with him not to attack this correspondent.
“Just try to be calm. Only him cannot conquer about six of us here. Let’s hear him out and know the reason why he came to the forest,” one of those who pleaded on behalf of this PREMIUM TIMES reporter said in Yoruba. Again, our correspondent’s motorcyclist intervened.
Timber contractors’ association defends members
When confronted with our findings, the Chairman of Ife Zonal Timber Contractors and Sawmillers Association, Lekan Olaobaju, defended the illegal activities of his members.
While he did not explicitly mention whether they have government’s approval, he disclosed that timber contractors often plant trees after their operations.
Mr Olaobaju said truly, the government asked people to leave the forest, but his association and members see no reason why the order should affect timber contractors because they often pay to the state government.
“We are stakeholders and the government is aware of our activities in the forest. We have a good relationship with the state government. On an average, 300 vehicles filled with timber move out of the forest weekly,” he said. “It is, however untrue that we’ve deserted the forest, we often replace trees in the forest by planting new ones.”
When PREMIUM TIMES asked why his members attack guards who try to stop them from carrying out their illegal activities, he said, “we don’t do that,” a statement contrary to what our correspondent found out in the forest.
What we are doing – govt
In pursuant to Section 20 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the state is empowered to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air and land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria.
Any operator without a license is deemed to be carrying out illegal activities. Such a person may be arrested and tried in any Federal High Court.
On June 5, while celebrating World Environment Day, in Osogbo, Governor Gboyega Oyetola enjoined the residents of the state to stop the act capable of undermining environmental sustainability such as deforestation and illegal mining among others.
The governor also said his government is committed to tree planting, in order to reverse the situation. He made the warning at the tree planting programme organised to commemorate the state government.
“We are prepared to invoke the full weight of the law on anyone caught engaging in illegal land clearing for farming, uncontrolled logging, gathering of firewood and deforestation,” he said, at the time.
In the same vein, the state Commissioner for Environment and Sanitation, Sola Oladepo, explained that a nonchalant attitude towards biodiversity conservation in the past had culminated in massive degradation of forest reserves in the state.
When contacted with our findings at Shasha Forest, the commissioner explained the efforts of the government in saving the forest and the state’s relationship with loggers.
“We have a good relationship with registered timber contractors in Ile Ife but they have some bad wagons among them who go to the forest to fall trees without government knowledge and these set of people are those we have issues with”’
“Shasha forest has been there since the days of our forefathers and the major aim of the forest is to plant trees, nurture the trees and ensure that they are mature for economic usage. Ordinarily, the forest should be a place where income is generated and some of the timber contractors are doing so by paying.
“Despite the security guards in the forest, there are still some timber contractors falling trees recklessly without the knowledge of the government nor do they plant new ones. These are some of the problems we face.”
In efforts to curb the criminality, Mr Oladepo said the government will take all steps within the ambit of the law to save Shasha forest from those felling several economic trees.
Effects of deforestation on climate change
Forests store large amounts of carbon as they grow for battle against climate change and emissions. Experts explained that forests purify the air, preserve watersheds, stabilise soil and prevent erosion. More so, forests help to protect the planet from climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas.
Deforestation has negative implications on the environment in terms of soil erosion, loss of biodiversity ecosystems, loss of wildlife and increased desertification among many others, experts told PREMIUM TIMES.
Last year, the National Coordinator, Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP), Salisu Dahiru, said that Nigeria has the highest deforestation rate in the world according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Also, the Director-General of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, Mutari Aminu-Kano, while speaking at 17th Chief S.L Edu Memorial Lecture with the theme, ‘A quiet revolution – Faith and the environment’, in Lagos said Nigeria is losing about 400,000 hectares of its land to deforestation annually.
Speaking with our correspondent, Emmanuel Omisore, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the Obafemi Awolowo University said the activities of the illegal loggers may lead to erosion prevention, flood and water pollution.
“Deforestation can have a broader impact, affecting global climate and biodiversity such as animals are forced to forage outside their traditional forest range and move into areas populated by humans.
“The risks from deforestation are huge. Forest loss and damage is the cause of around 10% of global warming. There’s simply no way we can fight the climate crisis if we don’t stop deforestation,” he said.
Another expert, Ife Adewumi, a professor of Water Resources and Environmental Engineering at Niger Delta University, told PREMIUM TIMES that humans are responsible for climate change due to activities like logging.
“The more the activities continue, the more the community loses animal and plant species due to their loss of habitat. Forests absorb carbon dioxide but deforested areas lose that ability and release more carbon.”
He also said there is less water in the air to be returned to the soil in deforested areas, hence, it will lead to having dryer soil and the inability to grow crops.
Speaking on the way forward, Mr Adewumi said the state government must start sensitisation among the Timber contractors on the danger attached to illegal felling of trees for personal gain.
“The government must show willingness and also capacity that it can save the state from climate change by basically sensitising people on the danger of illegal logging and also work with the Timber contractors to find out the bad ones among them. In addition, security operatives should be strengthened to combat the irregularities in the forest.
“Support for this report was provided by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ)’ through funding support from Ford Foundation.”
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