ORE, Nigeria — More than two decades ago, fate took Tajudeen Babalola to his lifelong ambition. The 52-year-old longed for a more serene life that offered hope for survival away from the fake fancies of Lagos, Africa’s second-largest city and Nigeria’s commercial nerve center.
One evening, after an exhausting shift of commercial driving, he received an invitation to join an old friend, a hunter-turned-farmer, at Oluwa Forest Reserve about 70 kilometers (113 miles) east of Lagos in the state of Ondo. He recalls instantly falling in love with the “bush life” that offered “dirty money.” Oluwa was an oasis of forest, with many animal neighbors and a nightly chorus of insects.
Babalola said it was easy to set up residence when he arrived at Temidiri farming camp in the eastern portion of the reserve. “It didn’t require any written agreements. It was just a verbal conversation between me and the earlier settlers,” Babalola told Monagabay.
Babalola isn’t alone in his experience. Thousands of farmers have moved into Oluwa through referrals from friends and family, settling in dozens of informal farming camps.
“[The earlier settlers] gave me a piece of land to cultivate … and I pay rent to them. There were not the ancestral owners of the land. These were just hunters who settled here,” he said. The reserve’s fertile soil and climate, with abundant rain and moderate temperatures, make it particularly suitable for agriculture.
In addition to farming, settlers also take advantage of abundant fish stocks in the reserve’s numerous streams, tributaries and rivers such as Oluwa, Owena, Oni and Ominla.
Each camp has a small governing structure to resolve disputes, and residents live in small, uniform houses with ant hill-colored mud walls roofed with raffia palm and zinc. There is a pub for merriment and meetings at the center of each camp, where arising matters pass through debates and deliberations.
But while farmers have found favor in Oluwa, conservationists warn it has come at the expense of the reserve’s forests and the diverse animal and plant species that depend on them to survive. They warn that Oluwa is losing, rapidly, the capacity to support its biodiversity, mostly as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture and logging.
According to satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch, Oluwa Forest Reserve lost some 14% of its primary forest cover between 2002 and 2020, and preliminary data show forest loss likely surged higher in 2021. In October, a Mongabay reporter observed numerous recent clearings cut into the forest to make room for new farms.
Oluwa’s ecosystems supports diverse wildlife, including red-capped mangabeys (Cercocebus torquatus), Nigerian white-throated guenons (Cercopithecus erythrogaster pococki), white-bellied pangolins (Phataginus tricuspis), yellow-casqued hornbills (Ceratogymna elata) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Numerous tree species thrive in the reserve, the most common being Elicia excelsa, Antiaris africana, Afzelia bipindensis and Terminalia superba.
Poaching also poses a big threat to Oluwa’s wildlife. Although livestock breeding continues to gain traction in many parts of Nigeria, including in Oluwa, the desire for bushmeat remains strong. In a number of farming camps at Oluwa, settlers breed native fowl, as well as geese, goats and ducks.
But many said they still favor bushmeat and routinely hunt and trap animals. Settlers reported killing many kinds of monkeys, as well as pangolins, greater cane rats (Thryonomys swinderianus, commonly referred to as “grasscutters” in Nigeria), antelope and porcupines. They said they consider bushmeat valuable in traditional medicine, and cheaper and tastier than domestic livestock.
Amnesty for farmers
The settling of Oluwa is technically illegal, but sources told Mongabay that authorities have largely looked the other way. Multiple sources, including a forestry officer, told Mongabay the farming presence in the reserve is large, widespread and united, and that the government is concerned that attempts to forcefully evict them at this point could result in rebellion.
Moreover, Oluwa is a delicate “political currency,” sources said, one capable of swinging votes during elections. Politicians, mindful of losing voters’ support, have taken a soft stand against eviction.
In an attempt to balance conservation and politics, the Ondo state government passed a policy in 2017 that allowed previously established farms to remain in Oluwa while restricting the planting of new fields and clearing for new farm sites. A task force was assembled to enforce compliance by imposing penalties ranging from fines to eviction and destruction of new farms.
However, the policy is largely seen as a failure in Oluwa. Compliance was tied to the strong presence of uncompromised and sustained law enforcement, something that could not be achieved in Oluwa due to inadequate funding, according to Obabu Mushood, the director of forest management at the Ondo State Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Moshood said that without enough funding, authorities lack the proper mobility, training and technology needed to protect the reserve. He added that without autonomy, forest agencies function at the whim of whatever government is in power.
“Funding is a major issue here because the government is keen on investing where it will quickly recoup and forestry is not that area where you put money and you expect return in four years,” Moshood told Mongabay. “So most governments don’t want to take the risk of putting their resources in a place where the gestation period to have a return is going to be about 15 to 20 years.”
Oluwa isn’t alone. Just 11% of Nigeria still had natural forest cover as of 2000, and since then the country has lost more than 7% of its remaining primary forest, according to data from the University of Maryland. Some of the highest rates of deforestation are taking place in forest reserves.
“This thing [deforestation] should be a national issue, there should be an emergency declared on the forest,” Moshood said. “Some of our forests right now are 100% encroached upon. There is nothing we can do right now.”
Oluwa’s large size and generally rugged terrain creates additional barriers for the government’s small law enforcement agency, which has to spread its limited capacity over more than a dozen protected areas in the state. This leaves large portions of Oluwa essentially unprotected.
Farmers are allowed to retain their stakes in Oluwa in return for annual rent paid to the state government. However, sources say that as with policy banning farm expansion, this too has been partially paralyzed by weak enforcement.
Numerous settlers, including those interviewed by Mongabay, consider their occupation illicit and temporary. In one instance, some even fled their farms into the bush as a vehicle carrying a reporting team entered the area. Others pleaded for mercy, assuming the team had come to evict and arrest illegal settlers.
Babatola told Mongabay that many years ago, state government representatives told farmers to vacate Oluwa, that a new dawn focused on conservation was around the corner. He said that this announcement prompted the settlers to convene emergency meetings in which they raised funds to bribe government officials to thwart the eviction agenda. He said similar threats made in recent years were also fruitless.
In addition to deforestation by smallholder farmers, industrial agriculture has become an increasingly major presence in the reserve, and satellite data show the bulk of deforestation in 2021 was concentrated in plantation areas.
Portions of Oluwa have been granted as concessions to agroindustry firms with “strong track records” according to Moshood. One of Oluwa’s biggest concession holders is Bambi Farms Ltd, a private firm headquartered in Okeigbo, Ondo state, Nigeria, which was granted a concession of 5,000 hectares of land within Oluwa.
Bambi Farms Ltd, through its website, claims to have started cultivating oil palm in the reserve in 2018 under an outgrower scheme that enlists 450 small farmers to grow crops in partnership with the company. Mongabay did not receive a response to a message sent to the company’s purported Facebook account asking for more details about its plans in Oluwa.
Bambi Farms Ltd. may not be the only company setting their sights on Oluwa. A Mongabay reporting team observed markers labeled with the names of several entities that appear to be staking claims to land in the reserve, including “Fayok Glorious Nigeria Enterprise” and “West Africa Forest Plantations Ltd.” While no websites could be found for any of these entities, a Facebook profile listed under the same name states Glorious Nigeria Enterprise is a building materials company.
A LinkedIn profile purportedly of West Africa Forest Plantations Ltd. CEO Ayo Ighodaro describes the company as “the largest sustainable forestry and value-added timber products company in Nigeria, poised for dramatic growth over the next few years.” Responses were not forthcoming to messages sent to West African Forest Plantations Ltd and Glorious Nigeria Enterprise via their respective Facebook accounts.
Chimpanzees on the brink
While plantation expansion may benefit Nigeria’s economy, conservationists warn it is harming the country’s imperiled wildlife – such as the endangered Nigeria–Cameroon chimpanzee (P. troglodytes ellioti).
“The level of deforestation in Oluwa Forest Reserve now is unsustainable,” said Adedayo Mehmud, the coordinator of Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) operations in southwest Nigeria. “Some of these areas are reserved only on paper.”
Not much is known about the current population size and status of chimpanzees in Oluwa. Farmers, hunters and other longtime community residents near Oluwa told Mongabay they occasionally saw chimpanzees in the area three decades ago. They also said they saw hunters kill them.
Results of surveys conducted in southwestern Nigeria by researcher and biodiversity specialist Elizabeth Greengrass published in the journal Primate Conservation in 2009, found that chimpanzees were likely still present in the more intact portions of the reserve. However, the study’s findings suggest chimpanzee population size and distribution in the region had “sharply declined” since the turn of the century.
“My results suggest that chimpanzees in southwest Nigeria are now on the brink of extinction,” Greengrass concluded in her study. “Unless effective action is taken, they will be extinct within the next few years in most of the sites where they were found to remain during this survey.”
Slightly more recently, a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Development and Sustainability showed that chimpanzees were restricted to a small, central portion of the reserve about 39.22 sq km (15.14 sq mi) in size, or a little over 5% of the reserve’s area.
The study, conducted by professors Babafemi Ogunjemite and Olaniyi Oluwatobi at Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology Akure, found that chimpanzees were most active in only about 10 sq km (around 4 sq mi) of their range in the reserve, mostly focused along the banks of the Oluwa River.
According to Ogunjemite, chimpanzees are still likely living in Oluwa – but are barely surviving and under severe duress from habitat loss and poaching. He said that primates have been somewhat sheltered from persecution by the steep topography in this part of the reserve, which makes access difficult for settlers and developers. But he cautioned that even these places are now being targeted for exploitation.
“Those are the places where those animals were residing there,” Ogunjimite told Mongabay. “But some of those places we call inaccessible, are [now] accessible. I mean people are already planting in those areas today. It is not just enacting law, enacting law does not solve the problem. The truth is that the forest is badly damaged; degraded.”
Ogunjimite said unregulated forest clearing continues to fragment their habitat. Deforestation, together with poaching, is reducing chimpanzee numbers in the reserve to a point at which unrelated individuals may not be able to find each other to reproduce, which poses a threat to the genetic integrity of the entire population.
“The problem is that they are being persecuted,” Ogunjimite said. “And of course, the more fragmented, the more the population will be reduced and the more the genetic materials will be restricted. ”
Going out of business
Oluwa’s forests aren’t just being cleared to make way for agriculture. Its trees are also targeted for Nigeria’s lucrative timber industry. Trees logged in the reserve feed a long supply chain that includes markets in the nearby city of Lagos to beyond the country’s borders.
The logging industry in Oluwa has provided many jobs and generated huge profits, according to Olatunbosun Olajino, a timber contractor based in the city of Akure who logs alongside dozens of others in the reserve. But Olajino said that as Oluwa’s forests have disappeared, so has the timber revenue.
Olajino, who has been in the logging trade for nearly two decades, told Mongabay that Oluwa’s forests are now too depleted to support the usual contingent of timber dealers. Olajino said it’s gotten to a point at which his colleagues are beginning to quit the trade, and he expects to soon follow suit. He said he already sold three of his chainsaws and two log transport trucks earlier this year.
“It is annoying,” Olajino said. “I am leaving this business soon. The business is over and … people are quitting.”
During a trip to Oluwa, a Mongabay reporting team observed several inactive sawmills and parked and empty log trucks. Small groups of loggers chatted and played card games as they waited for work.
Logger Temisan Daniel said accelerated deforestation in Oluwa and other forest reserves in the region was facilitated by the large-scale adoption of chainsaws the early 2000s, as well as the proliferation of “logging rackets” that in effect steal timber from reserves by harvesting outside concession boundaries or fabricating logging permits – sometimes in collusion with corrupt forestry officials.
“Loggers don’t just start falling timbers in the reserve,” Daniel told Mongabay. “There is a government process that has to be in place first, like securing the permits.”
Despite Oluwa’s rapid deforestation, NCF’s Mehmud remains a believer in the reserve’s preservation and restoration potential. He said that if it is managed with urgency, Oluwa’s remaining forest can support, and in turn be supported by, conservation and ecotourism projects. To buttress this hope, he pointed to NCF’s camera trap survey that captured evidence of chimpanzees in adjoining Omo Forest Reserve in 2017.
Mehmud said that NCF is working on a conservation initiative to more effectively manage Oluwa jointly with Omo and adjacent Shasha Forest Reserve in the hopes of saving enough habitat to ensure a future for the region’s remaining wildlife.
This article by Orji Sunday was first published by Mongabay.com on 31 December 2021.. Lead Image: A chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) by Dkoukoul via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
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