IWUOCHANG, Nigeria — It was morning in mid-March and the wooden canoe skimmed silently across the Ibeno River in the southern Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom. A young boy and an elderly man paddled with measured rhythm towards the shore of Iwuochang, where passengers disembarked beside a group of chatting fishers and a pile of chopped logs. Residents told Mongabay these logs are destined to be fuel for cooking ovens, and were harvested in nearby Stubbs Creek Forest Reserve.
Stubbs Creek Forest Reserve (SCFR) is rich in natural resources, including numerous economically valuable tree species such as African mahogany (Khaya ivorensis), African satinwood (Zanthoxylum gilletii), afara (Terminalia superba) and African walnut (Coula edulis). These trees also provide vital habitat for many primate species, including the endangered Sclater’s guenon (Cercopithecus sclateri), mona monkey (C. mona), putty-nose monkey (C. nictitans) and the endangered red-capped mangabey (Cercocebus torquatus). Chimpanzees, lions and forest elephants reportedly inhabited the reserve half a century ago.
To protect this richness, the area surrounding Stubbs Creek was officially gazetted as a forest reserve in 1930 through British colonial ordinance — but its resources also made it a favorite spot for farmers, fishers, firewood fetchers, hunters and loggers. Because of these activities, the amount of forest cover in SCFR had dropped to 27% in 2019, according to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Research and Scientific Innovation.
Satellite data visualized on Global Forest Watch show SCFR’s remaining tracts of primary forest are relegated to the middle of the reserve. But while the data indicate these forests have enjoyed relatively little deforestation over the past two decades, tree cover loss more than quadrupled between 2020 and 2021, and satellite imagery shows large patches of telltale brown spreading ever-deeper into old growth habitat in 2022. Data from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) show most recent clearings in SCFR are associated with fire.
A new threat
More recently, SCFR has started facing a new source of pressure: fossil fuel production. In early 2021, BUA International Limited, one of the largest mining, manufacturing, milling and food processing firms in Africa, announced that it had begun the development of an oil refinery in the reserve. Area residents say the construction of this new refinery has exacerbated deforestation in SCFR.
The refinery, slated to be fully functional by 2025, is expected to produce 200,000 barrels per day of Euro-V standard motor vehicle fuel and polypropylene. The state government considers the refinery a backbone of future economic development, touting the jobs that will be create and the expansion of roads, according to local media reports. More broadly, the project is expected to reduce Nigeria’s dependence on imported fuels and petrochemicals.
Despite being one of the largest producers of crude oil worldwide, Nigeria does not refine its fossil fuel at home. Regulators and local authorities say that by establishing refineries at SCFR and elsewhere in the country, Nigeria will be able to reverse this trend and become a net exporter of gasoline and other petroleum products in the near future. The Dangote Refinery, currently under construction in Lagos, is set to become Africa’s largest.
But what has given hope to Nigeria’s economists is worrying conservationists. While Mongabay was unable to ascertain where exactly the refinery will be sited, sources say BUA has begun large-scale forest clearing in SCFR to accommodate seismic surveys, map oil wells, construct buildings and develop other infrastructure. Additional clearing will be necessary in the future to create access roads and industrial houses, according to Esiere Obot, a forest officer with the Akwa Ibom Directorate of Forestry and Environmental Conservation.
Obot says he is worried about the future of SCFR in the face of refinery development. And he isn’t alone. Daniel Afia, a village head of the oil-producing Iwuochang community, said he has spent much of his adult life fighting pollution from Nigerian National Petroleum Company and Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited.
“We were rich in those days of fishing. Now, because of oil spillages, there are no more fishes in the rivers,” Afia told Mongabay. “Soil fertility has also been destroyed … Initially we used to have periwinkles in the swamps, but it’s no more due to oil spillage.” He said the community’s many petitions to the government over ruined farmland, damaged rivers and destroyed mangrove forests were ignored.
The failure of these letters triggered a legal battle between the oil companies and the oil producing communities of Ibeno. In June 2021, the Federal High Court in Nigeria’s capital city awarded $197,819 (N82 billion) in damages against Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.
Although the BUA refinery is not yet operational, the project is already embroiled in conflict. Reports of skirmishes, threats and arguments between Local Government Areas (LGAs) such as Ibeno and nearby Esit Eket over ownership of the portion of the reserve where the refinery is sited are rife in local media. Ownership plays a role in entitlement distribution, including profits earned through the lease of land and job allocation.
Friday Edowo, chief of the Oniok Edor community in Akwa Ibom on the Esit Eket side of the divide, said he was attacked by armed groups from Ibeno at his residence in SCFR in January 2022.
“They set my house ablaze. My tools and properties were totally charred by the fire. My phone, my clothes and cooking utensils were burnt,” Edowo told Mongabay. “They told us that the forest belongs to them.”
Inter-LGA land disputes in southeastern Nigeria is nothing new; communal wars over LGA borders have waged for decades. Litigation, negotiation and boundary retracing have not been able to create a lasting peace. The conflict’s most infamous period was the crisis of 1992 – 1993 when dozens of people were killed. The conflict ended only after the government imposed military intervention.
“So many lives were lost to that war on both sides,” Edowo said.
As tensions boil in and around SCFR, Edowo worries a similar crisis may be on the horizon. He said that the government has the ability to restore peace, but he questions their commitment to communities in Ibeno and Esit Eket.
Stubbs Creek Forest Reserve has long languished due to ineffective protection — but not for lack of trying. Research in the 1990s found that while much of SCFR had been converted to agricultural land, 80 square kilometers (31 square miles) — some 30% of the reserve — still exhibited conservation potential. Primatologists, noting the reserve’s importance for the endangered Sclater’s guenon, advised upgrading its protected status.
Shortly afterwards, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) began leading efforts to establish a tangible conservation project in SCFR, aided by funds from ExxonMobil Corporation Nigeria, whose oil installations occupy the southwestern corner of the reserve, and in collaboration with the Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection Agency (now defunct) and the NGO Centre for Education, Research & Conservation of Primates and Nature.
“There were a lot of efforts/works in those days … A lot of sensitization [awareness-building and education] was done, tree planting and conducting socio-economic surveys,” said Emmanuel Owan, who heads NCF at its nearby Cross River state office. “The big issue we faced was funding … Stubbs is a place of great interest to us and we are seeking funding to do much more conservation work.”
When a Mongabay reporter visited SCFR in March 2022, no protection measures of any sort could be seen. Loggers, farmers and firewood cutters appeared to have unlimited access to the forest; hunters killed antelope (genus Tragelaphus), bush pig (Potamochoerus porcus), crested porcupine ((Hystrix cristata), greater cane rates (Thryonomys swinderianus), crocodiles and turtles with guns, wire snares and other traps.
“Without money, there is so little the forestry directorate can do at the moment,” Obot told Mongabay. “The idea of what needs to be done is clear to us. But there [are] no funds to implement it. I don’t think we have [even] five forest guards for the entire Stubbs Creek. The state has no single vehicle to make patrols or conduct its daily operations.”
The fate of SCFR is not yet sealed but the future looks bleak, according to Obot. He said the forestry agency, which manages the reserve and the others in the state, is under-funded and short-staffed, and lacks independence from political influences. He added that the ongoing degradation of the reserve demonstrates that the government’s ambitions for the forestry sector are oriented more towards profit than protection.
Obot warned that with the addition of the new refinery, the reserve’s bleak outlook may be realized within just a few years.
“With the oil refinery, a greater part of the reserve will be destroyed totally,” Obot said. “There is no way plants and animals and other biodiversity can survive. This is a huge disaster for the forest.”
Mongabay contacted BUA International Limited, the Nigeria office of ExxonMobil and the Akwa Ibom Ministry of Information and Strategy, but received no response by press time.
This article by Orji Sunday was first published by Mongabay.com on 20 September 2022. Lead Image: A mona monkey (Cercopithecus mona), one of the many species that inhabit Stubbs Creek Forest Reserve. Image by AlexisENVN via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
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