BUNCHO, CROSS RIVER: It has been almost 10 years since Buncho community experienced a landslide that destroyed several farming infrastructures. But this is just one of the community's three environmental crises in the last decade.
Buncho, located in the eastern part of Boki Local Government Area of Cross River State, is surrounded by rainforest, hills and mountains. This ecosystem used to give villagers access to abundant natural crops and vegetables, flowing water springs for drinking and soft timber woods for infrastructural constructions. But human engagement in the forest has continued to reduce these benefits drastically.
Aside from the landslide in July 2012, the community also faces consistent illegal logging of timber woods from the forest and wildfire disasters, escalating from bush burning and hunting. The impact of these crises has changed the atmospheric condition of the community and farming-harvest culture.
Ofery Ekang, a farmer in the community, considers farming a lucrative business for community members due to its closeness to the forest. However, according to her, the devastating effect of these environmental crises had contaminated the water channel, reduced crop yield and exposed the atmosphere to harsh weather - excessive rainfall and erosion.
"We are blessed by the forest, but the logging and uncontrolled fire outbreaks have affected our output as farmers. Illegal logging is mostly done by people who do not live in the village, but the fires sometimes start by mistake when we farmers burn our bushes," she said.
Buncho is just one of 16 Afi communities – communities surrounding Afi Rainforest, Mountain and Wildlife – in the state faced with the impact of environmental crises caused by illegal operations in the forest.
Forest degradation in Nigeria
According to Global Forest Watch, Nigeria's forest lost 153 kilo hectares (kha) of humid primary forest from 2002 to 2021, making up 14% of its total tree cover loss in the same period. In Cross River, United Nations data show that between 2000 and 2007, forest loss was about 39,000 hectares. But between 2007 and 2014, the state's forest cover declined by 107,000 hectares.
To lessen this effect, an independent organisation, Biakwan Light Green Initiative, introduced an initiative involving selected community youths taking proactive measures in managing the forest and restoring the losses incurred by environmental crises.
Biakwan Light is a member of an anti-deforestation coalition in Cross River working to end illegal logging, effect forest policies in local communities and enhance awareness of climate change in these communities.
Formed in 2000, the nonprofit had the primary focus of working with forest-dependent communities to enlighten them about the importance of the forest and its natural resources within them.
After securing international funding from Jeff Small Grant in 2016, it launched Climate Smart Agriculture, the initiative to restore the depleting forest in some affected Afi communities.
The project was slated to run throughout 2016, while subsequent engagement and monitoring were done in succeeding years. The initiative started by sensitising residents, majorly farmers, on the importance of preserving the ecosystem. For the first quarter of the year, residents were taught how to make the forest beneficial to the community, biodiversity and ecosystem.
Coming four years after the landslide, Ekang said these sensitisation programs educated community residents on the importance of conservation and forest restoration plans.
After the sensitisation, the Biakwan Light team planted 10,000 nursery seedlings in areas destroyed by erosion for forest regeneration as part of the initiative. It also demarcated a portion of land to plant medicinal trees in the community.
To effectively monitor the regeneration process, Biakwan Light selected 50 residents, comprising 30 women and 20 men, and trained them for weeks on nursery tree management. These selected residents became advocates for the organisation, spreading the message of regeneration and forest management to other community members.
Six years later, Peter Orubette, the nonprofit's executive director and team lead, said residents have expanded the initiative to planting diverse crops in other degraded areas. He said before the programme, residents were only used to growing cocoyam, but now they plant bush mango, afara, and ebony alongside the nursery plants.
"This is very successful because, now, they are doing what we call action competence. So if everyone can plant ten trees yearly, it can, in years, restore the environment and, in turn, increase the biodiversity species around the environment", Orubette told Prime Progress.
Poor government effort
In 2008, the state government banned illegal logging of woods and other forest-related engagements. This development led to the adoption of the United Nations Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation or REDD+ program - a climate change mitigation framework with financing guidance - in the state.
But the chairman of the Cross River State Forestry Commission, Tony Ndiandeye, said criminals and funding challenges compromised the program.
On the part of Biakwan Light, it was challenging to execute the initiative because while the government did not only fail in its responsibility provided by the state's forestry law, it also lacked the willpower to enforce directives.
"We had to adopt a system for the communities to go back to their [community] legal system; that is, making local laws that would [help them] guard the forest for themselves because they are the immediate beneficiaries of the forest", Orubette said.
In 2021, the NGO secured another funding to establish a local legal framework in some communities that outlines a land-use plan on forest engagements and management with sanctions in place for defaulters.
"For the community land-use plan to be effective, we developed an aggressive indigenous community by-law. [It] would be used as a tool to foster unity within the community and allow them to manage their resources in a way that everyone would have equal access to land and the development of the community," Orubette said. "This development and access to farming do not undermine the community's environmental condition."
While the project targeted all communities within the Afi region, Orubette mentioned that the initiative only got to four out of 16 communities in the area, with two communities (Buncho and Olum) initialling the legal framework into the community by-laws.
He explained that running the project across all communities requires human and material resources, financing, shelter provisions and personal sacrifice from trainers to stay for months in the communities.
On the part of these communities, he lamented that most of them lacked proper landscape management skills and access to basic amenities and alternative livelihood options aside from farming, making illegal forest use tempting.
"The government can provide alternative livelihood options that would be accepted by them [communities]. [For example, it can] establish poultry, rabbit, and piggery farms for them...and rescue their attention from the forest. This type of farming does not put much pressure on the forest," Orubette suggested.
Meanwhile, Biakwan Light now runs a weekly - on Thursdays - radio program on the state's broadcasting network to discuss forest management, serving as a reminder in these communities. And Orubette believes that if the government shows willpower, it would strengthen the local legal system and create a viable enforcement strategy.
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.