By Bamidele Oni
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing – Edmund Burke
This piece is not just about identifying with the plight of a particular set of people and not just to prove a case of injustice but to make us reason objectively together as humanity whose survival is uncertain without the norms that support life on this terrestrial sphere.
About Ekuri People
For thousands of years, people have continuously lived in the lowland forest region of the Cross-River rainforest and are dependent on the forest for their sustenance and livelihood. The forest is often exploited for its abundant timber and non-timber resources. Right there in the forest are a number of forest-dependent communities among which is Ekuri Forest community.
Ekuri forest area covers a total area of 33,600 ha and its location is near the Cross River National Park. The Ekuri ethnic group is known as the Nkukole people and the local language is lokori. The Primary occupations of most people in the community are farming, trading in non-timber forest products, hunting and fishing. Ekuri is however subdivided into two communities namely, the new Ekuri and old Ekuri and they are just some 7 km apart and with a population of 6,000 people.
Ekuri Forest Community is the most prominent example of community forest outlook in Nigeria. They are a minority tribe in Nigeria. The exemplary outlook of the well managed Ekuri forest by the locals brought a lot of attention in terms of interested stakeholders such as the government, local and international NGOs. Each of these stakeholders has their relative scale of influence and sources of power and through their involvement, the Ekuri Forest community metamorphosed into a modern and broadly managed initiative.
Ekuri Community Leadership
According to age long customary laws, which differs in content from one local region to the other, the village head or chief has the power to make decisions with the support of local chiefs who are often representatives of different groups within the community and there is also the class of family representative as each family is entitled to an estate of land. The right of ownership by the people is always recognized by inheritance laws and local history.
Management of Forest Resources
Their forest is managed as a common property which nobody owns in the actual sense. Exploitation of the forest is carried out within a stipulated customary rule and guidelines which must not be broken. There is also the practice of collective harvesting of non-timber forest products such as edible leaves, snails and bush mangoes.
This is done in accordance with schedules framed for each of the non-timber products harvested and the specified period that harvesting can be carried out. Every participant in the collection and sales of these products would have to register under the community registry which would warrant the payment of a compulsory due. No one can be allowed to take part in the harvesting business unless they are registered. This is one way the community has been generating fund and another way is the collection of taxes and gate fees from outsiders who come on a regular basis to take purchase and take part in the harvesting business.
With this reserve base of fund, the community has set up a microcredit scheme that has been utilized to develop the community and to provide support in terms of scholarships and loans. In Ekuri, everyone has open access use of trees although not on a commercial level. The trees are communally owned and that means for communal harvesting, but commercial harvesting can only be done together through the Ekuri initiative. Certain plots of land set aside for trees can be ventured into for harvesting using a guiding principle. However, other communities or individuals do not have a direct right to use the forest except they have the permission to do so under the monitoring of the community chiefs.
Interested External Stakeholders
Due to the fact that Cross River is a hotspot zone because of it being the home of many endangered species like the drills, a number of international agencies have risen to provide support for the protection of the area and that includes the recognized villages within the proximity of the national park. The extension of the international support for the local villages in close proximity of the national park is to ensure less interference with the conservation effort. Ekuri Village happens to be one of the recognized villages. The involvement of many international partners brought a great deal of sophistication that helped to improve the management of the Ekuri Forest. The major partners with the State government helped to provide the necessary capacity building skills for the locals to enable them to understand the technicalities involved in forest management.
In 2016, the Cross-River State Government announced a highway construction proposal which is expected to boost the economic prospects of the State. However, it is rather unfortunate to learn that the proposed highway will cut right through a large portion of the pristine rainforest that has earned the State a position of esteem globally. Most importantly, the whole of the Ekuri community would have to give way to complete demolition for the proposed development.
This has brought a lot of agitation both locally and Internationally. Local NGOs and international organizations have continuously engaged the State Government in dialogues, protests and open calls with the possibility of shelving the idea or rerouting the highway to save a larger proportion of the remnant of the rainforest of Nigeria and at the same time the Ekuri Forest community that the whole world has come to recognize. The consultation has reached the office of the national Government and this led to the call for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Although the State Government produced a documented EIA report, this has been turned down and unaccepted by the stakeholders and even the federal government on the grounds of observed errors and omissions.
The proposition of the construction of the highway was not done with prior consultation with the Ekuri people and this violates the ethics of community development with regards to the elements that will be impacted. Additionally, the Nigerian Environmental Impact Assessment Act(Part 1, section 1(a) “to establish before a decision taken by any person, authority corporate body or unincorporated body including the Government of the Federation, State or Local Government intending to undertake or authorise the undertaking of any activity that may likely or to a significant extent affect the environment or have environmental effects on those activities shall first be taken into account.
This implies that prior to any form of physical construction through a forest, a detailed environmental impact assessment must be carried out. Alas, this was not the case in Cross River state as the EIA report that was eventually prepared did not speak in clear terms and also because the government gave a go-ahead way before the production of the EIA, which speaks volumes about the irregularities and lack of transparency, as this is a violation on the part of the government
Impact of the highway construction
The highway is proposed to divide the forest into two and this means it will cut right through the protected forest and totally wipe out the Ekuri Forest community. The direct impacts of this include the extinction of the Ekuri community, forest degradation, and loss of ecosystem value of the forest which in consequence go back to hurt the state as the damage would reduce the potential of claiming REDD credit. The highway is going to cover the entire 3, 600 hectares that accommodate the Ekuri forest community.
This has been categorized as a typical land grab by the government. It is a complete alienation of the people from their ancestral ground and an outright violation of their basic human rights. Although, the governor is said to have rescinded his earlier orders on total land rights claim and the idea of a 20km corridor roads. However, it is not clear if these are just political tactics to silence opposition and global outcry.
The Ekuri people as the situation stands have no tangible grasp of power and they have only resolved to protests and open call with assistance from the global community. Whereas, the Government, on the other hand, has the veto power and has been exercising it by shoving its plans down the throat of the Ekuri people.
Ekuri Forest community represents the only prominent example of community forest practice in Nigeria and there has been a good record of success overtime. The template of practice has been such that other State governments had to adapt to serve as prototypes for other potential community forest initiatives. However, as it stands today, the price for development might rob the nation of a well and sustainably managed system that has come to be respected worldwide and a great example of what community forest should look like. At this stage, there is the need to tailor development in such a way that the rights of the people are protected and at the same time the integrity of the forests are not jeopardized.
Free, prior and informed consent
The intervention of the federal government is highly imperative at this stage to protect the interest of the Ekuri forest community, and that can only be possible if the state government is forced to follow due process in finding alternative routes for the proposed highway. The report of the EIA must be followed to letter.
As it stands the right of the Ekuri people to continue to own control over their forest is being threatened and they are so powerless to protect even their own interest, therefore support from the international community is needed.
Free, Prior and Informed Consent is quite important for the indigenous people to have a say with respect to coming to terms with the impact of development. The Free, prior and Informed consent provides the indigenous people the right to make a choice concerning how development should proceed.
However, in the case of the Ekuri people, there are limited options for the recognition of their rights with respect to free, prior and informed consent. The provisions in the Nigerian constitution have largely conflicted with most international conventions that have to do indigenous peoples right. The reason being that every tribe represented in the country is indigenous and the country has been declared a sovereign democratic state upon independence.
The status of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (International Labour Organization C169 (1989) that gives indigenous peoples the right to be part of any decision making has been challenged to be clearly in conflict with the provision of the Nigerian constitution. So, Nigeria is yet to ratify the convention. According to.
However, a convention that might be applicable is that of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992) which states thus:
“Persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minority to which they belong or the regions in which they live, in a manner not incompatible with national legislation.
The Ekuri people are part of the minority groups in Nigeria and in accordance with the declaration stated above which Nigeria is a signatory to, due compliance is needed. This could be the platform from which to hold Nigeria accountable for not giving a voice to a minority group which can be seen as marginalization and in every way a violation of basic human rights.
Also, the Convention on Biological Diversity has a part that could prove the illegality of the move of the State government. The provision in article 3 of the Convention on Biological Diversity state thus:
“Principle States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”. The concluding part of this provision clearly states the part of the State in minding the impact of proposed activities in such a way that the ecological integrity of the environment will not be jeopardized. Considering the extent of the proposed 20km corridor road and the potential impact on the intact rainforest that has overtime been recognized as a hotspot for many endemic species of animals and plant, the proposition of the road project without adequate impact assessment is a clear contradiction to the provision of this convention.