Nigerian government urged to halt “land grab” in Ekuri community forest

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A proposed superhighway in southeast Nigeria has prompted calls from locals and the international community to stop what they claim is a land grab in the middle of a celebrated community-managed forest.

Nigerian government urged to halt “land grab” in Ekuri community forest
  • The Ekuri forest is in the buffer zone of Cross River National Park, one of the most biodiverse sites in all of Africa, home to a number of rare and endangered wildlife species including the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee and some of the last forest elephants in West Africa.
  • The Ekuri Community manages a 33,600-hectare (about 83,000-acre) community-owned forest, one of the largest in West Africa.
  • In a letter to the governor of Cross River State, Nigeria sent on February 7, Ekuri Community leaders explained why they were withdrawing their support for the superhighway project, calling it “a land grab in the guise of a Super Highway.”

A proposed superhighway in southeast Nigeria has prompted calls from locals and the international community to stop what they claim is a land grab in the middle of a celebrated community-managed forest.

The people of Old Ekuri and New Ekuri, villages in Cross River State that are collectively known as the Ekuri Community, live in one of Nigeria’s last surviving rainforests. The two villages co-manage a 33,600-hectare (about 83,000-acre) community-owned forest, one of the largest in West Africa.

The Ekuri forest is in the buffer zone of Cross River National Park, one of the most biodiverse sites in all of Africa, home to a number of rare and endangered wildlife species including the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee and some of the last forest elephants in West Africa.

The work done by the Ekuri people is said to be a source of inspiration to other communities and community forest practitioners in West and Central Africa. The Ekuri Community won an Equator Initiative Award from the UN Development Programme in 2004 for their contribution to biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction. The Ekuri forest is also part of the REDD+ pilot program established by the UN in Cross River State to channel international funding to forest conservation initiatives.

Ekuri leaders say they supported the highway project at first, believing it would bring better transportation and greater economic opportunities to their people. But in a letter to the governor of Cross River State sent on February 7, the leaders explained why they were withdrawing their support, calling the project “a land grab in the guise of a Super Highway.”

protest 3
Ekuri Community members protest the superhighway as a “land grab in disguise.” Photo by Martins Egot, Ekuri Initiative.

In the letter, 20 chiefs, elders, and youth leaders from the Ekuri Community write that the main issue is the Public Notice of Revocation published on January 22 by Commissioner for Lands and Urban Development John Inyang, which specified that a 20-kilometer (12-mile) setback from the highway would be required and hence all that land was to be seized by the government along the entire 260 kilometers (161 miles) of the highway.

So much land has been acquired by the government for the project, the Ekuri leaders say, that residents of both Old and New Ekuri are now effectively homeless, to say nothing of the deforestation, habitat destruction, and carbon emissions that will result from construction of a highway straight through a carefully preserved rainforest.

“Our forest is our wealth and the beacon of our hopes and aspirations,” the Ekuri leaders wrote. “Thus, taking away our forest and the benefits there-from, is likened to taking a fish out of water onto land to die painfully… this is what the revocation means for us.”

The Ekuri people are calling for construction of the superhighway to be stopped until a new route can be found, and made it clear that they would protect their forests through non-violent protests. The international community is taking up those calls, as well.

In a letter sent to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Federal Minister of Environment Amina Mohammed, Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade, and other Nigerian officials, Taghi Farvar and Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend of the Switzerland-based ICCA Consortium, a coalition of Indigenous groups and community-based conservation organizations, write that the government’s superhighway project would have “irremediably negative consequences for the Ekuri forest” despite its own conservation commitments.

Etara superhighway clearance
Bulldozers at work in Etara, a village near Ekuri. Photo by Clement Umina, Etara Community.

“This initiative, which is proceeding in absence of any environmental and social impact analysis, and certainly without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the relevant communities, violates international obligations in terms of human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights and is squarely in contradiction with [Convention on Biological Diversity] and [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] obligations to which Nigeria has freely adhered,” Farvar and Borrini-Feyerabend wrote.

Other international conservation groups, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London, and Birdlife International, have written to Nigerian officials to voice their concerns and offer their technical expertise in preparation of an “urgently needed” social and environmental impact assessment that is reported to now be underway.

The Federal Ministry of the Environment responded to the Ekuri Community’s concerns last night, issuing a public notice to confirm that Cross River State is in fact conducting an environmental impact statement, which is said to be “at an advanced stage.”

According to the document, “In response to the commencement of work at the proposed site, and in line with Environmental regulations, notice was given for stoppage of work.”

The bulldozers already arrived in Ekuri, though community leaders say they refused to allow work to begin in their forest until the government responds to the concerns raised in their letter, which the Federal Ministry of Environment appears to now be doing.

But the bulldozers left Ekuri and went to the neighboring communities of Etara and Eyeying, where they are reportedly still at work, despite the stoppage order.

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