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Ekuri Initiative: Inside a Nigerian community’s battle to keep its forest

  • The Ekuri Community in southeastern Nigeria started an initiative in the early 1990s to manage their community forest adjacent to the Cross River National Park, home to the critically-endangered Cross River gorilla and a suite of other unique and threatened species.
  • Formalized through the Ekuri Initiative, planned community forest management has helped to drive local development, conservation, sustainable forest management and address poverty by improving access to sustainable livelihoods.
  • The Initiative has resisted threats from logging companies and more recently attempts by state authorities to build a 260-km superhighway that would have destroyed much of the community forest.
  • However, community leaders worry that if state and national governments continue to ignore their efforts, villagers might think conservation efforts do not respect their rights to survival.

LAGOS, NIGERIA — Surrounded by smoke-capped dense forest thick with tall, evergreen trees and wildlife, the Ekuri people in southeastern Nigeria’s Cross River state treasure the forest near their homes.

From there, they have for decades obtained plants for medicine; water for drinking and washing; vegetables, fruits and seeds for food; and other products such as timber, rattan, and bamboo for roofing and furniture.

A woman in Old Ekuri extracts bush mango seeds from the shells. The forest provides income and food for many villagers here in the Ekuri Community. Image credit: Linus Unah.

But they had a problem.

Old Ekuri and New Ekuri villages, collectively known as Ekuri Community, had no access road between them, only a footpath cutting through the forest. People trekked for up to four hours, oftentimes with headloads or goods wedged on their shoulders, as they moved to or returned from local markets.

Villagers’ longing for an access road in the 1980s drove the community to consider granting a concession to a logging company to harvest timber and build a motorway in return.

However, Chief Otey Esira, village head of New Ekuri, argued against this arrangement and, since both villages have equal ownership of the forest, the deal fell through without his support. Esira exhorted the people to maintain the forest and shared stories of neighboring communities whose forests were destroyed after logging companies received concessions.

“Why not keep our forests so that they can continue to yield the benefits we have seen over the centuries?” Edwin Ogar, from New Ekuri, recalled the chief saying at that time.

It takes a Community

In 1986, the Community itself started building this 40-kilometer (24-mile) stretch of road. They raised funds from levies collected from buyers of forest products like the highly sought-after afang (Gnetum africanum) leaves. Community members made financial contributions or offered any valuable materials that would aid the construction.

The access road reached Old Ekuri in 1990, connecting the two villages and providing market access to residents, most of whom farm several crops, for subsistence and for sale. Image credit: Linus Unah.

By the time this untarred road reached Old Ekuri in 1990, plans were underway to establish the Cross River National Park. The Community requested to manage their forest on their own. After they received approval from park authorities, the idea of forming a community-based organization, endorsed by village elders since the 1980s, crystallized into the now popular Ekuri Initiative in 1992.

The aim was to have a vehicle that would drive community development, conservation, sustainable forest management and address poverty by improving access to sustainable livelihoods. The Initiative took on the road construction project and built about four bridges and several culverts along the path.

Today, the 33,600-hectare (83,027 acre) Ekuri community forest is adjacent to the 3,000-square-kilometer (1,158-square mile) Oban Division of the Cross River National Park. Its contiguousness provides a buffer zone of restricted use that supports the Park and its vital wildlife populations of endangered species, including forest elephants, grey-necked rockfowl, Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees, drills, and leopards. It’s also the only site in Nigeria where Preuss’s red colobus monkey and crowned guenon occur.

Not long after the Ekuri Initiative came into force, it faced its first real test in 1994.

Chief Esira about-turned and agreed to an illicit concession with a logging company which offered to construct the lone access road. Esira was, Ogar told Mongabay, promised “handsome rewards” for his and others’ support.

“We came together and said that it wasn’t going to work and called a community meeting where we collectively opposed it vehemently,” said Ogar, then forest manager of the Initiative.

The chief was deposed in December 1994. Ogar and five other community members were later prosecuted by the police for obstructing the work on the road.

In 1996, a magistrate court judge found the six community members guilty, sentenced them to two-year jail terms with hard labor, and asked that the chief be reinstated. The judge, Ogar said, offered them a chance to escape jail time if they allowed the logging deal to sail through.

Tall evergreen trees tower over Ekuri community, which is up ahead, and unseen because it has maintained the tall, functioning forest. Image credit: Linus Unah.

“We decided to go to jail and save our forest,” he said. After seven days in prison, they were released on bail. They appealed the judgement, but a high court judge upheld the previous judgement and fined them.

Planning for a community forestry program

While the legal battle dragged on, the Ekuri Initiative became formally registered in 1997, the same year their unpaved road reached New Ekuri. Within the same period, the organization was able to work with consultants to conduct a perimeter survey of the entire Ekuri community forest and design a land use plan, thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

The plan created different zones, including the protected area, a stream buffer zone, animal movement corridor, non-timber forest product zone, and ecotourism area. The plan, Ogar said, “helped us manage our forest and the resources there because people now know what is permissible and what isn’t and in what area of the forest.” It also helped them determine the exact size of the forest and demarcate land boundaries with other communities.

The Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), a subspecies of western gorillas, are native to the cross river area on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon. This subspecies is considered critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in part because of its small geographic range. Fewer than 300 remain in the wild. Image credit: Julie Langford with credit to Limbe Wildlife Centre, Cameroon, via Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0.

Working with park officials, the Initiative facilitated the training of 32 community members in inventory mapping. Between 1993 and 1997, trainees marked out two 50-hectare (124-acre) plots as timber inventory sites where mature trees were selectively harvested and the proceeds used to support the road construction project and aid their legal battle, which ended in 2003. A federal court in Calabar faulted the judgement of the lower courts and ruled that Ogar and the five others were not guilty.

Over the years, the Ekuri Initiative has developed measures to promote sustainable forest management and poverty reduction. All the trees in the forest and on farmlands are communally owned, except those planted by farmers themselves. Only the organization can engage in commercial logging, and individuals can only collect wood to build their homes. Sellers of afang leaves must sell directly to registered buyers, who are charged a registration fee.

The Initiative has helped to pay medical bills for community members, offered scholarships to mostly young women, facilitated livelihood skills training programs for the youth, trained farmers and raised cocoa nurseries for them, and organized group micro-credit schemes. It worked with park authorities and other funders to help renovate a school and construct a health facility and a civic center.

The Ekuri Initiative is made of the general assembly, a board comprising five members from Old and New Ekuri, and a coordinator who works with different managers to oversee its operations.  The general assembly comprises all community members who meet twice every year to examine challenges faced and unmet targets and craft plans that will guide the operations of the Initiative.

For its assiduity with biodiversity conservation and community development, the Ekuri Initiative won the United Nations Equator Initiative Award in 2004 and later became a pilot site for the UN REDD+ program for maintaining its forest.

In 2015, state authorities announced plans to build a six-lane, 260-kilometer (162-mile) superhighway that would link a port in the capital city of Calabar to neighboring Benue state in central Nigeria. The original route for proposed for the highway would have crossed about 115 kilometers (71.4-miles) of protected areas, including the heart of the Oban division and about 52 kilometers (32 miles) of Ekuri community forest. The state went further to announce that it would acquire 10-kilometer (6-mile) buffer on each side of the highway.

Angered, the Ekuri Initiative convinced the community to rise in protest. Together, the Community promised to resist this incursion and save their forest. Combining forces with international and national conservation groups, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Initiative delivered over 253,000 signatures to the federal government. Their petition challenged the 20-kilometer buffer and the entire highway project. They even resorted to litigation.

Martins Egot urges conservation groups to transform the lives of communities invested in conservation, to help ensure the sustainability of their efforts. Image credit: Linus Unah.

“We need a road, but we don’t want a road that will destroy all of what we have been laboring to protect all these years,” Martins Egot, chairman of the Ekuri Initiative, told Mongabay.

Bowing to both local and international pressure, state authorities agreed in early 2017 to reduce the buffer to 140 meters (459 feet) and to re-route the highway away from the national park and the Ekuri community forest. The federal government had rejected three different Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) from Cross River government, and only just granted the state permission to continue with the project once it met a set of conditions.

Construction workers resumed highway work late last year, clearing forests in neighboring communities like Okuni and Etara, destroying homes and farmlands without compensation. State authorities are planning to take out a loan of 648.9 billion naira ($1.8 billion) to make sure the superhighway comes to fruition, but analysts say this would only plunge the state into further debt.

Funding and other challenges

The threat from the highway to Ekuri lands staved off for now, the Ekuri Initiative continues to struggle to drive community development and poverty reduction. A 2009 state logging moratorium meant that the organization could no longer raise funds from commercial timber sales, and the small budget affects various project components. Local guards patrolling the community forest remain unpaid, and its boundaries, marked more than two decades ago, are in need of another survey.

This unpaved road is the only way to access Ekuri villages, and the Community lacks funding to make many needed repairs to ensure safe and sustained use. Image credit: Linus Unah.

The dirt road leading to the community remains in a deplorable state, with slopes covered in a craggy terrain filled with stones, muddy puddles, and ruts made by motorcycle wheels.  It’s almost impassable after rain.

Inside the villages, most residents live in thatched mud homes, rely on nearby streams and rivers for water and farm mainly cocoa, plantain, banana and bush mango for subsistence.

Stephen Egbe, the youth leader of Old Ekuri village, worries that poverty levels are not reducing.

“Is conservation a sin?” Egbe asks, pausing to reflect. “If it’s not a sin, I don’t see why we should conserve, and from years to years we remain where we are, without any good infrastructure.”

Communities need to see incentives to continue to keep the forest, argued Edwin Ogar, now coordinator of the Calabar-based Wise Administration of Terrestrial Environment and Resources.

Stephen Egbe, the youth leader of Old Ekuri village, is troubled that poverty and lack of basic infrastructure are big problems in Ekuri that resource conservation does not help address. Image credit: Linus Unah.

The support Ekuri has had over the years came mainly from the international community with barely any support from federal or state authorities, remarked Oliver Enuoh of the University of Calabar’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife Resources Management.

“Government [agencies] in Nigeria are not funding conservation activities, and that deprives community forestry management initiatives like the Ekuri Initiative the financial energy it requires to do things right,” said Enuoh, the pioneer coordinator of the Ekuri Initiative.

“Conservation itself is not totally opposed to local livelihoods,” he added, “it’s policy, it’s public resource appropriation that appears not to.”

Several studies have shown that community participation in wildlife conservation and forest management yields substantial results.  For local communities in Cross River, the forest is a huge part of their existence. They police the forest using local guards, fines, and sometimes banishment for defaulters.

Villagers in Ekuri Community want to see more benefits from their community forestry initiative. Without funding to maintain their infrastructure and training programs, people may lose hope and begin using their forest resources more intensively. Image credit: Linus Unah.

Similar community efforts in the Mbe Mountains in northern Cross River state and the Buru community forest in northeastern Nigeria’s Taraba state have applied such activities to protect their forest resources. In Buru, for example, a group of committees work together to tackle poaching and stave off illegal rosewood traders.

However, Ekuri Community elders fear is that if the government continues to ignore their efforts, forested communities might think conservation does not respect their rights to survival.

“It’s really frightening that after 20 years, not much progress has been made,” Egot, Ekuri’s chairman, said. “My message to the government and international conservation groups is that when they show interest in communities that are protecting their forest, then they should go all out to transform lives.”

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