Ajagunsi, a farming community at the edge of Akure-Ofosu, simmers in the heat of the midday sun, prompting farm owners and laborers to take a break from their work and withdraw into the shade. Their feet, encased in mud from the fields, leave trails to the wooden chairs in which they rest outside the farming camp, clothes slung across their shoulders as sweat drips down their backs and foreheads.

Omotunde Kayode sits on a log a little farther from the rest. He owns a cocoa farm of about 10 hectares (25 acres), half of which he inherited from his father. He hasn’t always been a farmer. For more than 20 years Kayode worked as a teacher in a local school. But when his income failed to meet his living costs, he returned to the farm where he makes significantly more money.

“The cocoa farms in the reserves are growing,” Kayode says. “There are no jobs in the cities. So many graduates, tired of the job hunts are taking over the reserves — the forest has many graduates.”

A cocoa farm at the edge of Akure-Ofosu Forest Reserve. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Nigeria has long been a cocoa-growing powerhouse, with the country ranking as the world’s fourth-largest producer of the commodity crop. Cocoa is Nigeria’s biggest agricultural export, netting some $660 million in 2017.

“Cocoa farming has been with us for around 100 years,” says Benson Akingbamiyonri, the traditional chief of the Ajagunsi community. “We inherited it from our forefathers and it’s not something we can give up.”

An uphill battle

Government sources tell Mongabay it is difficult to protect Akure-Ofosu from illegal encroachment due to its large size and a lack of properly equipped forest guards, making it easy for people from communities surrounding the reserve and elsewhere to enter and stake a claim to its trees, land and wildlife. Forest guards say sometimes they hear gunshots at night, but without basic equipment like flashlights and protective gear, they are helpless to act.

The encroachers appear to be winning, with sources saying the government has become complacent — even complicit — in the reserve’s deforestation. Kayode says Akure-Ofosu’s “de-reservation” began more than four decades ago when the government started granting portions of the reserve to farmers. In 2019, the government further formalized the process, issuing new farm allotments as well as identity cards that grant legitimacy to those farming in the reserve.

“I felt the government [lose] hope of taking control of the reserve from farmers at some point,” a top government official tells Mongabay on the condition of anonymity. “So they decided to formalize and monetize reserve lands.”

The official says this means even farmers who initially encroached into the reserve illegally are now allowed to maintain their plots so long as they pay the required fees. The government collects around 10,000 naira ($26) per plot from farmers growing cocoa, rubber, plantain and other crops on reserve land, which are subject to annual renewal. This way, the official says, the government hopes to make more money from every part of the reserve lost to encroachers.

“The government calls us temporary occupants,” Kayode says, “and we [have] all the freedom to use the reserves so long as the fees are renewed when due.”

Logging trucks move harvested timber from Akure-Ofosu to urban centers. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

The government says it is only legitimizing farms that are already established. However, forest officers tell Mongabay that this isn’t entirely true and that farmers are actively being issued new plots in the reserve. Guards report regularly intercepting farmers smuggling new cocoa seedlings to their farms at the beginning of the planting season.

Sources say that even when new farms are discovered and destroyed in the reserve and encroachers arrested, prosecution rarely follows.

“When we arrest the cocoa farmers or loggers, they just call an influential politician who may be connected to the governor or someone in power,” the government official says. “Then, we are forced to let them free.”

Rooted in poverty

For conservation biologist Elizabeth Greengrass, poverty and lack of job opportunities hit at the heart of the issue. Greengrass is the head of conservation at the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation and has extensively studied conservation in various parts of Africa.

“In many of these forest reserves, there are very few things people (surrounding communities) can do to survive except hunt, farm or log the protected forests,” Greengrass tells Mongabay in a phone interview. “So many communities in Nigeria are heavily dependent on the forest. It is creating serious problems for conservation not just in Nigeria but most parts of Africa.”

A 2009 study of communities in and around Akure-Ofosu found 98.8% of respondents reported their primary sources of income were forest-derived, with 53% engaging in logging on a regular basis.

Workers process timber at a sawmill near Akure-Ofosu Forest Reserve in southwestern Nigeria. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

According to numbers from the United Nations, Nigeria’s population grew from 36.7 million in 1950 to 158.3 million in 2010. But job creation has not grown at nearly the same pace, sources say, and most jobs that do exist don’t pay enough to live from, often forcing rural residents to choose between protecting their forests or providing for their families.

Poverty also keeps many farmers from being able to buy and use fertilizer to replenish soil nutrient levels. And so, farmers must seek out new cropland in areas that haven’t been farmed — and often the only options for this are in Nigeria’s forest reserves. As the country’s population expands, sources say farmers are increasingly moving into reserve communities from different parts of the country, intensifying the competition for more arable land.

“Forest conservation can never flourish in poverty,” Ogunjemite says. “The margin of the poverty level is so high that anyone can sacrifice anything for food — including the forest.”

However, Greengrass says livelihoods and conservation don’t have to be mutually exclusive. She says she sees a way forward by developing rural economies as part of broader conservation goals to “create jobs and absorb those whose livelihoods had always come from the forest.”

“To protect wildlife,” she says, “people don’t need to suffer.”


Banner image by Peter A Strong / Strongp at English Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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