A Conversation with Chairman of the Cross River State Forestry Commission …Responsible for the largest remaining forest in Nigeria, and destination of REDD+

We the People: Our researches indicate a high rate of logging in the reserved forests of Cross River state, which will in turn reinforce climate change impacts. What is the state government’s response to this?

Tony Undiandeye: There is general knowledge that if there is any ozone layer depletion, it has an impact on the climate because if the forest keeps losing cover there will be no trees to absorb carbon, which will be directly emitted into the air, depleting the ozone layer. So, I’m interested to know what you’ll do with the result (of this research), that is what I am asking?

We the People: Amongst other things, our research aims at enhancing awareness about forest protection, and developing better and more viable alternatives to improve forest protection. Our findings will also generate ideas to assist the government, the Forestry Commission and forest dependent communities in preserving and conserving the forest, and wildlife in line with global best practices.

Tony Undiandeye: There is total ban on forest exploitation in Cross River State. We met the moratorium in place since 2010 or 2011 and that moratorium has caused the crippling of the application of the laws of the Cross River state Forestry Commission. As a result, there is a limitation to how well the Forestry Commission can monitor the forest. Previously, it is the Commission that grants access and right of entry into the forests. When you exploit anything from the forest (including timber), you make payment to the Forestry Commission. What you pay is shared into three (3) parts; one to the community, one to the Forestry Commission and one to the state government. But at the moment, the communities are not feeling it (benefits), they do not see the impact of sustaining their forest, so they now deal directly with those who come to exploit the forest (loggers), so they deal with them directly and they give them clearance. Once the permission is given, they (loggers) come and cut any tree, and the community which used to collaborate with the Forestry Commission no longer collaborate, because they don’t have any benefits anymore. 

So, the real issue is for government to reverse its position on the moratorium on the forests. People need to build houses; from where will they get the wood to roof it if not from the forest?  We need to guide it because right now what is happening is that they are destroying the forest on commercial basis and not for local uses.

We need to have the laws applied that if you cut down any tree and you are caught, even in the community you will have to face the consequences. We need to ask the government to returns to sustainable management of the forest. So long as the moratorium of the forest exists, the forest degradation will continue. Here lies the challenge. Any human you put in charge of checking the excesses, will be compromised.  When an anti-deforestation taskforce is established, they form themselves into a cartel, collecting money from timber dealers. No matter how many sets, they will just go and approach the merchants and they will pay them money. 

We the People: What you have said seems to indicate that as long as the moratorium remains in place, there will still be logging…

Tony Undiandeye: I didn’t say they will still be logging but there will probably be problems in checking the logging.

We the People: Cross River state took the lead to introduce REDD+. However, from 2008-2021 it’s about 13 years since REDD+ was introduced which brought about the moratorium you talked about. How has it fared; what level of progress has been made so far?

Tony Undiandeye: Well, I don’t know, but I want to remodel the question to be what has the Cross-River state government benefited from being part of REDD+ 

We the People: It’s okay if you prefer that…

Tony Undiandeye: The REDD+ program may not have been completely comprehended by the (state) government… We were supposed to have money in return for conserving the forest, but again the UN is very tricky and the international community generally. So, directly the communities are not benefitting, there are using it to do sensitization, education and all of that, so it isn’t impacting directly on the people of Cross River state. That is why there is upheaval, that is why there is hmm…some kind of challenge from the community because they don’t understand why they are not getting money … even the government itself is not seeing the money, yet the UN will tell you that they have spent so and so millions of dollars on this REDD+ project. So, to me sitting right here, I don’t think we have had any benefits that are identifiable… I think that REDD+ has to be better than what they are doing now. The program so far has not impacted, let me summarily say that it has not impacted substantially on the expectations of government and the communities, and that is the main reason why there is escalation in deforestation and all that.

Tony Undiandeye: Over the years, the state has set up taskforces to combat deforestation, do you think they have enough tools to function? 

Tony Undiandeye: Yes, what do they require? We have not militarized them; we have not said you can carry weapons as civilians in Nigeria. So, the taskforce ought to collaborate with the security agencies and the security agencies have been compromised by the (timber) merchants, that is where it is very ridiculous and difficult to understand, since the security agencies have been compromised, the taskforce can do little. You cannot buy guns for them, you cannot buy machetes for them, they are not there to kill, they are there to apprehend. When they apprehend (loggers), they are supposed to be detained by the Police and later prosecuted according to the law. But as I said previously, no matter the number of taskforces set up, they will be compromised by the (timber) merchants. We have people who are monitoring, we have people all over and it has made even the staff of Forestry Commission to be compromised.

We the People: Without REDD+, what approaches will the Forestry Commission have taken to see that they conserve the forest and reduce the rate of deforestation?

Tony Undiandeye: Approaches, there are no new approaches, it is always with sustainable management, which you know the REDD+ brought the government to the decision to put a moratorium on it. But you cannot sustainably manage the forest because you can’t have 100% ban, I started by asking you, as populations grow, they want to build houses, where will they get wood from? So they must allow selective logging. There is nowhere in the world that you have 100% ban, because human activities require even wood for fuel, wood for you to cook with the fire, human nature requires the forest, but it has to be guided, so once the Forestry Commission cannot sustainably manage the processes, there is little they can do in the conservation process. 

We the People: We just want to know, does the UN remit any money to the Cross River state government for the protection of the forest (or as part of REDD+)? 

Tony Undiandeye: But I have answered that question except you are turning it again. I have said that they have not made any impact, if government were to have direct benefits from money, they say they appropriate for REDD+, government would jolly well, recruit more people to guide the forest and compensate them. In fact, the forest guards that we have in the whole of the state apart from the east, are less than 60 to guide the whole of the forest from the Sahel region here to the mountainous ranch. In terms of the staffing, there are many inadequacies that we require if we need to be serious about sustainable management of the forest, and then we need to give the Forestry Commission more powers to execute the mandate, and Cross River state is not getting it.

We the People: If the management and protection of the forest is given to community solely as their responsibility, do you think there will be any difference?

Tony Undiandeye: We are saying that the community itself are now doing things that are inimical to the protection of the forest. Not all forest is reserved for government, the community itself has completely mismanaged its own forest that’s why there are entering the reserves. The community is even more vulnerable in terms of maintaining the forest than government because they are lawless, they will just sit down and compromise each other and then it can go wild, they don’t have the understanding, they don’t have the equipment and they don’t have the intellectual appreciation of the consequences of degrading the forest. So, you cannot even suggest that the community should manage its forest, it means you have finished the forest.

We the People: If the REDD+ programme is inimical to the growth…

Tony Undiandeye: I didn’t say it’s inimical, it’s not beneficial, if something is not beneficial it’s not inimical.

We the People: If the negative impacts weight more…

Tony Undiandeye: Even in your analysis you cannot say negative impact, you cannot say. I said it does not impact on our economy in terms of monetary or other material benefits that can make the government consider that a partnership with the UN REDD+. It is enough for it to recruit, to maintain and put security in the forest, to that extent I said they have not done well so we can’t say negative.

We the People: So, if the programme hasn’t gone so well with us over the years, what would be your suggestion or advice to the government? Is there any way they can pull-out and what are the processes to do so?

Tony Undiandeye: The option is not really to pull out, we cannot say that the technical support in terms of enlightenment, in terms of refresher courses would not be useful; they are useful, that’s why I didn’t want to use extreme words like saying there isn’t any benefit. There are people who have been trained by the REDD+ programme on how to do a few things in the forest, that’s also some contribution, but is it significant to amount to what we are talking about? No, it is not and therefore we do not see the impact substantially on Cross River state. But again, the solution is not to pull out of REDD+ that would be disastrous, you know even America tried during Donald Trump to pull out from the (Paris) climate (deal). The new president has come to sign on to it, so the issue of climate change is global. So, when you refuse, they might blackmail Nigeria and blackmail the state and take measures. So, the object is not to pull out, the object is to return to sustainable management with the assurance that it is probably going to work for even the REDD+. 

We the People: In the area if afforestation, about two years ago, the state government advised Cross Riverians to plant about 1 million trees or thereabout. Are you guys well equipped to carry out this level of afforestation?

Tony Undiandeye: You are talking about regeneration which is the real word to use actually not afforestation. So in regeneration, the capacity is supposed to be in terms of what I told you sustainable management. I told you earlier  that money paid for rights to exploit the forest will be shared into 3 parts, 1 part to the community, 1 to the Forestry Commission and the other portion to the government. The portion that is given to the Forestry Commission is specifically for regeneration, planting and creating nurseries, getting seedlings and also planting. That is what that portion for the Forestry Commission is meant for.

We the People: Thank you very much for your time.