“The guests are late because of the rain,” says the chief. “And the rain should be over by now, but this year it remains because of climate change.”
We are sitting in Iko Esai, a remote village in southern Nigeria. It took us three hours on muddy, slippery roads to reach the house of the village chief. He serves us palm wine while we listen to music on his hand-held radio and wait for the other chiefs and project leaders to arrive.
Aita Obhort Obio Arong Oway is the traditional ruler of Iko Esai and custodian of village traditions. He welcomes the UN-REDD Programme’s assistance. “They help us relieve pressure on the forest,” he says. “Before we were cutting wood as our main activity and clearing the forest to plant plantain, yam, cassava and cocoa. Now, we have a land use plan which limits where we can farm and hunt. A forest law has been instituted to prevent using poisonous chemicals to kill fish or pollute the water and to protect endangered species. People respect the land use plan, and those who don’t pay a fine.”
The Key Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation
Nigeria has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, with less than 10% of the country forested. The key culprits are agriculture (both smallholder and commercial), fuelwood use, unsustainable and illegal logging, oil and mineral exploration and infrastructure development.
But since 2010, the UN-REDD Programme has provided valuable support for the country’s ambitious efforts at forest conservation, climate change mitigation and community development. In particular, Cross River State, which has more than 50% of Nigeria's remaining tropical high forests, is host to a Community Based REDD+ Programme (CBR+) that promotes activities to reduce poverty and improve crop varieties and yields, gender empowerment, biodiversity, conservation and climate change mitigation. To date, more than 300 households across 21 communities have benefited from the programme, which targets women, men and youth.
Through the programme, villagers like those in Iko Esai have improved sustainable management of their community forest lands through the development of management plans and reforestation that includes both indigenous and non-timber forest products. As well, improved processing of cassava and sustainable cultivation of cocoa is enhancing productivity and enabling an increase in household income by at least 10% in some target communities.
“We want to give alternative livelihood opportunities to local communities so they can stay out of the forest and relieve the pressure on it,” says Dr. Alice Ekwu, the Honourable Commissioner for Cross River State Ministry of Climate Change and Forestry and Small Grants Program National Coordinator. “For one of the small grant projects, we give cassava processing machines or beehives or introduce agroforestry techniques. The future looks good as we have finished the readiness phase and are now into the upscaling of activities and the investment phase.”
The Iko Esai Community Projects
Wanting to see the benefits on the ground of a CBR + project, we visited projects in Iko Esai that are aimed at redefining participatory local forest management and conservation, while simultaneously improving rural livelihoods through the introduction of agroforestry techniques, tools for improved cassava processing and forest management planning.
Linus Ita is a farmer and one of the trainers. “I train the other farmers about the importance of trees, not to cut them because they absorb carbon emissions,” he says. “A tree is life and the whole community knows that now. Because trees clean the oxygen, they protect our watershed, reduce erosion and make for a pleasant and favorable environment, keeping it cooler even during the hot season.”
He said the UN-REDD Programme has provided the community with valuable information on how to get the highest yield for cocoa through new agroforestry practices. “They increased our level of awareness on environmental issues regarding the use of chemicals,” he says. “Now, we use organic fertilizers that we make ourselves from leaves, grass and branches. We plant cocoa and pear trees, plantain and bush mango and avocado. Diversification has allowed communities to generate income through the seasons.”
“We lose 25,000 hectares of forest a year, maybe even more to farming,” says Tony Atah, the UN-REDD Programme stakeholder engagement specialist on the ground. “REDD+ is raising consciousness about that. And the projects we implement are aimed at improving rural livelihoods while at the same time, relieving pressure on the forest.”
In Iko Esai, Aita Obhort Obio Arong Oway explains how the UN-REDD Programme provided a cassava processing mill and brought a big change to the lives of women in his community. “Now, they can process a lot with the machine, compared with doing it by hand. Now, it takes them less time and they can do bigger quantities.”
Maria Mark Ettan is one of the women in Iko Esai benefiting from the cassava processing mills. Although cassava processing mills have improved the lives of Iko Esai’s women, they still can’t get their produce to market because of poor road conditions. “We are 3 hours away from the main road, and the people who come up to our village to buy cassava give us very low prices,” says Maria Mark Ettan. “We need a better road.”
Beehives Improve the Livelihood of Eco Guards
As part of the CBR+ project in Iko Esai, eco guards were given beehives so that honey production could help them improve their livelihoods. The eco guards are a community-based, paramilitary association, respected by the community, that protect the local forests.
Although relatively new, Linus Ita is hopeful the beehives will help regenerate the forest as villagers stay away from the areas where the beehives are located. “There was a stream that dried out because of forest degradation,” says Ita. “Now with the beehives, the water will come back and the honey will provide revenue for the eco guards.”