WCS talks with Martins Egot of the Ekuri Initiative.
At any minute, bulldozers could plow through one of the last rainforests in Nigeria. Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State has plans for a six-lane superhighway with six miles (10 km) of buffer on either side extending the length of the 160-mile road.
If constructed, the superhighway would destroy national parks rich with wildlife like gorillas and elephants, as well as indigenous communities like those of the Ekuri people. We reached out to Martins Egot, who runs the Ekuri Initiative (the community's NGO), to learn more about the situation on the ground.
Wildlife Conservation Society: For those who aren't familiar with the Ekuri community, could you tell us a little bit about the community's history and ties to the area?
Martins Egot: The Old Ekuri and New Ekuri Villages, referred to as the Ekuri community, are located four miles (7 km) apart in the Akampka local government area of Nigeria's Cross River State. This community jointly owns and manages 83,000 acres (33,600 hectares) of forest. As a community, they have [survived] pressure from timber loggers to sell their forest for ridiculous offers. This they resisted to the point that some chiefs and elders went to jail for the sake of keeping their forest.
WCS: How does the community currently use the forest and what do people do to conserve it?
ME: The Ekuri people are subsistence farmers and collect non-timber forest products, which is their main source of income. Since the 1990s, there has been an organized forest-use system in Ekuri with a detailed forest management plan. The forest is divided into different land use zones for specific activities. Farming is restricted to the area designated as the farming zone.
In the Ekuri community, all trees, including those on individuals' farms, belong to the community. No individual has a right to cut timber for any purpose even from his farmland without consulting the community through the Ekuri Initiative (which manages the Ekuri forest).
WCS: The Ekuri community initially had high hopes for the superhighway project. Why was that and what changed?
ME: Access is a major challenge for the Ekuri people. Poor access has greatly retarded development in the community. The desire to fix this was a major uniting force of the two villages that make up Ekuri community. They came together in search of ways to create improved access to the area.
With the superhighway, the elders were excited to hear the possibility for better access to their community without critically weighing the conditions around the construction of the road. Moreover, the government did not engage the community before making the decision to construct the road. For the Ekuri people, a good road sounded like a great opportunity for improved living conditions and better education for their children.
The picture of the superhighway and the intentions of government became more clear to the people when the government, in a newspaper publication, revoked the rights of occupancy of the people on their land and forest, and described the project as being 330 feet wide (100 m), with a buffer of 660 feet (200 m) on both sides of the road, plus a further upset of six miles (10 km) on either side. It became obvious that this kind of road is not in the best interest of the community given all its ramifications. We see this project as a big threat to our right to free prior and informed consent and the rights to our natural endowment and ancestral heritage.