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05.09.2021 Featured Trees Also Bleed: Inside the World of Illegal Loggers in Ekiti

Published 5th Sep, 2021

By Damilola Ayeni

In recent times, Nigeria’s forests have decreased steadily due to indiscriminate felling by illegal loggers. ‘Damilola Ayeni travelled to Ekiti, one of the most forested states in Nigeria, to uncover the crime going on under the shade of trees.

For Lateef Dada (not real name), logging is simple. One moment he is shown a tree, and the next, he cuts it down. In a forest near Ora community, in the Ido/Osi Local Government Area of Ekiti State, Lateef is felling a Heayodendron tree. His chainsaw tears the trunk, screaming more every inch deeper.

He steps back, Lateef, a tall, dark and muscular man in his late 40s, and the tree tilts forward, creaking and falling. A pattern of reddish fluid on the stump makes one wonder if trees also bleed.

A timber trader had told me trees are just like human beings. “They die just like humans,” Olabode said at a sawmill in Ado Ekiti, “and young trees sprout like babies.” For half an hour, he would take me through the process of logging in the state.

LOGGING HAS RULES BUT ILLEGAL LOGGERS DON’T CARE

First, you search the forests, said Olabode. After finding a choice tree, you negotiate with the landowner and pay. The receipt will be presented to the Timber Contractors and Saw-millers Association to get an Owner’s Conscience (OC), which shows that a tree is duly bought, and at the state State Forestry Commission, the OC is presented to get a Tree Inspection Certificate (TIC) and a permit. At this point, you can fell a tree, but not evacuate it yet.

Government does not expect logs out of the forest until guards have issued an evacuation permit after ascertaining adherence to all logging regulations in the state. Part of the regulations prohibit the exploitation of fruit and under-girth trees. “But illegal loggers don’t care,” Olabode said. “They can fell a tree the size of a stick and get two or three planks. They don’t pay tariffs, so they have no worries.”

ILLEGAL LOGGERS SELL CHEAP PLANKS

Lateef is an illegal logger. Until the year 2000, when he bought his first chainsaw, he was a carpenter and furniture maker. At first, he was going to buy tree stands, invite chainsaw operators to fell and split them, and then sell the planks. But after the fellers he paid failed to show up, he took up the job.

Work comes in different ways for Lateef. Sometimes he buys tree stands, fells, split them, and sells the planks. Other times, he gets contracts to fell dozens of trees for an agreed fee. To work on just one or two trees, he charges based on the number of planks produced. “One plank goes for N400,” Lateef tells me. “When I produce up to 30 planks in a day, I can boast of at least N8,000 after deducting money for labourers, fuel and other expenses.”

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Illegal loggers are a threat to timber traders in Ekiti. They sell cheaper planks and slow patronage for the likes of Olabode who pay a lot of tariffs to the government. Olabode told me the activities of illegal loggers could destroy the forest, but not out of any genuine conservation concerns. Although he follows the laws and regulations guiding logging and timber trade in Ekiti State, he does not share the protection theories making the rounds. For him, trees will remain in the forest no matter the level of exploitation. “If you returned into a forest after five or six years of felling its trees,” he said, “you would find new ones that are mature.”

EXTINCTION OF TREES, A GLOBAL CONCERN

Although the scientific basis for the disappearance of all trees soon is sketchy, the extinction of several species and the alarming shrinkage of forests have been at the centre of global dialogues for a long time. Between 1990 and 2005, when Nigeria got the distinction of country with the highest deforestation, the world lost forest the size of Turkey and has since lost more to illegal logging, furniture, building construction, agricultural activities and urban expansion.

Such a loss is obviously a catastrophe when placed side by side with the role of trees in the daily life of man. Trees filter the air and water, providing people with clean and vital resources. They ensure soil stability, and by extension, food production and security. By absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they also slow climate change, which is fuelling dramatic crises in many parts of the world, especially Africa.

In his book, ”The Giving Tree”, Shel Silverstein paints a metaphor for deforestation and the economic demands that drive it. Humans take everything the tree gives them until all that is left is the stump where the tree used to live.

GETTING ACCURATE PLANK DIMENSIONS IS POSSIBLE IN THE FOREST

Lateef is splitting an African Greenheart tree in another forest near Aaye Ekiti. Behind him are stumps, trunks, and other pieces of butchered trees. CamWood dust covers a portion of the floor. A labourer is carrying planks on his head to a nearby hut. From there, a truck will move them to a construction site or timber market.

Each time Lateef stops his machine to put some fuel, silence hurries to the world, and the forest listens to the gossip of birds on tree branches nearby. “An operator like me knows the number of planks a tree can produce the moment it hits the ground,” Lateef boasts. “This one (points to a log), for instance, will give me ten 2-by-12.”

From a 2-by-12 plank, one can get either six 2-by-2, four 2-by-3 or three 2-by-4. While builders use 2-by-12 planks for fascia board, they use either 2-by-3 or 2-by-4 planks for roofing and 2-by-2 planks to hold ceilings. To get accurate dimensions, Lateef uses his cutlass. “Every cutlass is 2 feet in length,” he says. “So, six cutlass lengths make 12 feet [which is the standard length of a plank].” As an alternative, a stretch of Lateef’s palm, from the tip of the thumb to the middle finger, is a feat. Twelve stretches are the length of a plank.

Getting the width of a 2-by-12 plank is another interesting process. Lateef stretches a N200 note on a long stick. The currency is six inches, he says, and two stretches make 12 inches, which is cut out and marked on the log. He marks dimensions with a rope soaked in battery lead. When it is stretched across a length and tapped, it leaves a black line to be traced with the chainsaw.

‘THE WORST CAN HAPPEN HERE’

A tree stands straight in the Ora forest, making it difficult to tell the side it will fall to. Lateef tells us – we are three: the tree owner who hired Lateef; a labourer who helps him clear tree paths and balance logs on slabs; and me, a reporter who had identified as a student researcher to gain access to the world of an illegal logger – to stay on his left. The tree tilts to my side as the chainsaw slits its trunk. But I’d trust Lateef who moves around with 20-years logging experience. The worst can happen here, so I say a brief prayer. Lateef stops cutting the tree which remains standing and is being tilted slightly here and there by the wind. He seems confused now. He tells us to stay behind him. He stops again and asks us to run.

In the forest are Milicia (Iroko) trees and Parkia which produces locust beans (Iru), an important cooking condiment in southwestern Nigeria, among several others. Many of such forests are in Ekiti, a tiny Yoruba state surrounded by hills. Ekiti has none of the highly valued natural resources found in some Nigeria but trees, which Olabode called the “oil pipe” of the state.

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Several northerners are in the state buying and transporting truckloads of logs to the more arid north. Buyers get trees like Tali, Madrin and Iron Wood in Ikogosi, a town in Ekiti West Local Government, famous for its warm spring which attracts tourists worldwide. On the hills of the town are Apa trees, which are priced for their use in making luxury Chinese furniture.

“A truckload of Apa is N2.5 million, and a container, N6 million,” Dayo, a popular tree merchant in Ikogosi, says at the entrance of a forest he claims to have bought. “If you want 40 truckloads, I will get them from here.” He had promised to ‘settle’ forest guards and get all documents to ensure smooth transportation of the logs to Lagos If I bought some. One of Lateef’s labourers will also use ‘settle’ when explaining the worst that could happen if spotted by forest guards. “We’ll settle them,” he will say.

ILLEGAL LOGGING WITH THE BLESSING OF FOREST GUARDS

Lateef tells me about his relationship with local forest guards in the Aaye forest. “They notify me anytime their bosses will come from the headquarters,” he says.

Lateef pays the guards N2,000 to shield him from their superiors who might take bigger bribes or slam on him a heavy fine for felling trees without government’s approval.

Anyone who fells trees without approval in Ekiti State risks at least N100,000 fine, a jail term of two years or both. Meanwhile, the extant forestry law in the state is more about revenue maximisation from trees than conservation. Almost every forbidden forest operation can get a pass for a fee. The law forbids the transportation of unprocessed indigenous logs out of the state but validates it with a “special permit”. The injurious logging activities of Lateef would also have been legal if he had got an annual chainsaw license for N30,000 and paid other tariffs. While exploitation of trees from an Ekiti forest reserve is a crime, it slides in “special situations” for varying amounts.

From his 30-years logging experience, Olabode recalled how Governor Kayode Fayemi opened up one of the forest reserves in the state to earn some money during his first tenure, between 2011 and 2015. “Each logger paid to get a portion,” he said. Fayemi would, as chair, Nigeria Governor’s Forum, solicit international help to fight climate change at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2019.

IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN NIGERIA

In Nigeria, climate change is obvious in the shrinkage of Lake Chad, one of the largest lakes in the world about a hundred years ago, and advancing deserts in Sokoto, Kebbi, Bauchi, Jigawa, Borno, Katsina, Kebbi, Gombe, Yobe and Zamfara State. With unpredictable rainfall, climate change has also stunted agricultural production and worsened food scarcity across the country.

As the north dries up, herdsmen lead their herds to the south, where they compete with farmers for water and land. This has fuelled herders-farmers clashes, causing deaths and property loss in almost every Nigerian state.

President Muhammadu Buhari vowed at a conference hosted by the UN Secretary-General during the 2019 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to plant 25 million as a mark of his commitment to fighting climate change. But like the many lullabies of Nigerian leaders at such events, the promise was never fulfilled.

STATE OF EKITI FORESTS

Satellite images from Google Earth revealed one of the forests Lateef operated in (Latt/Long: 7.78, 5.22 and 7.82, 5.20) had declined over time, while Ise Forest Reserve (7.38, 5.38), the second largest reserve in the state, has degraded. It is described as ‘partly committed’ in the state’s forestry act.

Felix Akinluyi, the Executive Secretary of Ekiti State Forestry Commission, refused to comment when questioned about illegal logging activities in the state, aided by forest guards under his watch. In an earlier meeting, Akinluyi had told me the law prohibits the exploitation of fruit trees, including star apple, kola, mango and parkia trees. But Lateef fells parkia trees too. “It’s a hardwood and we get planks from it,” he says. 

Sikiru Olowoyo, the CEO of Green Global Environmental Network, an NGO in Ado Ekiti, said illegal logging was widespread in the state. “Even today, while passing through the Ijero Forest Reserve, I heard the chainsaw,” says Olowoyo.

Attempts to gain access to one of the forest reserves in the state failed, as the handler of Ise Forest Reserve did not turn up for appointments.

Satellite image of Aaye forest (11/2018)
Satellite image of Aaye forest (4/2020)

It turns dark in the Aaye forest and a heavy wind blows the trees. But Lateef continues to work even as it rains. His Japan-made chainsaw gives a heavy white smoke. It doesn’t rest, this chainsaw, as Lateef works even in the night’s dead to beat clients’ deadlines.

If Lateef fells just two trees in one day, that would amount to 732 trees in a year and 14,640 in his 20-years logging history. If there are just 100 like him, that is 1,464,000 trees illegally felled in Ekiti in two decades.

Published 5th Sep, 2021

By Damilola Ayeni

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