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05.09.2021 Feature 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, 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 with 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 actually 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

The first step is to search the forests, said Olabode. After finding a choice tree, a logger negotiates with the landowner and pays. He presents the receipt to the Timber Contractors and Saw-millers Association to get an Owner’s Conscience (OC), a document that confirms that he duly bought the tree. He will take the OC to the State Forestry Commission to get a Tree Inspection Certificate (TIC) and a permit. It is at this point that he can fell the 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. He tried logging after a fight with a worker in his workshop. At first, he was going to buy tree stands, invite chainsaw operators to fell and split them, and sell the planks. But after the fellers he paid failed to show up, he became one.

Work, for Lateef, comes in different ways. 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 clearly out of envy rather than any genuine conservation concerns.

Although he follows the laws and regulations guiding logging and timber trade in Ekiti state, Olabode does not share the tree-protection theories making the rounds in the wake of climate change. 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 will 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 scale of loss is obviously a catastrophe when placed side-by-side with the role of trees in the everyday life of humans. 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 CO2 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, like a child, take everything the tree gives them – apples to sell, branches to make furniture and the trunk to make a boat – 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 (Waburgia Ugandensis) 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 facing-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 2ft in length,” he says. “So, six cutlass lengths make 12ft [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 one 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 6 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’s stretched across a length and tapped, it leaves a black line to be traced with the chainsaw.

‘THE WORST CAN HAPPEN HERE’

A tree is standing really 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 path 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 and then resumes the cutting. The logger stops again and asks us to run.

A few minutes after we ran to a distance, the tree falls, meters away from where I had thought. All the while, Lateef remains at its base. He had boasted of not living the base of a falling tree no matter what. In the forest are Milicia (Iroko), and Parkia trees which produce 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 well-priced natural resources found in some Nigerian states, 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 across the world. 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 N2.5m and a container, N6m,” Dayo, a popular tree merchant in Ikogosi, says at the entrance to a forest he claims to have bought. “If you want 40 truckloads, I will get it from here.”

Dayo drives me in a Toyota Corolla car to see a load of Apa logs deposited at a location outside town. 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 would also use ‘settle’ when explaining the worst that could happen if spotted by forest guards. “We’ll settle them,” he would say.

ILLEGAL LOGGING WITH THE BLESSING OF FOREST GUARDS

Lateef tells me of his relationship with local forest guards in the Aaye forest. “They notify me anytime their bosses would come from the headquarters,” he said. 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), 2019.

IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN NIGERIA

In Nigeria, climate change is obvious in the shrinkage of Lake Chad 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, leaving little water and grazing land for cattle, herdsmen lead their herds to the south, where they compete with farmers over land and water. 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 UNGA, to plant 25million trees as proof 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 in the state, shows evidence of degradation within the same period. 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 told about illegal logging activities in the state, aided by forest guards under his watch. In an earlier meeting, Akinluyi had told me the law prohibited the exploitation of fruit trees, including Star apple, Kola, Mango and Parkia trees. But Lateef fells Parkia, 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,” said Olowoyo, who believe forest guards could be helpless in the presence of battle-ready loggers. “So, they cooperate with them out of fear,” he said.

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 average of two trees in one day—He clearly fells more—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.

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Published 5th Sep, 2021

By Damilola Ayeni

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