Things were looking up for William Obio when he decided to invest more in his logging business. For the first time in years, his nine children and three brothers were eating well, and he could support his over half-a-dozen team of machine operators, saw men, scouts, and wood carriers.

Such success, rare in Owai, a heavily forested and impoverished community less than 20 kilometres from Nigeria’s southern border with Cameroon, emboldened Mr. Obio. He took a chance and purchased a small cassava crushing machine and got more saws.

“God answered our prayers; things really changed,” said the part-time pastor.

Everything indeed changed in 2008, Mr. Obio said, when the Cross River government imposed a sweeping ban on forest use in the state’s 18 local government areas, including Mr. Obio’s Akamkpa – where Owai is located.

Governor Liyel Imoke had said wealthy merchants, mostly from outside the state, were taking advantage of lax laws to deplete the state’s forest cover.

The site of more than half of Nigeria’s remaining rainforest, the governor warned, Cross River needed to save its green stock to boost investment and tourism. Under this plan, the state would become Nigeria’s pilot site for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a United Nations climate change mitigation programme that offers payment to states and communities for conserving their forest.

For a state that had lost monthly federal payments to oil producing states, following the ceding of oil-rich Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon in 2008, the proposal drew wide support. Besides, Cross River’s forest cover had declined from 7,920 to 6,102 square kilometres between 1991 and 2008, according to figures from Nigeria’s Ministry of Environment.

In the years that followed, the government fiercely enforced the embargo and chased out local traders like Obio, seized wood, and raided timber markets. Officials also stopped locals from hunting game and fetching bush mango and afang – popular delicacies in the region.

As the new policy disrupted traditional livelihoods many forest communities relied on, the government failed to provide alternative means of support, despite making clear that promised benefits from REDD+ payments would take years to come.

Michael Eraye, Cross River State’s Commissioner of Environment told PREMIUM TIMES that the government did make efforts to equip those affected with new skills, but poor funding affected the plans. He said the government built roads in affected areas, as part of its compensation plans.

Salisu Dahiru, Nigeria’s UN-REDD Coordinator, said efforts to find affected communities and determine how their livelihoods are linked to the forest, were ongoing. But he acknowledged that training programmes had yet to commence nearly eight years after the first ban, and four years after the start of the REDD+ programme.

Meanwhile, only a few years after the REDD+ initiative got underway in Cross River State, Governor Imoke, who had once championed the programme, quietly began to back away even as the ban continued. In May 2015, days before leaving office after eight years as governor, Mr. Imoke told shocked officials that REDD+ did not return on investment.

“I got to the point when I felt that it was not worth my effort,” Mr. Imoke said, according to the UN-REDD National Programme Semi-Annual Report January to June 2015 edition. Two senior officials who attended the meeting confirmed the former governor made those remarks. They said the governor directed his comments at Odigha Odigha, head of the state forestry commission at the time.

The report said months before the meeting, state officials demonstrated diminishing interest in REDD+, and the ambitious programme began to stall.

The first phase, known as the Readiness Phase, is now set to end in December 2016, nearly two years later than originally intended. Local communities will have to wait much longer for REDD+ resource-based payments, if they ever come. While they wait, little to no help has come from the state.

A PREMIUM TIMES’ examination of Cross River State’s anti-deforestation and climate change mitigation programme, which began in 2008, shows how the implementation of an otherwise well-intentioned policy deprived forest-dependent communities of their primary source of livelihood. It also provides a glimpse into the abuse and policy missteps that characterised the government’s execution of the programme.

For this report, this newspaper reviewed relevant documents on the project and interviewed several state and national officials, community members and leaders, traders, civil society members, and officials of the United Nations’ REDD programme over a period of three months.

Living off the forest

Forests play an integral role in regulating the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. When present, they absorb carbon emitted by human activity—an estimated 25 per cent of these emissions over the past four decades—and help moderate the effects of climate change. When lost through deforestation, they release carbon back into the atmosphere and are responsible for up to 20 per cent of global manmade carbon dioxide emissions.

REDD+ is a global mechanism designed to reward governments in developing nations for preserving forests and constraining the impacts of climate change. To date, REDD+ has pledged nearly US$ 10 billion to developing countries, with $4 million allocated for Nigeria’s National Programme, of which Cross River State is a pilot model.

The first formal steps taken by the Governor Imoke administration toward monetizing Cross River State’s vast forest resources began in October 2009, a year after the forest embargo went into effect. Mr. Imoke worked with the then Minister of the Environment, John Odey, a Cross River native, to apply to be part of REDD+.

In addition to joining the Governors’ Climate and Forest Task Force, based in the United States, Mr. Imoke attended COP 15 in Copenhagen later that year, where he announced efforts to protect Cross River’s tropical forests.

In April 2010, Nigeria became a UN-REDD partner country, and from then, followed through with a series of REDD+ programmes.

Despite such efforts, the government failed to provide economic relief for the local population and did not fully engage with them before and after the ban, those interviewed told PREMIUM TIMES.

Tony Attah, in charge of the Cross River forestry commission’s outreach programmes, acknowledged that the ban and initial phase of REDD+ were not well communicated. Despite initial missteps, he said that extensive community engagements were carried out by the state between January and August 2014.

Many environmentalists who support forest conservation, however, have taken issue with the REDD+ programme, blaming it for loss of indigenous land rights and branding it as property colonisation by developed nations. They also argue that the programme lacks mechanisms to ensure pledged payments reach affected people and are not pocketed by greedy politicians or other representatives.

They argue that forest-dependent communities like Mr. Obio’s Owai, who have yet to receive any payments years after the forest ban went into place, are made to pay more than their fair share for environmental clean-up, and for the pollution caused by developed countries.

“REDD is a dangerous eco-business,” said the NGO group, Environmental Rights Action, as Cross River State entered the early stages of preparing to implement the programme. “It enriches polluters and impoverishes forest community people who have conserved the forests over the years.”

Uncertain futures

The Cross River timber union has said thousands of its members and affiliate workers, lost their livelihood—some, allegedly, even their lives—after the ban. They include timber dealers, machine operators, saw men, scouts, and carriers.

“Our members lost out when the ban started, some died of shock. Many lost everything they had,” said David Essien, the head of Akim Timber Market union, the biggest timber market in the state.

Reliable statistics depicting such damage are hard to come by in the state, but studies conducted in the area paint a gloomy picture.

The Social Development Integrated Centre, a Port Harcourt-based policy analysis group, in a 2014 report on the impact of REDD in Cross River, concluded that “the move towards REDD has been made without any clear community development programme that addresses livelihoods and income generation alternatives for forest dependent communities”.

Before 2008, to harvest timber in Cross River, the state required loggers to pay between N20, 000 (US$102) and N50, 000 (US$254)—of which 70 per cent went to communities as royalty. Dealers were also required to plant five seedlings as replacement, and be cleared or “stamped” by forestry commission officials that harvested timber was mature.

The ban stopped the royalty and kept communities from harvesting wood even to build their homes, said Oyi Akama, the village head of Owai. Importantly, it kept many youth out of work.

Stephen Mbeh, head of nearby Oban town, told PREMIUM TIMES how a government task force twice seized timber he harvested to construct a home. He succeeded the third time after young people in the town helped ward off the enforcers.

“This is our own oil. This is all we have, and even to cut mango at your backyard, we could not,” he said.

Mr. Obio began his lumber business in Owai, a small community with no access road, electricity or potable water, in 1998. His mother, the family’s breadwinner, had died five years earlier.

After getting clearance from the government to harvest from areas with mature timber, Obio logged at least once a week and sold to buyers from distant towns. “We were beginning to do well a little. I even paid fees for my brothers,” he said.

By the time the ban came into force, Mr. Obio’s business was booming. He purchased six sawing machines and had broken ground on a block family home—a rarity in Owai where the majority of people live in mud houses.

He initially brushed off the news as rumour when he heard about the ban on the radio—as many others did—in August 2008. Two days later, he says, he saw members of the state anti-deforestation task force rounding up a man who frequently bought timber from him. The operatives confiscated the logs and forced the man to drive to Calabar, the state capital.

“That was when I knew it was serious,” Mr. Obio said.

In the days that followed, a brutal crackdown unfolded. The taskforce barred Obio and others from removing harvested wood from the forests. This claim was echoed by other timber dealers PREMIUM TIMES interviewed in the region.

Anietie Bassey, vice president of a timber market in Calabar, said the task force not only seized his timber, but also seven of his sawing machines during a raid in 2010. Mr. Bassey suffered a stroke shortly after the incident, an ailment he says was brought on by the loss of his business. He is yet to fully recover.

Mr. Obio said he lost four of his six sawing machines in a similar raid.

“A lawless task-force”

Seized machines and timber were never recovered. Those arrested were freed after the payment of fines ranging between N150, 000 to N1 million, dealers said.

Those interviewed, including government officials, community leaders, timber traders and activists, accused the armed taskforce of violating people’s rights—even attacking dealers with supplies from outside the state—and arbitrarily detaining people and seizing their equipment for years after the ban went into effect.

The head of the taskforce at the time, Peter Jenkins, told PREMIUM TIMES he could not immediately respond to the claims without knowledge of where they originated from. The communities, he said, initially told the government they needed roads and some were indeed provided. Though he defended the government’s policy, he acknowledged that more could have been done to ease the impact of the ban.

Asked about allegations of highhandedness, Odigha Odigha, the former chairman of Cross River’s forestry commission, told PREMIUM TIMES that the taskforce refused to submit to his supervision.

He said Mr. Jenkins repeatedly told him, “Odigha you know I don’t report to you, I report to the governor.”

Two senior forestry commission officials in Calabar, who asked not to be named, told PREMIUM TIMES that they believed both the ban and its implementation were flawed.

“The ban on logging was wrong, but its implementation was worse. The anti-deforestation task force was supposed to be under the forestry commission, but it was lawless, reporting directly to the governor,” the first official said.

“REDD did not say don’t cut down trees, it is a wrong perception. You can’t say don’t cut down the forest without alternatives,” said the second. She also spoke of a “lawless taskforce”.

Edem Edem, the programme coordinator of Green Concern for Development, an environmental advocacy group in Abuja, said he initially supported the ban until “they started violating people’s rights”.

“That was when I backed off,” Mr. Edem said.

Dangote gets concession, communities don’t

Initial funding for the $4 million project was meant to finance preliminary REDD+ processes like preparing an action plan, training officials, providing environmental and social safeguards, and others. The money was not meant for the communities. Mr. Edem said the state spent much of its budget organising endless “workshops and seminars”.

Regarding community engagement, the Nigerian National Programme’s Annual UN-REDD Report for 2014 said, “few initiatives exist, yet they are dispersed, with no guidelines and no funding for community REDD+ projects and for REDD+ pilots.”

Bridget Nkor, the state coordinator of REDD+, told PREMIUM TIMES that the state was worried about not providing alternatives for the affected communities. “That is one area that raised a lot of concerns,” she said.

Due to the structure of the REDD+ programme, it’s likely that any economic benefit for affected people could take years to materialise.

But Mr. Dahiru, the national coordinator for the programme, used the example of a charcoal vendor to illustrate the impacts that REDD+ programs can have on local communities.

Instead of continuing to use wood—which destroys the forest—REDD will support the person with needed skills to grow bamboo, he said.

“The bamboo can mature in one year, and reach full maturity to give you charcoal in three years,” Mr. Dahiru said. “And bamboo, once planted, will continue to grow. When you harvest this year, the other offshoot will continue to grow, and there is almost no limit to what you can do to the bamboo.”

The only problem is that the REDD+ programme would not directly support the funding needs of such initiatives. Though it could help those trained receive support from donors at the later Investment Phase, this third stage could take five or more years to attain.

Such trainings in Cross River State are currently targeted at only 30 pilot communities. Even so, they remain mere proposals seven years after the first ban started. An October 2015 UN-REDD progress report said proposals had been submitted and approved, but implementation would not start until late 2016, four years after the REDD+ project started.

Activists say a rapid response should come from the state government, which so far has done little in support of the communities.

Despite the ban on community use of the forest, the state government under Mr. Imoke granted bigger business interests access to the same land, and allowed it to harvest and sell timber to local dealers.

One firm given such a concession is Dansa Allied Agro, a subsidiary of the Dangote Group that is owned by Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man. The company secured over 75,000 hectares of land at Oban community for its pineapple farm, used as the fruit base for the popular Dansa beverage.

Tons of timber sourced from the land during clearing process were sold to local dealers, for months under the protection of the government taskforce, PREMIUM TIMES confirmed from several government officials and traders.

Dansa Company did not deny it sold timber, when contacted.

 Pressed on the propriety of such deal when locals had been barred with no alternatives, a senior Dangote group official told PREMIUM TIMES that the company has helped the community in many other ways, like providing jobs and palm seedlings to farmers. The company promised a formal response to our questions, but never followed up.

The forestry commission explained the concession, saying that despite the ban, the Ministries of Land and Agriculture retained the right to licence promising investors.

The Dangote group got the sprawling property with a promise to provide 10,000 jobs to locals, build a five-star hotel, roads, schools, and a mini market. The company has yet to make good on many of its promises.

At an elaborate event March 2014, Governor Imoke praised Dansa Allied Agro for donating 8,000 palm oil seedlings to host communities and constructing a bridge to link Oban, Okarara, Ekong Anaku, Neghe, and Ekpene Eki communities.

Mr. Dangote’s brother, Sani Dangote, who runs the Dansa affiliate, promised that the company would provide more oil palm seedlings and said Dansa was planting five trees for every one harvested during the clearing.

“Not worth my effort”

Overall, steps that could have quickened the delivery of REDD+ benefits to the communities and the state faced delays and haphazard implementation due to “dwindling political will”, according to the UN’s 2015 progress report.

An earlier progress report in 2014 noted that the programme “has suffered an important delay in delivery of outputs and finance, due to a mix of factors, some internal and some external”.

One senior official said part of the problem was because the forestry commission had “serious leadership problems”.

“For example, a politician was named as head of the REDD board, and when the board was dissolved, there was no replacement,” the official told PREMIUM TIMES. Nearly two years would pass before the state finally reconstituted the REDD+ board in October 2015.

As Governor Imoke prepared to leave office in May 2015, he issued a scathing criticism of the state’s REDD+ programme.

The time it would take to receive results-based payments was “ridiculously long for anybody to earn anything,” said Mr. Imoke during his handover remarks before top level civil servants and his successor, Ben Ayade.

Alluding to the violation of the state’s deforestation ban by large corporations, Mr. Imoke said although there was an “opening for sustainable management within the framework of REDD+,” the forestry commission lacked the capacity to manage sustainable logging in the face of “corporations [that] come in with so much money they can corrupt anyone.”

Sources say the governor admitted that he “got to the point when I felt that it’s not worth my effort…I won’t insist on sustaining it to the incoming governor, because it’s not giving any return.”

Mr. Odigha, the former forestry commission chairman, whom officials said was the focus of the governor’s criticisms during the meeting, told PREMIUM TIMES that everyone involved in the programme had been well advised that the REDD+ programme takes years to yield benefits.

When asked about claims that he might have misadvised the governor, Mr. Odigha said that “anyone saying that does not know how REDD works. All over the world, REDD is not implemented as a stand-alone.”

The UN report for October 2015 supported the notion that senior forestry commission staff also became detached from the programme—ostensibly following the governor’s example.

“Despite participation in various one-off training and workshop events, only a handful of FC staff understand the fundamentals of REDD+ and fewer have shown interest in the programme,” the report noted.

Mr. Imoke did not respond to multiple calls for comments. He requested questions to be sent via text message, but he ultimately did not respond to our enquiry.

On shaky ground

Mr. Imoke’s successor, Ben Ayade, only agreed to continue with REDD+ after the national coordinator, Salisu Dahiru, intervened.

The new governor initially relaxed the ban and replaced the anti-deforestation task force with the “green police,” which was made up of members from all local government areas of the state. He left coordination of the partial ban to the forestry commission.

Since taking over, Mr. Ayade also named a ministry in charge of climate change – the only state in Nigeria to do so. The commissioner in charge of that ministry, Alice Eku, did not also respond to request for comment.

Despite the relaxed embargo, Obio William told PREMIUM TIMES that he would never return to timber trading, as the government could always reinstate a full ban. “I don’t want to die,” he said.

He foresaw tomorrow. About two weeks after we interviewed him, the Ayade administration reinstated a full ban on forest use in late October 2015 after a five-month hiatus.

Mr. Ayade courted additional controversy with a plan to build a 260 kilometre “superhighway” through the protected forests. Initial plans to construct the highway straight through Cross River National Park, however, were changed after President Muhammadu Buhari learned that a required environmental impact assessment had not been filed. The new route will come within seven kilometres from the border of the park, which some environmentalists say still poses risk.

The governor has also revoked the occupancy rights of thousands of more forest dependent villagers on ancestral lands on either side of the six lane 260 kilometre super highway.

Mr. Odigha, who now runs a nongovernmental environment advocacy, warned that the government’s superhighway could deny the state carbon credit under the REDD+ programme.

“The REDD Programme had $12 million dollars for carbon credit paid to any country and community that meets its requirements for reducing carbon emission through forest conservation,” he was quoted by the News Agency of Nigeria as saying on March 12, 2016. “Even the rural people would benefit from this carbon credit, and it would serve as means of their livelihood.”

In Owai, Mr. Obio—who said he could barely feed himself and family after the ban in 2008—now sells pepper, salt and other food ingredients. He depends on Ekum Obio, his brother he helped train, to send his children to school.

Outside where he lives sits a rundown cassava grating machine he bought before the ban. The machine became useless after he could no longer replace parts. Nearby, the block house he had proudly started constructing at the height of his timber business sits unfinished and overgrown with weeds.

Ubong Edet contributed reporting to this investigation, which was done with support from Internews.