A good number of Chinese are in the forefront of the ongoing massive deforestation of the remaining forests in Cross River State.
It is believed that Chinese and other foreign firms, who are inducing thousands of jobless Cross River youths to lead them into their forests, are enjoying the support of influential powers in the state.
Boki, one of the vast local government areas in northern Cross River State, still boasts of expansive, thick and virgin forests with assorted ancient trees as old as over 300 years, alongside innumerable species of animals, including birds not found anywhere else.
Two renowned conservationists and environmentalists, Christopher Oned of the State Forestry Commission and Madam Helen Ndim, who attended conservation conferences in Germany, said the foreigners and other wood loggers mostly go for famous and most-sought-after hard trees like iroko, black afara and bulbiga cedar.
Investigation showed that Wula, Biajua, Kanyang, Bamba, Bokalum, Ubong, Olum, Ashishie, Okwabang, Butatong, Katabang, Boje, Abo Beebo, Bumaji are some of the communities where illegal wood logging is actively being perpetrated.
Findings further indicate that the Chinese have now fully relocated and completely taken over the sprawling Ghosen Hotel, which has 20 rooms, as well as a nearby small hotel situated in Ubong Street, not far from the busy Wula bus stop, where there is a junction market.
Six of the Chinese were seen with hefty cigarette-smoking local boys, including many brought in from parts of western Nigeria, who surround them always. The boys also stay in these two hotels, according to neighbours.
It was also learnt that the locals, particularly boys, help the Chinese in many ways. They lead the way to the forests, ward off any threat, translate local dialects, negotiate payments and evacuate the timbers into waiting large trucks. The trucks move to different destinations, including Lagos, for onward shipment abroad.
A man supervising the boys who were evacuating timbers from the bush into the trucks threatened to manhandle our correspondent when he attempted to take their pictures.
One of the boys working for the Chinese, popularly known as Obeten Obeten, alleged that the Chinese had agreements with the management of Ghosen Hotel, owned by a big-time timber dealer, and government officials; and that’s why they are in Wula.
It is also reported that mobile policemen are deployed to give the timber loggers adequate security. And the police are seen operating as their escorts on a daily basis.
But the commissioner of police in the state, Sikiru Kayode Akande, denied knowledge of such police protection, saying they were not sent there officially.
“I am not aware of their presence there. I don’t know them. It is not to our knowledge that they are sent there to do what they are doing. You guys should help report it, take their photographs and circulate,’’ Akanbde said.
Locals in Wula community also confirmed that mobile policemen permanently stay and move with the Chinese.
Mr Ojong Michael Ntubbe, a local youth leader, said strange persons walking close to the hotels are closely monitored, and if found to show some threats, are pounced upon.
“Those Chinese have been staying in that hotel for over two months. They paid for all the available rooms for themselves and the boys working for them. They don’t like other guests to come in so that they may not monitor what they do there. If they notice funny movements by strangers, the boys, who are mostly cultists and parade the whole hotel and street, harass and scare off potential guests.
“Both the Chinese and the boys have the mobile policemen working with them. The police, in their official Hilux vehicles, accompany them everywhere. When they return, they will sit outside and drink, smoke and merry, day or night,’’ Ntubbe said.
He said many of the local boys were graduates who have stayed for many years without jobs; hence they became easily available for use by the Chinese.
According to our sources, the boys are lured into such activities with mouthwatering offers.
“They pay individual landowners where the ancient trees are found a paltry N200,000 per land space that has up to five or more hard trees.
“They also pay local chiefs as much as N500,000 to have access into some communities,’’ Amos Ojong, who lives in Wula said.
A commercial motorcyclist, Ashiple Frank, whose relative is one of the boys working for the Chinese, said, “My brother said he got as much as N20,000 per week as a timber loader and evacuator.’’
In his reaction during an interview, Mr Eyo Ekpo, a former attorney-general and commissioner for justice during the Donald Duke administration said, “Tropical soft and hardwoods that had stood for perhaps millennia have been cut down. Tropical natural resources and treasures have gone. It will haunt us forever. The wood logging racket in Boki is extensive and entrenched.
“In my time we banned Chinese-controlled WEMPCO, which was the state’s biggest illegal logger. Despite the failure of WEMPCO’s spirited efforts to return, the forestry commission, then under Chris Agbor, was unable to overcome various institutional and political hurdles.
“We tried to prosecute a few loggers, but as with cultism, it became clear that the racket had deep roots that extended deep into the government itself as some most senior and influential politicians and members of government started approaching me to be merciful.’’
He decried the attitude of stakeholders who closed their eyes to the rampant destruction of forests in the state and wondered why many political masters and supporters are neck-deep in the illicit logging business.
He continued, “Governor Ayade surely has all the answers. The environmental tragedy that has befallen the state, away from the gaze of almost everyone but actively fostered by government, will haunt us forever.
“It is not just the rainforests of Boki. What about the mangroves along the Calabar and Cross Rivers? In 2004, the Donald Duke administration issued a protection order for them, but Ayade, a globally-acclaimed environmentalist, came with Calas Vegas and did away with a whole mangrove ecosystem opposite Calabar.
“I am convinced that unless a full accounting is rendered for what has passed as environmental governance in the state, today’s status quo will demand continuity, and whoever succeeds Ben Ayade would be forced to compromise with our home-grown environmental terrorists and gangsters. Perhaps, even if we continue to slumber, Ayade’s successor could even be one of them. Why can’t we awaken before it is too late?’’
Also in an interview, the president of the Traditional Rulers Council and paramount ruler of Boki, HRM Atta Otu Fredaline Akandu (JP), denied knowledge of any compromise.
Condemning the activities of the timber loggers in his domain, the traditional ruler said he had never and would not be compromised to allow the destruction of the forests he inherited from his ancestors.
He said he had not been told that any of his chiefs, clan or village heads had received payments for tree felling. He, however, said he was aware that some persons received ‘percentages,’ adding that government is aware of the activities of the loggers.
“I am a longstanding traditional ruler of 47 years. I know the impact of deforestation. If I agree or accept payment, what happens to the succeeding generations? They will suffer without the forests. I know what is conservation and preservation of the forests, which started from our forefathers. It pains me that the government has no strength to stop this painful activity. I have tried my best, but I am conscious of my security too. I am not happy at all about what I am seeing.
“I have held a series of meetings with my chiefs and staff of the Forestry Commission, as well as the World Conservation Society, where I spoke at length against deforestation. We are cautioning ourselves and looking at ways to stem this action. I know that one day, very soon, this mindless forest devastation will stop.
“The perpetrators do not trespass into community forests or go near protected sections such as the Cross River National Park, the Drill Monkey Ranch or the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary,’’ he said.
He expressed surprise that Forestry Commission personnel, especially forest guards, now mostly work in offices, unlike many decades ago when they would patrol the forests.
When the chairman of Boki Local Government Area, John Ewa, undertook a three-day assessment on the extent of deforestation, he slammed local chiefs for condoning the activities and threatened to stop their stipends, as well as suspend them if they continued to support the perpetrators.
In a press statement, Ewa noted that he and other indigenes, as well as responsible stakeholders, were deeply concerned about the unwholesome deforestation of their forests.
“It is worrisome that all government agencies are compromised; and these activities are about to cause another round of communal crisis,’’ he stated.
He also noted that the trucks were equally damaging their roads, lamenting that their forests are almost gone.
He ordered the perpetrators to vacate the forests in three weeks or face severe actions.
“As it stands, the only remedy is for the communities in Boki to take this tough responsibility and stop this disaster before it consumes us. Community chiefs must mobilise to stop any form of timber activities henceforth or risk their stipends.
“Forest management is the primary responsibility of the Forestry Commission, but since this government agency and related authorities have failed us, it is time to rise up, take back our forest and preserve it,’’ he said.
The commissioner for information in the state, Comrade Asu Okang, said the Ayade government was very lawful and would not allow anything or foreign nationals to violate their resources without due diligence.