24 March 2006

Ghana: Tug of War Over Game Reserve

Accra — More than five thousand residents of Digya in the Afram Plains area are potential homeless candidates following a decision by the Wildlife Division to forcefully evict them. The settlers claim they have not been offered alternative places to resettle.

The settlers, mainly fishermen and farmers, live in more than 14 communities at the Digya National Park area and on February 5 this year, the Wildlife Division through its office at Atebubu in the Brong Ahafo Region, served them a quit notice, asking them to vacate the area by February 28 or face eviction.

Consequently, the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), which is acting on behalf of the affected people, has argued that, "if the planned eviction is allowed to go on, it would be a clear violation of the basic human rights of the settlers as provided under the 1992 Constitution and international human rights law."

CEPIL contends that the action of the DW violates the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR) to which Ghana is a signatory. According to CEPIL, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) states that, "evictions should not result in rendering individuals homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights." Governments must therefore, "ensure that adequate alternative housing is available to affected persons", it further stated.

CEPIL has therefore, called for the suspension of the eviction process to allow for an amicable solution. It indicated in a petition to the Minister of Lands and Forestry that if all reasonable attempts at resolving the matter fails, it would institute a court action to protect the interests of its clients.

When contacted the Wildlife Division (WD) indicated that it would not back down on its decision to evict the farmers. The Executive Director of the Division, Mr. Ofori Frimpong told Public Agenda that if people enter a reserve illegally, it is not the responsibility of the state to provide them an alternative place to relocate. "Those settlers should have been prosecuted in the first instance, but we chose to be humane to them", he noted.

He noted that by occupying the reserve, the settlers had also breached international conventions on the protection of wildlife of which Ghana is signatory.

According to him, forest and wildlife reserves constitute only 16% of the total land surface in Ghana. Therefore, his outfit will protect such reserves through any means possible, including evicting all illegal occupants for the benefit of posterity.

But in CEPIL's view, the issue should not be narrowly viewed as though the people occupied the area legally or otherwise. CEPIL contends that the division's action is a violation of the fundamental human rights of the settlers. "Human rights laws binding on Ghana widely recognise the right to adequate housing, right not to be arbitrarily evicted from one's home and the right to food", it emphasized.

It observed that it has in-depth understanding of the problem and would therefore oppose the use of force to evict the occupants without due regard to national and international human rights.

On the other hand, Mr. Ofori Frimpong described the claim by the people that no alternative provision had been made available for them as untrue, pointing out that when the division met with the chiefs at Donkorkrom recently, the chiefs willingly offered the occupants parcels of land to relocate.

Tracing the history of the dispute, the Executive Director said the government acquired the area in 1971 to be used as a reserve and subsequently relocated the sixteen communities that occupied the land at the time. He named the communities as: Saabuso, Apapaso, Nkaneku, Domeabra, Srukrom, Bonaso, Kubekro, Dumienu, Sumiso, Oheneaboma, Nyeduaso, Bomobiri, Kwaehunu, Waso, Dija and Bomboe. He observed that the fourteen communities, which are currently refusing to leave the park, were not among the original settlers on the land prior to the government acquisition.

According to him, the government also commenced due processes to compensate about thirty stools, groups and individuals who claimed ownership of the land. However, following a counter claim by other groups a High Court ordered government to freeze the payment until the problem was resolved.

He explained that following the famine that hit Ghana in 1983 and the government directive to the civil service in 1989 to freeze recruitment of staff; the division was unable to sustain previous eviction exercises. The present group therefore took advantage of the situation to settle there.

In contrast the people of the area said in 1989, many of them lost their lives when the wildlife wardens visited atrocities on them in their quest to evacuate them from the land. They added that even though they were forcibly evacuated at the time, they returned to the present location because they could not find a better means of life as most of them died through hunger.

They argued, "considering the lack of job opportunities in the country, we cannot imagine the state of hardship we shall suffer should we be evicted from our present settlement."

However, Mr. Ofori Frimpong claims the people are notorious for resorting to tactics to frustrate the division's efforts at developing the park. He cited instances in the past when the division's efforts to evict the settlers had been hindered by interventions from government officials.

According to him, soon after the general elections in 2000 the division ordered the settlers to relocate but the settlers pleaded for six months to enable them organize themselves properly following which the WD gave them an extra period of a year but its been more than four years since.

Information available to Public Agenda also indicates that on March 28 2002, the Afram Plains District Assembly gave a directive for the people to be evicted based on a decision taken together by the Eastern Regional Security Committee (REGSEC) and the District Security Committee (DISEC).

Subsequently, CEPIL wrote a petition to the Minister of Lands and Forestry at the time, Professor Kasim Kasanga who ordered for the suspension of the eviction process. The process was thus frozen until 5th February this year when the Wildlife Division wrote through the Digya National Park to serve a fresh notice of eviction on the community.

Meanwhile, the ministry of Lands and Forestry has not taken any decision on the recent petition of the settlers. According to the Public Relations Officer of the ministry, Mr. Akwasi Sarpong the minister has been out of town and could not confirm whether or not he had received the petition.

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