Lagos — It is a paradox of note: the fact that while Nigerians live in the world's sixth-largest oil producer, most of them still rely on wood for their fuel.
Of the country's population of over 140 million, about 70 percent live in rural areas and are directly or indirectly dependent on forest resources -- especially wood -- to meet their domestic energy needs, says Musa Amiebinomo of the national Department of Forestry.
This is leading to destruction of forest cover, a situation aggravated by illegal commercial logging.
Figures from the 2005 ' State of the World's Forests' report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) indicate that between 1990 and 2005, Nigeria lost 35.7 percent of its forest cover.
Boniface Egboka, an environmentalist and dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at Anambra State University in south-eastern Nigeria, blames the continued use of firewood on corruption.
"Nigeria is still dependent of firewood when we have abundant oil and gas because our so-called leaders are fraudulent and corrupt. They care less about the welfare of the citizens and so they allow the forests to be mowed down," he told IPS.
"We have no reason to be using firewood. We have the financial and human resources to pipe gas into homes for domestic use We are deforesting the whole of the north through harvesting of wood for fire, and now we are shifting the savannah southwards into the rain forest through logging."
Nigeria's first forestry act was passed by the British colonial authorities in 1937. It established a forest reserve system under which certain areas could be exploited for timber by firms and individuals granted licenses to do so. Replanting was expected to prevent these areas from becoming depleted.
The 1988 National Agricultural Policy further sought to ensure sustainable use of forests, and to expand wooded land to 20 percent of the country's territory. According to the FAO report, 12.2 percent of Nigeria's land is currently forested.
While there is currently no law against the felling of trees for firewood except in protected areas, chopping of oil palms and of mango, cashew, cocoa and cola-nut trees is controlled through by-laws because of the economic value of such trees.
But, legislation alone has proved unable to protect Nigeria's forests.
"There are forests called priority areas or nature conservation areas, which means logging is not permitted at all. But even where you have these laws, people do not obey them -- and nothing happens to illegal loggers," said Peter Nwilo, co-ordinator of the Regional Centre for Environmental Information Management System at the University of Lagos.
Even loggers who obtain felling licenses are known to act illegally, harvesting trees of all sizes, including those considered too young to be chopped down. However, certain officials in the state forestry departments, where permission to log is usually obtained, continue to renew the yearly licenses of these loggers, allegedly as a result of bribes from logging firms.
Notes Philip Asiodu, president of the Nigeria Conservation Foundation, a non-governmental organisation based in the financial hub of Lagos: "It is not the lack of good laws or policies and programmes (that is at issue), but simply the lack of will and discipline to observe and implement them by a compromised, corrupt bureaucracy."
Illegal loggers mostly ship timber abroad, particularly to Asia. Some of the logs are also sold to local lumber mills, which produce planks for sale to Nigerian furniture companies, and builders.
The depletion of forest cover has been especially severe in central and northern Nigeria, opening the door to soil erosion and desertification. It is widely reported that 350,000 hectares of land in the country are lost to desertification annually.
So, where does the solution to all these problems lie?
A government blueprint for developing Nigeria in the period until 2010 -- 'Vision 2010' -- has suggested measures that include a ban on the export of logs, incentives for private investment in forests, greater community participation in forest management -- and the encouragement of reforestation with species yielding fruit, gum, and other crops that are of economic value to communities.
'Vision 2010' also calls for the development and promotion of other energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and the use of gas and coal, as alternatives to wood.
In 1999 authorities initiated plans to pipe Nigeria's abundant natural gas for commercial and domestic use. But to date, only a few industrial areas in Lagos have benefited from this project.
"We are presently trying to link industrial estates with gas Domestic users will come on stream much later because we need to plan the network. Most residential areas in Lagos are not well planned, and this will make the piping of gas into residential houses for domestic use a bit difficult. But it will be done eventually," says an official from Gaslink, a subsidiary of the OANDO petroleum company, which is carrying out the gas piping project in Lagos.
This means that people who want to use gas in their homes are still obliged to buy cylinders at about 21 dollars each to use on portable gas stoves that sell for between 80 and about 165 dollars -- prices beyond the reach of many.
"I cannot remember when last I used my gas stove. I still have the two gas cylinders in my store, hoping for a day when gas will be cheaper," Caroline Akande, a school teacher in Iwaya, a suburb of Lagos, told IPS. "Presently I use a kerosene stove, and an electric stove whenever there is electricity."
According to the 2006 Human Development Report, produced by the United Nations Development Programme, 70.8 percent of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day -- and 92.4 percent on less than two dollars per day.
In the absence of effective measures to safeguard Nigeria's forestry resources, an increasing number of areas are likely to go the way of Ogori village, in central Kogi state.
"When we were growing up in the sixties, we used to go into the dense forests that surrounded our village to collect snails or set traps for rodents and other animals," John Atere, another teacher, told IPS.
"But today the forests are no longer there, and snails and wild animals have disappeared."