Five communities in Ekiti State groan under the activities of loggers, who have over the years made life difficult for them.
The road got worse and worse. And with the thought that there couldn't possibly be more challenges ahead, deemed as the journey progressed. Signs that all was not well with the socio-economic life of Irele, Oke Ako, Itapaji and Iyemero communities in Ekiti State were all there. Ogbe, another community on the boundary of Kogi and Ekiti States, shares a similar fate.
Indiscriminate logging activities in their forests have left them worse than can be imagined.
"It all started in 2002," says Babalola Medayedupin as he peeps out from the door of his house pointing in the direction of the activities of the coal merchants.
"If not that God has been with us, we would have been wiped out a long time ago.
"The Tivs from Benue State arrived on our land in 2002. They wanted land for farming and we gave to them enormous land for crop growing, but suddenly around 2005 they started encroaching into the forests bringing down the existing trees for charcoal business."
This shift is the result of the growing demand for coal globally, explains Austin Eremosele, a livelihood expert.
According to Eremosele, coal remains a critical component of the world's energy supply despite its impact on the environment.
He says, "In China, the demand for coal in 2010 caused a traffic jam 75 miles long by more than 10,000 trucks carrying supplies from Inner Mongolia."
But, in Irele, Oke Ako, Itapaji and Iyemero, residents are exposed to the dire impact of climate change. For instance, the logging of trees that were supposed to serve as wind breakers now makes the communities susceptible to windstorms, just as it is already having an impact on their streams that have continued to dry up. When THISDAY visited the communities, the evidence was glaring.
"Our stream water comes from under the trees, and since the trees are no more, it's natural that the water too will disappear. They have turned the whole place into a desert and cash crops are no longer possible to grow for us who rely on agriculture to eke a living," says Akintunde Abiodun, a 65-year old man who had lived in Ire all his life.
In these communities, THISDAY investigation shows that the charcoal merchants ply their trade by cutting down trees in the former forest areas. These are subsequently buried in the soil, petrol-soaked and set ablaze to produce coal; they will thereafter bag the charcoal and freight it from the communities using heavy trucks that also damage the existing roads due to their size and recklessness.
Residents who spoke to THISDAY talked about the thick forests they used to have which contained a variety of indigenous tree species such as mahogany, teak, obeche, masonia, as well as wild animals like deer, wild pigs, antelopes, porcupines and grasscutters. They added that forest resources provide them food, abundant fruits, fuel wood for domestic use, and herbs for medicinal needs among others. All these have been depleted over time due to the cutting down of the trees for charcoal business, unsustainable logging practices as well as indiscriminate bush/forest fires.
THISDAY gathered from the loggers that officials of the Ekiti State Forestry Department, represented by the forest guards, are aware of the indiscriminate felling of trees and other unsustainable activities in the forests but have deliberately turned a blind eye because of the monies (official and unofficial) made from the loggers. They claimed their activities are legitimate.
Perhaps charcoal from these communities are parts of the supply to China, India, Germany and other countries where there is growing demand for coal.
A researcher, Tosin Akinola, says the global demand for coal is expected to grow to 8.9 billion tons by 2016 from 7.9 billion tons this year, but charcoal making process, which involved cutting down of smaller trees to serve as buffer for the huge heaps as well as the burning process on the soil, is impacting on the essential microorganisms that could ensure soil fertility and soil tilth and the cleanup of all the dead organic material for a sustainable livelihood in the affected communities.
"What is happening in this community is too dangerous. The government must rise up to their defence. It is a deadly activity with grave implication," he says.
In the communities, only stray goats have the courage to roam about. Medayedupin reveals that before the advent of the loggers the communities boasted of huge and valuable trees, antelopes and grass cutters as well as various species of plants used for medicinal purposes. The situation has however changed as the trees are now gone and hunters go farther into the forest before making any animal catch.
He said: "All the animals have retreated back into the bush. Before now you can see them coming out almost into the centre of the communities, but that has changed completely now. The biggest threat today is that the loggers are now encroaching deeper into the remaining natural forest covers. Aside the degraded environment, the loss of livelihoods among the mainly farming community people is also creating threat to the peace in the communities as the community folks are waking up to the reality of standing up to fight their enemies. If government refuses to intervene, we are going to chase out the loggers from the remaining forest by force."
The former chair, Buyers of Charcoal Association in Oke Ako , Bunmi Medale blamed the woes of the communities on their leaders. She says, "They gave out these lands without consultation and deliberately turn a blind eye on these indiscriminate actions because they are given financial returns. When you look around all you see is grass but these places used to be heavily vegetated that you can hardly pass through. At that time, the grass-cutter that is synonymous with this town can be caught easily even without setting traps because they run around the edge of the forest but now they are not easily seen because all the activity going on inside the forest has chased them further inside. The impacts are not only in the forest; go into the town you will notice that the streams have dried up because there are no more trees to trap water. It is sad."
And a chief in the community confirms it too, Rebecca Afolayan says, "We all knew when the forest was rich and sustained us. We are now witnesses to the degradation and lack it has unleashed on us."
The Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth (ERA/FoEN's) Head of Media, Philip Jakpor, said that his organisation's earlier site visit and testimonies gathered from the residents also unearthed and documented grave violation of the environment in the communities.
He said: "We reiterate our position in solidaity with the Irele, Oke Ako and Itapaji among others, in rejecting the use of their forests for unsustainable practices which logging and chacoal business represents. The Ekiti State government must also investigate the alleged collection of shady levies from the loggers."
The way forward, says ERA/FoEN, is social justice for the affected communities.
In a petition to Ekiti State government, the rights group says it is disturbing to see communities go through inhuman treatment of this kind, especially in view of the irreplaceable role of forests as a major economic and aesthetic resource that cannot be left in the hands of individuals and corporations.
In its Pettition, ERA/FOeN demands for the immediate intervention of the Ekiti State government to halt the indiscriminate cutting down of trees for charcoal production and other uses that are not sustainable. It asks for a two-year moratorium on logging. The group also demands for the introduction of a comprehensive afforestation programme to replace degraded forests in Oke Ako, Irele, Itapaji and Iyemero among other impacted communities.
It says the government must as a matter of urgency undertake enlightenment and awareness campaign on radio and television and other useful medium to discourage unsustainable logging practices and promotion of sustainable practices, including accelerating the commencement of dialogue between the government, impacted communities and other critical stakeholders on sustainable forest management practices, while initiating laws prohibiting the indiscriminate cutting down of trees in Ekiti State.