Chief Kolawole Lawal is the Ogun State Commissioner for Forestry. He speaks with DOYIN ADEOYE on the various projects of the ministry and how forest reserves in the nation can serve as a means for generating revenue, among other issues.
The ministry in collaboration with the Tai Solarin University of Education (TASUED) is planning to establish a zoological and biological garden. What is the status of the project now?
It is a collaboration that has the backing of the state government under the able leadership of the governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun. We believe that having such in the state would give us some economic value and also serve as a platform for ecosystem study for students. It will also assist in grooming the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) of both the university and the state government and that is why we ventured into it.
We just signed the Memorandum of Collaboration, so we are in the process of getting a feasibility study that will be bankable and attractive to investors.
Such project is not only time consuming, but also involves a lot of financial commitment. Has the ministry taken these into consideration, and how soon will it take off?
The project is partly social and partly economic. We have gone a long way in getting all the necessary requirements in terms of an enabling environment, government’s support, the political will, as well as availability of resources such as the land needed. A place has been earmarked for the project and we are working on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the feasibility study. So before the end of the year, we would have gone far on the project.
The state recently launched the ‘Green Ogun’ project. What exactly is this about?
We really appreciate the governor’s approach to the environment, as he believes in an environment that is safe and can attract investors. This is a state that has invested so much on infrastructure and attracting investors to the state. So you can imagine if an investor is coming from a long distance and needs to get to Lagos before heading to Abeokuta. There are days when one gets stuck in the traffic for many hours on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. This is often caused by the illegal trailers parked along the road, the illegal dumpsites, the shanties and the filling stations encroaching on the setbacks.
From time immemorial, there is supposed to be a 70-metre setback on both sides, 45 metres for the Federal Government and 25 metres for the state. But unfortunately now you will find property on the setback. So what the state government wants to do now is to take ownership of those setbacks and develop it to a global standard.
Highways in so many other developed countries are always so appealing unlike what it is here, where people take over the highway without minding whether there is law or not. So government wants to take ownership of the setback and develop it.
We will develop it from Iseri-Berger down to Sapade; from Abeokuta to Sagamu through the interchange and from Shiun to Ogere. We want to develop the 25 metres setback that belongs to the government. So from the 70 metres setback, about five metres will be for pedestrian walkway, about 7.5 metres for outer service lane, and the remaining will be for planting trees and grassing.
How does the ministry address the issue of people putting permanent structures on forest reserves?
According to Ogun State’s forestry laws, you can’t put permanent structures on forest reserves. Back in the days, the most you will see on forest reserves are farm houses built with palms because it is only meant for relaxation after work. But surprisingly now, you will find well structured buildings on forest reserves. So we have called and warned them that permanent structures in reserves will have to be demolished. We are not evicting them from the reserve, but we don’t want permanent structures there, because we can use the place for anything at anytime.
This government, especially our governor will like to develop our forest reserves to the standard that is attainable all over the world. We have nine forest reserves in the state and some of them have been depleted to probably five per cent of their original size. That is a major challenge. Another issue we have is with the cocoa farmers, as they have turned some of the reserves to cocoa plantations.
Is there any form of agreement between the ministry and these cocoa farmers?
Yes there is. The agreement is based on agroforestry, where they can plant arable crops alongside our economic trees. They can plant maize, cassava or crops that can be harvested in a year; they cannot plant cash crops. But given that opportunity, they are now destroying our economic trees to plant cocoas. We even gave them the opportunity to leave and continue to harvest the ones they might have planted prior to 2004, inasmuch as they don’t plant new ones, but unfortunately, they keep planting new ones. So when we see a new cocoa tree that is not fruiting, we destroy it, because cocoas are weeds to our economic trees.
Deforestation has no doubt become a national environmental issue. What is being done at the state level here to address it?
According to the United Nations, Nigeria landmass has 25 per cent forest cover. But as we speak now, we have less than five per cent forest cover. So there is need for all of us to be involved in tree planting. One of my goals for the year is to regenerate 2,500 hectares annually. So to achieve this, we are working in collaboration with NGOs and development banks.
Everybody is talking about climate change and global warming, but then what happens to our wildlife? This ministry has about 10,000 hectares conserved for wildlife in Omo Forest Reserve that we don’t touch at all. And it is the goal of this ministry to conserve additional 10,000 hectares for biodiversity preservation and ecotourism development. That reflects the encouragement that we are getting from our governor. Also currently, we have almost a million tree seedlings that we have nursed, and we give out free to people so that they can plant trees.
How do you think the issue of illegal felling of trees in the nation generally can be addressed?
Nigeria is good at making laws but implementation remains the problem. But I believe that with the current administration, there will be more enforcement of laws. There are laws against illegal felling of trees but people would rather ignore it because they know that nothing will be done if they break the law.
On the part of the state, we are working seriously to resolve our forestry laws, as it is currently with our Ministry of Justice. Meanwhile, we have groups that monitor activities in our forest reserves. We have the Central Law Control (CLC), Special Task Force (STF) and the monitoring teams. We also have our forest guards and Divisional Forest Programming Officers (DFPO) that are all over our ranges.
Ogun State is one of the few environmental conscious states in the country, with many groups in the state involved in one tree planting campaign or the other. How do you ensure that the trees planted are sustained?
Like I said, we distribute free seedlings and we ensure that we monitor their planting to the time that they are fully grown. We also ensure that we visit the farms often. The state has many tree planters. For instance, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has a lot of tree plantations, as well as Chief Bisi Shodipe in Ijebu Ode and Dr Ade Abolurin, among others. So we have records of so many plantations in the state.
Games reserves are good sources of revenue generation in many countries. How do you think Nigeria can also tap into this?
There is need to invest in that for ecotourism. And that is why Ogun State is collaborating with Lafarge and the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) to develop two of our reserves, Imeko and Aworo, which are in western part of the state.
The project is aimed at developing about 108,000 hectares. It has been degraded and deforested before now and we want to regenerate it.
Many perpetrators of illegal felling of trees in reserves are often well armed. How well trained are the forest guards in handling the situation?
It is true that many of these perpetrators are often fully armed. So what we have done is to collaborate with security agencies like the police, the army and the civil defence, and it has been worthwhile. But there is also need to equip them more. The guards are on 24-hour service and are working extensively to ensure that everything is under control. We recently arrested someone at one of our reserves; it was around 2 a.m. and although the man escaped, we got hold of his car, where we found a gun. The car was taken to the police station, but unfortunately, he is yet to be arrested. So we are doing our best.
The ministry is also working on generating energy from sawdust…
Yes. This is because all over the country you see sawdust wasting away. Recently, the Energy Commission of Nigeria in collaboration with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) came together and realised that in Ebonyi State, they use rice shaft to generate energy. So they were in Ogun State and saw that we have so much sawdust which can be used in generating energy. The project is being discussed at the moment and we are waiting for the implementation.