The state of Nigeria’s forests

David Ladipo, ladipoolajide@yahoo.com

The IITA forest. Photo by K. Lopez, IITA.
The IITA forest. Photo by K. Lopez, IITA.

Nigeria is blessed with a large expanse of land and variable vegetation, but this important resource is not sustainably used or managed. Many rural dwellers in the past have treated our forest resources as inexhaustible.

Today the story is different. The average rural dweller now realizes that the forest is “finished,” but poverty continues to force people to exploit even the relics of remaining forests.

The Federal Government has, over the years, attempted to generate baseline data on the state of our forests including their use. These studies have provided data for a better understanding of the state of forest resources, the rate of environmental degradation, and the rate of forest depletion.

They also emphasize that present-day forest cover is under pressure as a result of human activities such as agricultural development where vast lands are cleared without conservation considerations, large-scale peri-urban housing project development, fuelwood generation, uncontrolled forest harvesting including poaching for logs and poles, and urbanization.

Pterocarpus soyauxii (local name: Silk-cotton) in IITA. Photo by J. Peacock, IITA.
Pterocarpus soyauxii (local name: Silk-cotton) in IITA. Photo by J. Peacock, IITA.

In Nigeria, deforestation or loss of vegetation or the selective exploitation of forests for economic or social reasons is very common. In most areas major losses have been recorded in vegetation, forest complexity (diversity), or in germplasm (quality).

The deforestation rate in the country is about 3.5% per year, translating to a loss of 350,000–400,000 ha of forest land per year. Recent studies show that forests now occupy about 923,767 km2 or about 10 million ha. This is about 10% of Nigeria’s forest land area and well below FAO’s recommended national minimum of 25%. Between 1990 and 2005 alone, the world lost 3.3% of its forests while Nigeria lost 21%.

In addition, some state governments are removing the protected status from forest estates without regard for the environment. The State Forest Departments have been unable to curtail the spate of requests to establish large-scale oil palm plantations in forest estates. The unfortunate impression that has thus been created is that the forest estate exists as a land bank for other sectors as demands continue nationwide.

As the forests are exploited, so too is the biodiversity. Plant and animal genetic resources are also lost with this important genetic resource, vital for breeding in future. Conserving the wild relatives of cultivated crops is also needed.

What factors continue to threaten biodiversity and contribute to poverty? These include deforestation, desertification, habitat alteration, invasive alien species (plants and animals) importation, poor land management (fire and agricultural systems + grazing), climate change, unilateral development decisions, poor political accountability, and poor budget allocation, release, and implementation.

Young Milicia excelsa (Iroko). Photo by J. Peacock.
Young Milicia excelsa (Iroko). Photo by J. Peacock.

We cannot afford not to conserve our forests and thus lose the vital ingredients of rural development. The situation is getting worse every day and the need for forest conservation and restoration is becoming critical.

With the new National Forestry Policy and the National Document on Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan, a new approach is needed now on forestry resources conservation in Nigeria. Enforcement and a community approach will produce positive results.

All stakeholders need to understand that biodiversity is critical to the maintenance of a healthy environment. Its role is enormous in meeting human needs while maintaining the ecological processes upon which our survival depends. Biodiversity not only provides direct benefits such as food, medicine, and energy; it also affords us a “life support system.”

Biodiversity is required for the recycling of essential elements. It is also responsible for mitigating pollution, protecting watersheds, and combating soil erosion. Controlling deforestation will ensure that biodiversity exists and can help reduce the impacts of climate change and thus act as a buffer against excessive variations in weather and climate. It can then protect us from catastrophic events.

Increasing our knowledge about biodiversity can transform our values and beliefs. Knowledge about biodiversity is valuable in stimulating technological innovation and providing the framework for sustainable development. Let us protect our forests as a start.