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RED GOLD PROJECT: Battle for soul of depleting Nigerian forest reserve (PART I)

RED GOLD PROJECT: Battle for soul of depleting Nigerian forest reserve (PART I)
January 12
08:13 2024

This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.


“I’m a happy man today,” Rotimi Akeredolu, then governor of Ondo state, south-west Nigeria, told investors on June 10, 2021, when he launched the Red Gold Project, an oil palm development initiative.

“I call on investors to come. This is a haven for industrial development. We cannot do without palm oil. We are taking the Red Gold project seriously. It will help us reduce our reliance on crude oil.”

Akeredolu died on December 27…Photo credit: Twitter

Ondo is not just a top agricultural state producing major cash crops; it is also one of the major states producing crude oil, the country’s major source of revenue. With the dwindling oil revenue came the realisation to diversify into agriculture, the nation’s former cash cow before the oil boom of the 1970s. The government began to look inward towards generating more forex exchange revenue through the promotion of agricultural exports by encouraging states to come up with initiatives.

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The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) created a window for states to develop useful commodities for import substitution. Palm oil topped the table. The apex bank said it would return Nigeria to being one of the leading global producers of palm oil.

In 2019, the CBN launched the Oil Palm Development Initiative to close the existing palm oil supply gap of 1.25 million MT annually, develop the oil palm value chain, increase productivity, create jobs, and diversify the economy away from crude oil and volatility in crude oil prices. The national bank set up an intervention fund for state governments to participate in the scheme.

A few months later, the CBN said it had committed about N30 billion ($33.6 million) to the initiative.

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“Our target is to ensure that a minimum of 1.4 million hectares of land is put under oil palm cultivation in three years. As a step in this direction, the bank met with 14 state governors who pledged to make available 100,000 hectares of land in each state,” Godwin Emefiele, the former CBN governor, said, adding that Nigeria spends $500 million on oil palm importation annually.

“We currently have a total of 904,624 hectares available in the states for allocation and investors have been matched with the states of interest to process the necessary documentation and titling requirements. The investors are to be funded from the bank’s intervention programme.

“Our ultimate vision is to overtake Thailand and Columbia to become the third largest producers over the next few years.”

Ondo was among the states that bought into the CBN initiative with its Red Gold Project. The state allocated thousands of hectares of land at the Oluwa Forest Reserve (OA3A) in Odigbo LGA for this purpose. The land allocation was handed over to SAO Agro-Allied Services Limited, a private agro-investor, for palm oil cultivation.

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Cocoa pods sun-dried outside one of the huts in a camp in the Oluwa forest reserve… Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

But here is the problem. The forest reserve already had occupants—smallholder farmers who had cultivated the land for about 30 years. They were primarily cocoa farmers who had built camps with clay and rusted roofs in the forest. Inside the cocoa farms were kolanut trees, cassava, yam, maize, and plantains.

Nevertheless, SAO Agro moved into the forest with full force and left trails of blood and devastation. Decades of sweat were brought down in a few hours as thousands of cocoa trees were flattened.

SORROW, TEARS FROM THE FOREST

On April 18, scores of soldiers, police officers, and local security guards, armed to the teeth, descended on the once-peaceful forest. The officials from SAO Agro waved documents at the farmers, saying the state government had sold the land to the company and anybody who stood in their way would be crushed.

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Abiodun and her husband abandoned their home in the forest after the death of their daughter… Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

Abiodun Idowu was tending to cocoa with Esther, her one-year-old daughter, strapped to her back when the revving engines of the bulldozers jerked into her farm. Her mind went ablaze and tears flowed. While scampering around the farm, begging, hoping the invaders would show mercy, Idowu slipped and fell on her back. Her weight rested on the infant. But the bulldozers did not stop. They continued to scrape the cocoa trees on Abiodun’s farm.

By the time Kehinde, Abiodun’s husband, and other farmers took her to the hospital in Ore, a nearby town, the baby was pronounced dead on arrival. The child was buried the next day. With nothing to fall back on, they left the forest and moved to town to search for jobs. Their next-door neighbour, Kole Akinde, whose farm was also destroyed, also left the forest. His wife left him when his means of survival vanished, and he found solace in alcohol.

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When Oyelayo Isiaka returned to his farm and met the big machines pulling off cocoa trees he had planted since 2007 from their roots, he slumped. Other farmers who were running around to save their farms quickly picked him up and doused him in water. He started harvesting pods from the farm in 2010 and had looked forward to profiting for another four decades.

Isiaka slumped when he heard that his cocoa farm had been destroyed… Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

“I didn’t know I could come out alive from that incident. I didn’t see the people around me. It was as though I was seeing angels in white. I was revived. You would have come here today to see my burial ground,” Isiaka said.

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“I have lost a lot on that farm. Feeding my two wives and seven children has become difficult. Some time ago, I returned to the farm and shed tears. Now I’m a labourer working for my colleagues, whose farms are still intact. I have to beg other farmers for everything I need, including yams. It’s more like from grace to grass.”

Gabriel Oladuni suffered a similar fate. He had an accident while on his way to the forest in 2015 and has been bedridden since then. His wife, Alice, would take care of him and also attend to their farm. When the news of the destruction of his cocoa farm got to him, he slumped and had a stroke.

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Alice used to make about N3 million ($3,363) from her farm annually. Now, she begs other farmers for food… Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

He has relocated to his hometown, while his wife stayed behind and had to beg other farmers for leftovers.

Akintayo Adeolu’s face still oozes pure pain. When he had an accident on his farm ten years ago and his dominant right hand was amputated, it did not stop him from going back. The farm was his only means of survival. With aged parents and children in higher institutions of learning, Adeolu expanded his farm to make more profit. In less than one hour, the bulldozers knocked down the cocoa trees.

“We begged them, but our appeals fell on deaf ears. The soldiers flogged me mercilessly. I cried, and my children joined. They didn’t care,” Akintayo told TheCable.

Adeolu…Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

“In a year, the least I make from that farm is N15 million ($16,816). My child at the polytechnic had to stop because I couldn’t pay the fees again. The company has planted palm trees on my farm. I cannot return there again because the evil is done. We practically beg to be fed, yet we cannot leave here. My years of labour are gone.”

‘THE GOVERNMENT TRICKED US’

Some of the farmers at the Oluwa forest reserve… Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

Abayomi Isinleye, the 60-year-old chairman of the farmer association in the forest, said the settlement used to be very lively. Petrol generators would light up the camps in the evening, there was more than enough food, and farmers were able to send their children to universities across the country. But the crisis changed everything, and the camps were getting deserted after occupants lost their farms.

“I came here in 1996 and I met some people who were already cultivating cocoa in the forest. The king of Odigbo was the one who assigned the forest to the farmers. We sold the proceeds of our cocoa farms to the Ondo state government until the crisis started two years ago,” Isinleye told TheCable.

“Before the crisis started, the government invited farmers to Akure, the state capital. We went there and the government officials asked about our location and what we planted. They welcomed us and commended us for feeding the population. They said it was because of our efforts that the state has one of the best grades of cocoa in the country.

“During the meeting, they said the reason they called us was because they wanted us to pay taxes for the land to the government. Before, the forest guards used to collect taxes from us. It wasn’t a fixed price. They collect up to a million naira or less. The governor said we needed to have an association as Ondo state farmers. They made three identity cards for us. We were charged N3,000 ($4) for the first one, N5,000 ($6) for the second, and N7,000 ($8) for the third one. The government officials later came to survey the farmlands in the forest and we were given a document stating that we had become recognised farmers in the state.

“Thereafter, they said we’d be paying N10,000 ($11) tax per hectare. We cultivated over 518 hectares of land in this camp. So, we have been paying about N6 million ($6,726) in taxes to the government as and when due, and we have the receipts for this year. When the governor wanted to go for a second tenure in 2020, he had another meeting with us and said that he wanted to take our names to the national assembly so that we could become ‘federal-registered farmers’. He asked us to vote for him, and that he would do everything he had promised us.

“After we voted for him and he got re-elected, that was when we overheard he had sold all the lands in the forest to agro-investors and all farmers were asked to leave. The government did not dialogue with us on the plan to send us out of the forest reserve. When the investors came to tell us, we told them we had nowhere else to go and we were ready to resist the quit notice. But they came with 16 bulldozers and overwhelmed us with security officers.”

As the investor jumped from one farm to the next, tearing down cocoa trees to spread its tentacles across the forest, the farmers wailed. They ran from pillar to post, begging the community and traditional leaders to intervene. Nothing came out of it. They proceeded to court and filed a lawsuit against the state and the agro-allied company.

Isinleye showing this reporter bullet holes in one of the buildings in the camp after the farmers were allegedly attacked by thugs… Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

In May, Justice Aderemi Adegoroye of the Ondo state high court granted an interim injunction restraining the state government and others from further grading or continuing to grade the cocoa plantations, which he described as an act of anarchy as the farmlands were the only source of survival for the farmers.

The farmers felt some respite. But it did not last long. Despite the injunction, the investor graded more cocoa farms and planted palm trees in their stead. The farmers mobilised to resist the expansion, but thugs attacked them and riddled the camps with bullets. The farmers stood their ground, overpowered the assailants, and recovered guns and motorcycles. Yet, the attacks on the farms continued.

‘WE HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO CALL HOME’

A cocoa plantation at the Oluwa forest reserve… Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

“We have more than 3,000 farmers in our camp and there are more than 14 camps in the forest. Farmers, who were making millions of naira annually, are now begging for food. We have nowhere to call home. We are suffering,” Nurudeen Oladipupo, who had farmed in the forest for two decades, told TheCable. His voice beamed with anger and frustration.

“We went to court because that is where our only hope lies. That is our last hope. We know the government owns the court, but no one is above the law. If not, it is going to be another Agbekoya revolt. We are ready to face the guns and die.”

The Agbekoya uprising of the late 1960s in south-west Nigeria was orchestrated by peasant cocoa farmers to agitate against excessive taxation by the government. The armed struggle led to violence and bloodshed across the region.

Yemi Ilesanmi, a 40-year-old farmer, said she was ready to join the men in the resistance against the takeover of their farms by the government and investors. Ilesanmi graduated with a degree in business administration from Lagos State University in 2003. Armed with her credentials, she walked the length and breadth of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial city, for a job, but she could not secure a reliable one. She left Lagos, got married, and joined her husband in the forest to till the soil.

For Ilesanmi, leaving the city and its allure to embrace farming in the forest of a rural community was a very difficult decision she had to take. But when the farm began to yield produce, life became better. She could laugh all the way to the bank and fend for her four children comfortably. The only place you can call home is where you have peace and a job to keep life going, she said.

Ilesanmi joined her husband on the farm after years of job hunting in Lagos without success… Photo credit: Taiwo Adebulu

“This forest is our home. We don’t want any alternative land. Do you know what it means to leave your home, enter the forest, plant food, and nurse it until it starts yielding fruits after some years? We have been doing this for about 30 years,” Isinleye told TheCable.

“How do we start afresh when you displace us from here with the thought that resettlement can solve it? What if another government decides to chase us away from the new settlement? Are we going to be displaced all our lives because we want to provide food for a nation battling with food insecurity and inflation? Farmers are the last hope in the world. Or is it a crime to be a small-scale farmer? The forest reserve is so massive that it will contain the smallholders and the big investors. The question we keep asking them is: Why our cocoa farms?

But conservationists are asking a different question: why is no one talking about how the conflict between the farmers, investors, and government is encroaching on the reservation of the forest, which is a sanctuary for the endangered Nigerian-Cameroonian chimpanzees and other animals on the verge of extinction?

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