As EU demand for its cocoa surges, illegal deforestation threatens to destroy “critical forest corridor” in Nigeria


The Afi River Forest Reserve is losing 'large tracts' of primary forest believed to be a result of illegal land clearing for cocoa cultivation

Cross River State lost more than 16,000 hectares of tree cover in 2017, a near four-fold increase on losses the previous year. Photo: Creative Commons

Cross River State, home to some of Nigeria’s last remaining tropical rainforest and critically endangered gorillas, is facing new threats from illegal deforestation for cocoa, an NGO in the region has warned. Meanwhile, Earthsight research reveals that EU imports of cocoa from the country have been rising rapidly, and may be helping drive farmers into forest areas.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Nigeria raised the alarm after receiving reports that ‘large tracts’ of primary forest are being destroyed in the Afi River Forest Reserve, a 312km area in Cross River, southern Nigeria, for the illegal cultivation of a cocoa plantation.

In an April letter to the Cross River State Forestry Commission, the organisation urged authorities to act to prevent further destruction of the land which is also home to a dwindling gorilla population, The Guardian Nigeria reported.

“WCS is concerned by the ongoing deforestation which threatens to destroy this critical forest corridor,” WCS Nigeria director Dr Inaoyom Imong wrote in the letter.

“The loss of this corridor will have severe consequences for the long-term conservation of the population of critically endangered Cross River gorillas and other endangered species in the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Cross River State lost more than 16,000 hectares of tree cover in 2017, a near four-fold increase on losses the previous year, Earthsight analysis of Global Forest Watch data shows. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation said in 2018 that it believed the country had lost north of 90% of its forests to deforestation with illegal logging, palm oil cultivation and charcoal production the main drivers.

Nigeria is the world’s third largest producer of cocoa, with exports worth $0.8bn each year. Analysis of the latest trade data by Earthsight reveal that nearly three-quarters of exports are to the EU, which imported 248,000 tonnes last year, worth €0.5bn. We found that Nigeria supplies around 10% of the EU’s cocoa demand, with the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium among the largest importers. 

EU consumption of Nigerian cocoa is rising rapidly, with imports up 65% in just the last three years. Significant quantities are also being imported into the USA, nearly all of them by the multi-billion-dollar-turnover Sucden Group, an agri-commodities trading giant owned by French multi-millionaire Serge Varsano.

Nigeria is also a significant contributor to deforestation across West Africa, but it is often the mass production in nearby Ghana and Ivory Coast – the world’s largest producers – that hits the headlines. The pair suffered the highest increased loss of primary forest in 2018, according to GFW, with losses in Ghana spiking 60 per cent and 26% in Ivory Coast during the year, in part due to continued cocoa production.

In response to the WCS letter, Bette Obi, chair of the Cross River State Forestry Commission, told The Guardian Nigeria: “Our reserves are no go area but I cannot assure you that they are still 100 percent the way they should be.

“As far as that place is not de-reserved whatever they are doing there is illegal. We are on top of the matter and we are summoning the community to come here with those that are concerned so that we interact with them.”

Nationally, the Ministry of Environment has announced plans to create a new national forest management policy, while under the African Union-led Great Green Wall program – an afforestation initiative spanning 20 nations – Nigeria aims to increase forest cover by planting seedlings over 131,000ha.

Muhammadu Buhari’s government is also looking to taper the widespread Illegal logging and charcoal production that exists across the country and is in the process of establishing a National Timber and Forest Product Certification Council to improve practices in the area.

However, the threats facing the Afi River Forest Reserve remain. WCS Nigeria director Andrew Dunn remarked: “The remaining gorillas in Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mbe Mountains are endangered by the current deforestation going on inside Afi River Forest Reserve.

“[We] feel very strongly that new cocoa should be planted on areas that have already been degraded and not on the state’s remaining forest.”

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