Odigha Odigha has taken on governments and corporations in true David versus Goliath style to protect his beloved forest in Cross River State, southern Nigeria. But what comes across during conversations is his unwavering determination rather than a boastful list of successes.
“Forests mean life for us,” he says. “I hope I will be remembered for preserving them.”
Odigha was born in the district of Ikom in Cross River State in 1957 and spent much of his childhood roaming the rainforest with his grandfather. The area is a biodiversity hotspot: it’s home to about 20% of the world’s butterfly species and hosts the highest diversity of primates on the planet (including the highly endangered drills, gorillas and chimpanzees). It was during these formative years that Odigha developed a consciousness of how unique the forest was.
Through Business to Politics
Odigha left his native district in 1976 to study math and statistics before earning an MBA and doing his national service.
“I was inspired to study business by my mother: she was a very entrepreneurial woman,” he says. “There is also a lot of micro-enterprise in Cross River State, but many of these small businesses were badly run. I thought an MBA would give me the skills to add value to these businesses.”
When he went back to Cross River in 1986, however, he was dismayed at the state of the forest (about 90% of the rainforest in Nigeria has been lost since the 1960s).
“I saw oppressed local people, cocoa farmers exploited and forest products being taken without adequate compensation, and I felt I had to use my skills to put these issues right,” he says.
Cocoa farming was the cornerstone of the local economy, yet the industry was in disarray: farmers were poorly organized, crops sold at a loss, contracts rarely drawn up between buyers and sellers. Odigha therefore took it upon himself to re-organize the local cocoa buyers association, establishing a business plan, bringing farmers together, teaching basic accounting skills and raising awareness about the value of local forests.
“My idea was to rationalize the use of local resources,” he says. “I thought that if people earned enough with cocoa farming, they would not need to find alternative sources of income and turn to logging.”
Odigha worked extensively among local communities, and it was then that friends suggested he get involved in local politics.
“People said I would get more results working as a local politician, that I would have more influence and better resources,” he says.
Odigha took the leap and first got involved with his local government in 1987. A year later, he became representative of the People’s Front of Nigeria (later known at the Social Democratic Party, SDP) for Cross River State.
Odigha hoped that by lobbying at the national level, he would be able to hold logging companies more accountable and promote the rights of local people. But the 1993 presidential elections changed everything: deemed the first democratic elections of the country’s history, they gave Moshood Abiola of the SDP a clear victory. Incumbent ruler Ibrahim Babangida, however, saw it differently: he annulled the elections and re-instated himself as president. Nigeria plunged into political turmoil, a process that eventually led to dictator Sani Abacha seizing power in 1994.
“This event really upset my belief in democracy,” Odigha says. “We wanted to campaign for fairness and justice, and there was a government which clearly didn’t believe in that. Nothing good was ever going to come out of it. That’s when I decided to go it alone and set up my own NGO.”
From Politics to Activism
He sold what little he had to get the Coalition for the Environment (NGOCE) set up in 1994 and set about raising awareness about Cross River State, its forests, its people and the devastating impact of commercial logging.
“Our mandate was to advocate the protection of the rainforest, and we did this at every level: locally, regionally, nationally, even with the international community,” he says.
A first victory came in 1995, when Odigha successfully forced Hong-Kong-based Western Metal Products Company (WEMPCO), one of the most aggressive loggers in Cross River state, to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment. EIAs were compulsory under Nigerian law, but political interests had always over-ridden the requirement.
Odigha says a defining moment in his crusade to save Cross River forests came that year when he met Andrew Choi, then director of WEMPCO.
“He offered me Naira five million to stop lobbying against logging,” Odigha recalls. “It was a lot of money, but I refused, and he told me he would log Cross River until the very last tree. My response was just to increase the tempo of my activities.”
Odigha also encountered opposition from local people.
“I remember a local doctor telling me that my work was futile and that I should not waste my time,” he says. “I was determined to prove him wrong.”
More worryingly, Odigha’s campaign had ruffled many feathers among Abacha’s government. In 1995, fellow environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed for promoting the right of Ogoni people in the Niger Delta. Odigha therefore went into hiding for three years. It was only after Abacha’s death and with the return of civilian rule in 1998 that Odigha resumed his work in earnest.
Victories and Challenges
Odigha approached the newly elected governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke, and with him, managed to set up the first ever Forestry Commission in Nigeria and obtain a first logging moratorium in 2000. The commission lacked teeth but it included representatives from the government, private sector and civil society – Odigha was on the board – a definite step in the right direction.
In the end, the ban only lasted one year. The commission was chaired by a consultant with close ties to WEMPCO and opposition to logging was weak. In 2002, WEMPCO even obtained the renewal of their concession, so Odigha decided to step down. This was an enormous blow for him.
“My campaign was to shut them down and send them packing. So the granting of the concession for me was a psychological punishment,” he says.
Odigha’s determination and efforts didn’t go unnoticed among members of the international community, however. In 2003, he was awarded the Goldman Prize – an annual award recognizing the work of environmental activists around the world, often dubbed the “Green Nobel” – for his tireless advocacy to protect the rainforest and determination to build democratic institutions to manage local resources.
It was a small compensation for the hardship Odigha encountered on the way and a huge morale booster.
“It was confirmation and affirmation that I was on the right track, working on a cause that is appreciated by the international community,” he says. “It also brought up awareness and credibility on a much wider scale. People thought: ‘Well, if this man can be recognized internationally, then we’d better take what he says seriously.’”
And seriously they took him. Odigha continued his advocacy following his award, and the victories kept coming: in 2007, WEMPCO was ordered to close down all its operations in Cross River State and has not returned since. In 2008, the new Cross River State governor Liyel Imoke asked Odigha to organise a state-wide Stakeholders Environment Summit to discuss the future of environmental policy in Cross River. The meeting resulted in radical actions: Governor Imoke declared a two-year, moratorium on all logging. He also re-organised the Forestry Commission so that it would have a full-time board (board members used to be part-time representatives with little power) and set up the Illegal Logging Task Force to ensure the moratorium was enforced.
John-O Niles, director of the Tropical Forest Group, an international conservation organization and UN observer that has worked in Cross River for many years, says that Imoke and Odigha have shown unique leadership in international conservation.
“It was a very bold decision from the state government,” he says. “They basically agreed to forego one of the few revenue streams they had. The challenge will now be for Odigha to show the state that he can put real alternative money on the table and this is a monumental task.”
Niles says that Governor Imoke absolutely trusts Odigha. Odigha was named chairman and chief executive of the Forestry Commission in July last year, a very symbolic nomination to a body he helped set up 10 years previously. The trouble is whether the international community will rise to the challenge of supporting such visionary leaders: the Cross River Moratorium is one of only two such measures in the world, the other being in the state of Aceh, Indonesia.
Odigha is well aware that his priority is now to find alternative revenues for local communities. Logging may not have benefited many, but in an area where every little counts few have the luxury of supporting visionary thinking without evidence that it’ll deliver results.
The trouble is that many initiatives can take years before yielding results, so Imoke and Odigha are casting the net wide: REDD+, Payment for Ecosystem Services, agroforestry, ecotourism; no stone is left unturned.
“We are looking for low-hanging fruit that we can pick and present to our people,” Odigha says. “Our success depends on results. If we are able to generate income from non-timber activities, I feel very strongly that we can extend the logging moratorium.”
Odigha says he wants to go further than halting deforestation and also wants to restore ecosystems and extend forest cover, all of which would increase Cross River’s carbon stocks and potential revenues from carbon credits.
Another difficulty is that Cross River is a regional government and that much of the support granted towards REDD development is done at a national scale, even though more than half of the rainforest left in Nigeria is in Cross River. Niles says that Odigha and Imoke have successfully engaged with the Nigerian federal government in that respect. Odigha and Imoke played a crucial role in getting Nigeria accepted in the UN REDD programme; they also facilitated the country’s application to the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility.
Best of all perhaps, Governor Imoke and Odigha are the first representatives of an African state to join the influential Governors’ Climate and Forest Taskforce, an outfit bringing together several states from the USA, Brazil, Indonesia and now Nigeria, to promote cooperation on issues related to climate policy.
Odigha has also started campaigning about environmental issues more widely. At the Katoomba Meeting in Accra, Ghana, in October 2009, he told a cautionary tale of environmental demise and violence in the Niger Delta to an audience still high on the news that Ghana has oil (click the video below or scroll to the presentation at the bottom of this page for details).
The Oil Curse
“Oil was meant to be a blessing in Nigeria, but oil companies and the government just dispossessed local people of what God had given them,” he says. “I don’t think we would have degenerated to the current level of violence had the right of local people been taken into account.”
He says his other motivation was to demonstrate the role civil society can and must play.
“Politicians are rarely interested in what happens beyond their mandate. Four or five years is not long enough to build momentum; the same goes for businesses who are too short-sighted in their search for profit,” he says. “But when everybody else has to go, civil society will still be there. I have been working on forest preservation for 16 years.”
Most recently, Odigha and Governor Imoke gave a presentation at the COP15 Copenhagen Summit, calling on the international community to help them in their endeavour. The media spotlights of Copenhagen are a far cry from the lush forests of Cross River, but Odigha knows this is where his work is needed. His next calling perhaps.
“I can influence policy and the law now, and I have the power to make good, so I am happy in my new role,” he says resolutely. “But I still take people to the forest because you can’t just talk about solutions from sitting at your desk,” he says.
Niles says that Odigha and Governor Imoke “have done everything possibly imaginable to show real conservation results and international engagement.”
“This is precisely what the world needs to make a dent in tropical deforestation and the associated greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds. “If the international community wants to propel and expand tangible REDD+ leadership, right now is the time to show financial commitment and support.”
Presentations by Odigha Odigha at Recent Katoomba Events
At this year's Katoomba Meeting on Payments for Marine Ecosystem Services in California, Odigha delivered this presentation on the "Dutch Disease" and how abundant resources don't always translate into wealth for all:
The Perils of Resource Development for People, Environment, and Business (audio, mp3)
Presented by Odigha Odigha, Government of Cross River State, Nigeria
"Click here to download the PowerPoint presentation
At last year's Katooma Meeting in Accra, Ghana, Odigha chaired this discussion on the role of ecosystem services in the larger land-based economy.
Toward an Integrated Landscape Approach (audio, mp3)
Moderator: Odigha Odigha, Chairman, Cross Rivers State Forestry Commission, Nigeria
Emilie Filou is a free-lance writer specializing in African development issues and a regular contributor to Ecosystem Marketplace. She is based in London, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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