Since about 35 years of a troubled existence as a former Wildlife Sanctuary and now Okomu National Park (ONP), the inestimable conservation enclave hadn’t suffered deadly violations as had been unleashed on it by the Okomu Oil Palm Company PLC (OkomuOil for short), under over two decades of tenacious stay by Dr. Graham Hefer as its Managing Director.
Surely, conservationists and villagers of the host communities of ONP, OkomuOil and others would readily be flabbergasted that Hefer, a South African immigrant to Nigeria, had supervised the extensive plundering of ONP by OkomuOil, a gigantic multinational plantation firm and Nigerian franchise of Socfin, the Octopus agro-allied conglomerate which was originated in faraway Belgium and Luxembourg in Europe.
Indeed, the plundering by the Hefer’s OkomuOil had encouraged the selfsame loggers and poachers, who Hefer, recently turned around to condemn as the real violators of the park.
Through choreographed and monotonous insertions of a news item that competed for choice spaces in the Nigerian media, Hefer, in a rather sanctimonious overcook attempted to misinform the public and whitewash his company. Titled “Another Lucky Elephant Rescued For National Park By Okomu Oil Palm PLC”, it added a sub-title, “…MD calls on Govt. to rescue Park and forest reserve from illegal loggers, total lack of law”.
Hefer was said to have “led a team of his staff to rescue a second elephant on behalf of the Okomu National Park, the first being in October 3, 2019”. He also appealed to “the Nigerian Government and other relevant authorities to rescue the Park and forest reserves from illegal loggers and others who have cultivated the habit of desecrating the natural habitat”.
ONP is a globally acclaimed conservation centre and valuable ecotourism destination, managed by the National Park Service (NPS), a Federal Government’s agency.
ONP is the last vestige of a (“protected”?) lowland rainforest habitat; the smallest in size amongst the old seven national parks, until recently when more of the parks were created. The park 200 sq. km by size and is situated at Okomu-Udo, in Ovia South West Local Government Area of Edo State, on about 50 minutes road distance from Benin City, the state capital. It is very rich in biodiversity and other attractions, with the said endangered African Lowland Rainforest Elephant (Loxodonta Africanna cyclotis), as one of its unique fauna flagships.
The wakeup call by Hefer though suitable, appeared lacking, coming from OkomuOil, a conservation-unfriendly business concern and a boss, who professes to love ONP and nature conservation principles, but soon reverses to do the opposite. Once beaten twice shy. If after confessing to conservation niceties and the overriding need of protecting the park in the past, OkomuOil sooner go ahead to plunder the same, what is the exactness to trusting the latest display of fickle love by its boss?
Firstly, it was outright falsehood that the multinational company “saved a distressed Elephant for the park on October 3, 2019”. Instead and evidently, OkomuOil was serially condemned by a preponderant public and a key civil society group, the Coalition Against Landgrabbing and Deforestation (CALD), after a thorough investigation that workers of the company did attacked with cutlasses and cudgels, the said Elephant, which strayed into its newest plantations, the original home and wandering range and buffers of the park, which the company had grabbed and converted into oil palm plantation. This led to the death of the Elephant at the park’s quarantine, where it received medication. (“Okomu National Park’s Elephant” ThisDay: December 7, 2019: 12/07/okomu-national-park-elephant/)
Dr. Heifer as the boss, brought about the ‘casual workers’ rule, where thousands of OkomuOil’s workforce, especially the unskilled, are hazardously employed by contractors. They are un-gainfully employed, even without ‘pensions’ and willfully sacked, as against the labour laws. The army of sacked and new casual workers, who swell the population of the host communities, easily resort poaching in the park and illegal logging, where the company fails to train them to imbibe conservation principles and support the park.
Again, Dr. Hefer was off-point that the recent Elephant was trapped in the mud, inside the park, as he sought for praises over its exaggerated accounts of helping the park’s management to bring the bulldozers and other earth moving equipment to rescue the Elephant! Was the Elephant a mountain to be bulldozed? A photograph clip of the endangered Elephant would purely show that it wasn’t stuck in a pit in the park, but one bulldozed and not de-silted by OkomuOil, on the same land it had grabbed and turned into a new plantation. Instructively, there are no bulldozed pits in the park’s main land.
Revealingly, OkomuOil had been the most violator of the park and plunderer of the park and Edo forest reserves. For instance, a tiny stream is all that separates the park and the old oil palm plantation of the company (to the left from its main entrance), making the open to poaching by its workers.
If not grandstanding, how come that Hefer, who assisted the company to grab and convert over 16,000 hectares of the original designate land areas and buffers of the park, that it bought from the Iyayi Group of Companies, is the same accusing others of desecrating the park? If Hefer and his company want to be taken seriously for making genuine and redemptory outbursts, they should hand over to the park and the host communities of Okomu forest and the Owan forest zone the 13,750 hectares of lands, which Iyayi sold to it, wherein about 8,000 hectares of the land revoked by Sdo State Government, was from Okomu forest reserve. (See Edo State Government of Nigeria Gazette No. 16 Vol. 19 (page 48-50), published on 5th November, 2015)
Irrefutably, OkomuOil is the single largest driver of land-grabbing, deforestation and livelihood loss in Edo State, regarded as the highest incidence of the just-mentioned threesome scourges, amongst the 36 states of the Nigeria country. Of the total 1081 sq. km land area of the now depleted Okomu Forest Reserve, that was the largest rainforest reserve in Nigeria, OkomuOil alone had the rare benefit of having been ceded with vast land areas and the other vastness it had grabbed from it, in addition to the over 16,000 hectares of Iyayi’s grab.
Had the state government properly catalogued and protected Okomu and other forest reserve estates of the state, OkomuOil would not cash in on the loophole to grab and destroy Okomu and the threesome forest reserves of Ehor, Owan and Ora-Iueleha-Ozalla (sometimes called Owan Forest Zone), thereby causing acute deforestation and livelihood losses to the villagers, the land owners.
Which other forestry laws did Dr. Hefer want government to establish, when he exhibits daylight impunity, by his refusal to obey existing state and federal laws, with his company’s slipshod operations in Okomu locale and Owan forest zone, where it had forcibly established its so called Okomu PLC Oil Palm Extension II? And isn’t a sheer mockery of the Nigerian jurisprudence, which tended to prostrate to the whims and caprices of a foreigner, on Nigeria soil? Has Nigeria submitted her sovereignty to him?
Why did Okomu Oil often ridicule and ignore the Environmental Impact Assessment Law, especially by disobeying severally directives from the Federal Ministry of Environment, on two letters to Dr. Hefer, by the Environment Minister dated 8th January, 2014 (Ref: FMEnv/EA/ 2712/Vol.1/82 and the other dated 22nd December, 2015 (Ref: No FMEnv.123:271/Vol.1/28), that it must follow the due processes of acquiring the Owan forest lands? Is it not shameful that OkomuOil now parades the same EIA certification, even though it burgled the due process?
Yet, OkomuOil craves for lofty praises over its tokenistic or mere cosmetic activities, which it often amplifies as justifiable Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) offers to the park and host communities, despite excessive annual dividends from its huge investments in oil palm and rubber plantations, premised on the forest reserves, including the gigantic processing industry situated in Okomu forest.
Amusingly, Hefer, in the same media commentary flaunted the Roundtable Sustainable Palm (RSPO) certification as authorization to commit such heinous atrocities against the ONP treasure and poor Edo communities, in the same manner of the outlaw Apartheid of Dr. Hefer’s South Africa, where lands are still wrested from the local owners, by fastidious settlers.
Alas, the OkomuOil boss had also audaciously poked to our faces that a certain Billy Ghansah, a Ghanaian and Operational Director that goaded the grabbing of lands from the Owan Forest Zone, is the same who had also been recruited to obliterate the Okomu National Park, so that the company’s oil palm and rubber trees could take over the sacred land.
Those who destroy a global monument, like the priceless Okomu National Park, grab and terminate the people’s land heritage are destroyers of their pride and future.
Tony Erha, a journalist, conservationist and Forest Certifier of the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), writes from Benin City, Edo State.