Armsfree Onomo Ajanaku works as a features writer with The Guardian, the acclaimed flagship of the Nigerian press. Since 2006 he has covered issues of the environment, development and the infrastructural challenges in different parts of the country. He is one of the best environmental journalists I know.
With the feisty lyrics of American rap legend Tupac pumping out of the car stereo, 36-year-old Steve Okoikpi manoeuvres his only-slightly ageing Mercedes Benz through sharp bends on the road. The destination is Akasanko, a forest community of about 500 people in the outskirts of Calabar, the capital of Cross River State. Cross River lies on the coastline of Nigeria’s oil-rich, but heavily impoverished Niger Delta region.
Some 30 minutes later, Steve is welcomed in Akasanko by traditional music blaring from a loudspeaker in a beer joint. It is morning, and scores of youths are huddled over bottles of beer and steaming plates of goat meat pepper soup. On hand to welcome Steve is the chief of the community Edet Offiong, alongside some youths. According Steve this sort of respect is important, and the villagers know it.
As project officer at the Cross River Forestry Commission, Steve is one of the government officials charged with ensuring that a programme for conserving the forests is implemented. He works in tandem with a Forest Management Committee, which is made up of, and run by, members of the community.
Inside the forest, which looks somewhat naked on account of the many trees that have been felled for firewood, Steve makes the rounds inspecting nurseries, and lecturing youths on why the forest must be regenerated. His voice mingles with the hooting of birds, and the noise of a lone pineapple farmer tending his crops. The farmer, Steve says, is allowed to grow pineapples because he agreed to help tend the nurseries and take care of young trees. Everyone else has been shut out.