Desmond Majekodunmi is the chairman of the Lagos Urban Furniture and Animal Care Initiative, a non-government organisation committed to the preservation of natural resources and the environment. In this interview with Kayode Aboyeji, the electro-acoustic engineer-turned environmentalist who is also Member, Governing Council, of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), speaks about how he got into environmental management, how the country has lost most of its forest resources and failed to tackle desert encroachment due to government negligence, as well as why everyone must join in the battle against climate change, among other topical issues.
What inspired you into environmental management and nature conservation?
I started as an electro-acoustic engineer and, having been exposed to the Kenya terrain for several years where I worked with the Colombia Broadcasting Services, I was very impressed with the way the Kenyans used natural resources and environment to maintain healthy economy. Ninety per-cent of Kenya’s economy comes from agriculture and ecotourism.
After spending three years in Kenya, I decided to come back and try farming practice. Coming back to Nigeria, I knew nothing about farming but I hade a friend at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan who put me through a crash programme in tropical agriculture. One of the things they said when I told them that the land meant for the farming practice was on the Lekki Peninsula – I got a 50 hectares farm land from Lagos State – was that the land is delicate tropical coastal land and that I should do what they called agro-forestry and conservation. That meant I should maintain as much of the natural ecosystem that are there and not to disturb the soil so much.
So I followed the advice from IITA and maintained a lot of forest trees that were there, having a remnant of mangrove forest. After a couple of years that I started the farming, a group of people from the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) came for bird watching because the trees were there and because of that the birds were also there. I was very interested in these people coming and looking at the forest. And they now started to enlighten me about the need to protect the forest, that if there is no forest, there will be no birds; and, likewise, if there are no birds, there will be very little forest because they work together. They help each other and that it even goes beyond just forest, they said that if there is no forest, there will be no rain, there will be erosion and no fresh air, and there will be no oxygen; that you and I cannot live for more than five minutes without oxygen.
So, I became very interested in the NCF and I met some of their people; they were very enlightened people like Akintola Williams, Ambassador Dupe Alakija, Chief Philips Asiodu, Chief S.L Edu and Ola Vincent of blessed memory. I was privileged to learn a lot from these people and I am still learning from the likes of Philips Asiodu, our president. He is doing a wonderful job, and I saw that the people at NCF are doing some wonderful job and I started learning about the need to conserve the environment and nature; that everything we rely on for our life comes from the environment; it comes from nature, let alone having good economy like the Kenyans did through farming and ecotourism.
I saw that the NCF had done so many things, they helped to set up Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) which later became Federal Ministry of Environment; set up National Park System to be protecting parks all over the country; education system to teach children about environmental protection. They were able to put me through international Conservation organisations and I become more and more aware.
Including climate change?
About 15 years ago, we came across this issue of climate change. During that time at NCF, I assisted my wife (Sheila, of blessed memory) who was a brilliant singer in making an album/record called “Green Leaves.” It was all about the environment, the Mother Nature. We presented this record to His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburg, husband of the queen of England, who was very impressed. That was why we decided to create more awareness on the environment; that life depends on a clean environment, and we should keep the environment clean for the children and a good future.
Then, we heard about climate change and, as time went on, the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) was set up, and which has started turning in reports that if we continue in this way of putting greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, that we are going to have global warming and that it has already started. And this global warming is going to affect the climate, as a result of its effect on climate there is going to be change in weather pattern, frequent types of weather occurrence, more cyclones, heavy rains, more deserts, climate will just continue changing.
Five years ago, they started sounding an alarm and said that the thing is really getting bad now, that we have already increased the part per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide which is the main culprit from 180 before the industrial revolution to now 350 ppm and that 350 ppm has caused almost a one degree global warming and it’s that one degree global warming that is giving us all the terrible weather conditions that we are seeing now and that we better be very careful not to allow this ppm to go beyond 400 ppm.
People started getting quite worried, people like Prince Charles, Al Gore, and various people in the United Nations, and of course our people like Philip Asiodu in NCF and Tasso Leventis. They started becoming very concerned, very worried that this is very serious and that we are already going to 360 ppm which is above average and this climate can only take so much.
So, I did a documentary at that for the Heinrich Böll Foundation run by the German Green Party on global warming. It was like a docu-drama trying to explain to our people who, unfortunately, have not benefit from an effective education system. We did this docu-drama to explain the worst case scenario. It showed the worst case scenario if the ice caps are melting, where Lagos will be and all the coastal cities will be under water. At that time the Lagos State Government was not happy with us at all. But, in fairness to them, they did a research and, after a few months, they realised that we are just telling the truth, showing them some data and they now became very progressive in this fight on climate change and one is very impressed with what Lagos is doing.
Then, just recently in the last couple of years, the whole issue has now became far more serious. They started warning that if we get to 400 ppm, which is like a threshold and if we crossed this threshold, there is no saying again whether we will be able to control this terrible monster called climate change.
In the light of that revelation, what do you suggest a developing country like Nigeria should do since, according to a school of thought, we are victims of what the developed nations did many years ago?
Exactly. It is terrible that we are just victims; they said that the carbon footprint of the whole of Nigeria is not even up to that of New York Cityalone. We are not the problem, but within our soil lays the solution. And that is why I’m so encouraged by the likes of Newton Jibunoh, the NCF, Action Right, Friends of the Earth and other NGOs they are doing a lot in terms of tree planting and afforestation, and we need to do a lot more because that is part of the solution.
Part of the solution is to massively regenerate our forest. We are in a tropical rainforest belt. Nigeria has already destroyed over 90 per cent of her pristine tropical rainforest through irresponsible logging, forest management and this is not the way God designed it. God designed it that the tropical forest are the lungs of the Earth, life belt upon which the Earth counts because the forest sequests carbon dioxide on a massive scale. Part of the solution is to regenerate our forest and to take these things very serious.
And one of the things we showed in our documentary is the life of our children. If we continue this way because we are pushing it to what is called the tipping point. If we continue this global warming in another eight to 10 years, the planet would have increased its temperature enough to spontaneously release of GHGs to be triggered off. What do we mean by that? We mean that places like Antarctic, where the polar ice caps are already threatening us with sea level rise which could cover the whole of Lagos and so many other coastal cities. Underneath, we have what is called permafrost; and underneath this permafrost is methane gas, millions and millions of tons of methane gas trapped under it.
And about 10 to 15 years ago, scientists started detecting that, at a certain time of the year; almost all of this methane gas will be released. Methane gas is 25 times a potent GHG than carbon dioxide even though it degrades quicker. It is a far more potent a GHG and what we are saying is, if you figure up the reach, it will make more of the permafrost to melt which could cause more of the gas to trip off in circle that you cannot stop, that is why they call it the tipping point.
And that is why we are now calling upon people. I believe that no matter how hard hearted we are as human being, no matter how wicked our soul may be, even the most hard hearted, greedy wicked men have something in common with the kindest men and women, and that is that we love our children. I believed that, I believe we do really love our children and we would not want to give a negative legacy to our children or what Prince Charles called a poisoned chalice.
Prince Charles launched the campaign to protect the Transylvania’s Forests project about four years ago and he said we need to expressly regenerate/re-grow rain forest and if we fail to regenerate and protect the tropical rain forest, we shall have lost the battle against climate change. He said we shall be bequeathing unto our children a poison chalice which in our language mean we go dey give our pikin a poison calabash, where poison dey inside.
I don’t believe any person in their right minds will want to bequeath a poisoned forest, a calabash poison, a poison planet that will go through one catastrophe to another. And we have already seen the warning signs, we have already seen the flood in Nigeria that we never experienced in our own life, we have seen the kind of hurricane hitting America, and we need to take cognisance of this warning signs and we ensure that as a nation we join together with our African brothers and go on a very strong campaign to regenerate and protect our forest. Access the fund in a protest and binding it together and insisting at the point of single indictment to the face of the West to tell them you caused this problem with your pollution, you must stop this pollution.
You mentioned regeneration of the forest and one way by which this can be done is for government to play a regulatory role or monitor this activity. How will you describe government’s disposition to the protection of the environment?
In the past it was abysmal and dismal, like so many things in government, there was a big plan to fund the desert encroachment prior to the Abacha government, they started a huge tree planting campaign which was scuttled by the Abacha regime and the whole thing about planting trees died off, and the desert encroached relentlessly. If that plan had succeeded, we would probably have far less of the sort of insecurity that we have experience in the northern region. Because that plan failed was purposely scuttled by elements in government as at that time, who were stealing the money. Because of that millions of people became refugees in their own land, and when you are a refugee in your own land, it is not a nice thing; you are expected to grow up in a nice place where you have green pasture and your grandfather grew up there as well.
And there is a saying that a hungry man is an angry man. These young men are very angry but I would love to extend that saying to say that a man without water for him and his family is a mad man, and that is why we are seeing the kind of madness that we are seeing in this region, because there is no other way to describe the type of militancy that we are seeing in the North now, it is just abhorrent madness and a lot of it is borne out of terrible environmental degradation which could have been avoided if government had lived up to its role as the custodian of people’s security and interest had they protected the forest that were there and executed the desert plan.
The government has been exceedingly irresponsible in the past but we are now seeing at some time, from some governments and some elements in the Federal Government, that they do care and they would like to do something far more serious about the issue. Unfortunately, the signs we are seeing are not enough and the seriousness is not enough to address this problem that has been described by Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, as the most important issue facing mankind on this planet, and so also described by him as a crisis. If you look at the definition of the word crisis, you will not want to wish crisis unto even your worst enemy.
The World Environment Day is celebrated every year. What is the significance of the day and what do you expect the government to do?
Well, judging from time gone by and past editions, we celebrated the environment. World Environment Day is more of the day we celebrate nature and in the process of celebrating nature understand why we are celebrating nature and come to the realisation that our lives, and those of our children born and unborn rely entirely on a healthy environment. Science will only protect us for so long and science has its limitations. When the Americans saw hurricane Irene coming in New York, they knew exactly when it was coming, where it was coming, they used vast advanced technological data in the whole world. But with all their science and technology they could not slow down that hurricane for one second. So we should not be putting too much faith in science because science has its limitation.
Recently, the national security adviser to the President, Col. Dasuki Sambo (rtd), linked the current insecurity in the North and other problems to climate change and desertification. Do you agree with this?
I agreed entirely, and that whole concept started with a lecture that the NCF organised – the Chief S.L Edu lecture, where Ambassador Joy Ugwu came from the United Nations and delivered a lecture on climate change and the environment, the threat on food security, and it was a very good lecture. She just detailed it; some were alluded to in the past, that for God’s sake a man grows up in a man’s land green pasture with his flock, his father grows up there and his great grandfather grows up there and is living a contented life until the climate changes and the place becomes too dry; a responsible government allowing people to remove trees without replanting the tree, the place turned to a desert, where he used to play as a small boy and his father used to enjoy as a small boy becomes dry, no water. He has nowhere to go, is looking for water and goes to places where there is water and becomes a threat to the people there, it is probably one of the primary causes of the insecurity that is going on there because a man without water becomes a mad man. The type of insecurity going on there is not as much as ideological as environmental degradation.
We are in the rainy season and the National Emergency Management Agency has warned communities in the flood prone to move to dry land. What is your concern about this, looking back to what we experienced last year in Nigeria?
Well again, we need to shine our eyes on the government of those states that are flood-prone. Last year, NEMA warned all the states that flood is coming but only two of those states reacted to the warning and were able to evacuate most of their people from the flood-prone zone. And it is not very difficult to know which area will flood and which area will not especially now that we have seen the flood. Any state government that justified their presence there would have made sure that they have very good record of where those floods took place.
Now the same agency that warned us last year is telling us again that this thing is going to happen in various states, there is absolutely no excuse now. Last year they could have probably had the excuse that they are ignorant of NEMA warning. Now, there is no excuse and the laws of nature, the wrath of God will surely rest upon the head of those various governments if they did not heed the warning which they have been given and people under their jurisdiction lose their lives or lose their livelihood. Then they are to blame and they will reap the laws of reaction if somebody loses his children as a result of negligence of those governors and governments because they have been warned and there is no longer any excuse again.
In the past 25 years or more, you seem to have shown commitment to the environment. What is the legacy that you would like to leave behind in this area?
Well right now, I have dedicated a portion of the farm I mentioned earlier as a park. I am working in collaboration with the Lagos State Government; we call it Lagos Urban Furniture and Animal Care Initiative (LUFACI). There are some very lovely ancient trees there, which will be used to educate school children, who will regularly visit the place to see how beautiful forest trees are and do some research there as well. It is also a place where Lagosians will be able to come and relax. I’m actually working on that right now and that is one of the things that, by God’s grace, I will be able to leave behind.