The BIOPAMA Action Component, a programme funded by the European Union and the organisation of Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) States, is partnering with the Society for Sustainability and Conservation Education for Rural Areas (SCERA), a Nigerian conservation organisation in the Okomu National Park.
The project, titled “Enhancing the Management and Governance Effectiveness of Okomu National Park, Nigeria”, is aimed at enhancing partnership between government and community in the effective management of the national park. It will foster good governance by enabling community participation in protected area management activities and strengthen capacity of national park rangers.
Okomu National Park, the smallest of Nigeria’s eight national parks, has in the past several decades suffered severe deforestation mainly due to illegal logging, uncontrolled small-scale farming (mostly cocoa, plantain, cassava) and large-scale commodity production (oil palm and rubber), and associated threats. In addition, insecurity caused by illegal activities recently escalated around the park. Between 1987 and 2011, annual deforestation rates increased from 3.5% to 5.1%. Recent forest cover analysis shows that ONP has lost around 30% of its forest in the last 20 years.
Under the BIOPAMA AC Medium Grant, SCERA will be working with park management, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), local communities and several key stakeholders, including Okomu Oil Palm Company Plc. to review and update the management plan of the Okomu National Park, build capacity of rangers and support the livelihoods of park-adjacent communities.
At the inception of the project in March 2023, SCERA, in collaboration with the Park Management and working with Dr Adam Manvell a social geographer, conducted a value-chain analysis to identify key sustainable forest management (SFM) initiatives that will enable transition to more forest-friendly livelihoods.
“The project intends to train farmer cooperatives and community groups in sustainable forest management, especially helping them to draw the link between SFM and livelihood enhancement. This will enable them continue to carry out their livelihood activities in a way that minimizes impact on the forest and environment in general. We will also support them to adopt forest-friendly income enhancing farming activities identified during the value chain analysis by providing the tools and resources needed,” said Dr Jacinta Abalaka, SCERA National Programme Coordinator.
Community members expressed pleasure at the community engagement and livelihood enhancement approach adopted under the project.
Mabiri Blessing, a representative of Inikorogha community, expressed gratitude saying: “SCERA’s approach of engaging and consulting with communities, and also finding an alternative source of livelihood for communities is highly laudable.”
In August 2023, a series of activities was officially launched to strengthen capacity for improved management of the Okomu National Park. The week-long programme commenced with the meeting of the Okomu Biodiversity Stakeholders Platform (OBSP) and establishment of a Grievance Redress Committee (GRC), followed by training of the GRC and park rangers.
The OBSP is a coordination forum meant to provide an avenue for communities living adjacent to the park to interact and engage in regular and constructive dialogue with park management and other key stakeholders instead of resorting to violence. This was deemed necessary as increasing conflicts between communities and the park was creating a barrier to effective management of the ONP. Communities felt excluded from decision making and perceived little to no benefits from the park in spite of restricted access to forest resources. This resulted in a strained relationship between communities and park authorities and further exacerbated illegal activities.
To address this, SCERA established the OBSP in December 2021 with the support of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). The OBSP is made up of representatives from the 12 critical communities surrounding the ONP; government, including the Okomu Park management, National Park Service, Ministry of Environment (Federal Department of Forestry), Edo State Forestry Commission, Office of the State Governor and local government authorities; and NGO – SCERA, NCF, Leventis Foundation Nigeria and Africa Nature Investors.
The Okomu Oil Palm Company Plc, one of the largest oil palm concessions in the country, located adjacent to the park, also sits on the OBSP.
Speaking during the meeting held on August 21, 2023, at the Okomu Park headquarters in Udo, Ovia South West local government area of Edo State, the Conservator General of the National Park Service, Dr Ibrahim Musa Goni, represented by Assistant Conservator General, ACG Cornelius Oladipo, appreciated all stakeholders and asked for the full support of communities in order for the park to progress successfully in its conservation work.
He added: “If we (park and communities) do not cooperate, NGOs will not be able to work here, they will leave.”
In his opening remark, ACG Oladipo expressed delight in being back at the Okomu National Park where he was once a Conservator of Parks (CP). He thanked the current CP, who is also from the state and encouraged communities to feel free to air their views and opinions.
As part of the capacity building initiative of the BIOPAMA programme, a Grievance Redress Committee (GRC) set up for the Okomu National Park received training from August 22 to 24, 2023. The training was facilitated by Mr Tony Atah, a natural resource management specialist.
The GRC is made up of park management, 12 park-adjacent communities and other key stakeholders and serves as a forum to manage and address grievances and complaints.
“The establishment of the OBSP and subsequently the GRC will enable a more inclusive approach in the management of the Okomu National Park,” noted Mr Atah.
A representative of Okomu community, Chief Yabike French, expressed gratitude to SCERA for setting up the GRC. He commented that “such a [GRC] committee will enable peace and coexistence amongst neighbouring communities as one can boldly come out to share his or her pain”.
The Okomu Conservator of Parks, CP Lawrence Osaze, expressed delight at the establishment and training of the GRC. He opined that the GRC would help to address grievances between the national park and communities.
“The training provided an opportunity for open discussion. It has given communities a better understanding of how the park works, the dos and don’ts of the park. From henceforth I know their perception about the park will change and they will want to support the park. When parks and communities come together there are bound to be some grievances and this is one of the ways of solving [issues] and getting the understanding you need to work together in progress,” said Osaze, even as he further thanked BIOPAMA, NCF and SCERA for making such an initiative possible.
A training was also organised for rangers in the Spatial, Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) and human rights.
“At the end of the training, rangers will be well equipped to conduct forest patrols following a standardised law enforcement strategy and ensuring respect for human rights while performing their duties,” said Joseph Molokwu, SCERA Technical Programme Coordinator.
CP Lawrence Osaze further added that “the SMART training was timely, as it will help the rangers in conducting effective patrols as everything is going digital. SCERA has done well bringing this to ONP”.
The climax of the one-week event was the presentation of motorcycles to the Okomu National Park management for forest patrols.
The project is a collaboration involving Sustainability and Conservation Education for Rural Areas, BIOPAMA AC Medium Grant and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation.