Red gold project: Battle for soul of depleting Nigerian forest reserve (Parts I & II)

Abayomi Isinleye, the 60-year-old chairman of the farmer association in the forest, showing this reporter bullet holes in one of the buildings in the camp after the farmers were allegedly attacked by thugs. (Photo: Taiwo Adebulu)
TheCable | 12 January 2023

Red gold project: Battle for soul of depleting Nigerian forest reserve (PART I)

(This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.)

“I’m a happy man today,” Rotimi Akeredolu, then governor of Ondo state, south-west Nigeria, told investors on June 10, 2021, when he launched the Red Gold Project, an oil palm development initiative.
“I call on investors to come. This is a haven for industrial development. We cannot do without palm oil. We are taking the Red Gold project seriously. It will help us reduce our reliance on crude oil.”

Ondo is not just a top agricultural state producing major cash crops; it is also one of the major states producing crude oil, the country’s major source of revenue. With the dwindling oil revenue came the realisation to diversify into agriculture, the nation’s former cash cow before the oil boom of the 1970s. The government began to look inward towards generating more forex exchange revenue through the promotion of agricultural exports by encouraging states to come up with initiatives.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) created a window for states to develop useful commodities for import substitution. Palm oil topped the table. The apex bank said it would return Nigeria to being one of the leading global producers of palm oil.
In 2019, the CBN launched the Oil Palm Development Initiative to close the existing palm oil supply gap of 1.25 million MT annually, develop the oil palm value chain, increase productivity, create jobs, and diversify the economy away from crude oil and volatility in crude oil prices. The national bank set up an intervention fund for state governments to participate in the scheme.
A few months later, the CBN said it had committed about N30 billion ($33.6 million) to the initiative.
“Our target is to ensure that a minimum of 1.4 million hectares of land is put under oil palm cultivation in three years. As a step in this direction, the bank met with 14 state governors who pledged to make available 100,000 hectares of land in each state,” Godwin Emefiele, the former CBN governor, said, adding that Nigeria spends $500 million on oil palm importation annually.
“We currently have a total of 904,624 hectares available in the states for allocation and investors have been matched with the states of interest to process the necessary documentation and titling requirements. The investors are to be funded from the bank’s intervention programme.
“Our ultimate vision is to overtake Thailand and Columbia to become the third largest producers over the next few years.”
Ondo was among the states that bought into the CBN initiative with its Red Gold Project. The state allocated thousands of hectares of land at the Oluwa Forest Reserve (OA3A) in Odigbo LGA for this purpose. The land allocation was handed over to SAO Agro-Allied Services Limited, a private agro-investor, for palm oil cultivation.

But here is the problem. The forest reserve already had occupants—smallholder farmers who had cultivated the land for about 30 years. They were primarily cocoa farmers who had built camps with clay and rusted roofs in the forest. Inside the cocoa farms were kolanut trees, cassava, yam, maize, and plantains.
Nevertheless, SAO Agro moved into the forest with full force and left trails of blood and devastation. Decades of sweat were brought down in a few hours as thousands of cocoa trees were flattened.
On April 18, scores of soldiers, police officers, and local security guards, armed to the teeth, descended on the once-peaceful forest. The officials from SAO Agro waved documents at the farmers, saying the state government had sold the land to the company and anybody who stood in their way would be crushed.

Abiodun Idowu was tending to cocoa with Esther, her one-year-old daughter, strapped to her back when the revving engines of the bulldozers jerked into her farm. Her mind went ablaze and tears flowed. While scampering around the farm, begging, hoping the invaders would show mercy, Idowu slipped and fell on her back. Her weight rested on the infant. But the bulldozers did not stop. They continued to scrape the cocoa trees on Abiodun’s farm.
By the time Kehinde, Abiodun’s husband, and other farmers took her to the hospital in Ore, a nearby town, the baby was pronounced dead on arrival. The child was buried the next day. With nothing to fall back on, they left the forest and moved to town to search for jobs. Their next-door neighbour, Kole Akinde, whose farm was also destroyed, also left the forest. His wife left him when his means of survival vanished, and he found solace in alcohol.
When Oyelayo Isiaka returned to his farm and met the big machines pulling off cocoa trees he had planted since 2007 from their roots, he slumped. Other farmers who were running around to save their farms quickly picked him up and doused him in water. He started harvesting pods from the farm in 2010 and had looked forward to profiting for another four decades.

“I didn’t know I could come out alive from that incident. I didn’t see the people around me. It was as though I was seeing angels in white. I was revived. You would have come here today to see my burial ground,” Isiaka said.
“I have lost a lot on that farm. Feeding my two wives and seven children has become difficult. Some time ago, I returned to the farm and shed tears. Now I’m a labourer working for my colleagues, whose farms are still intact. I have to beg other farmers for everything I need, including yams. It’s more like from grace to grass.”
Gabriel Oladuni suffered a similar fate. He had an accident while on his way to the forest in 2015 and has been bedridden since then. His wife, Alice, would take care of him and also attend to their farm. When the news of the destruction of his cocoa farm got to him, he slumped and had a stroke.

He has relocated to his hometown, while his wife stayed behind and had to beg other farmers for leftovers.
Akintayo Adeolu’s face still oozes pure pain. When he had an accident on his farm ten years ago and his dominant right hand was amputated, it did not stop him from going back. The farm was his only means of survival. With aged parents and children in higher institutions of learning, Adeolu expanded his farm to make more profit. In less than one hour, the bulldozers knocked down the cocoa trees.
“We begged them, but our appeals fell on deaf ears. The soldiers flogged me mercilessly. I cried, and my children joined. They didn’t care,” Akintayo told TheCable.

“In a year, the least I make from that farm is N15 million ($16,816). My child at the polytechnic had to stop because I couldn’t pay the fees again. The company has planted palm trees on my farm. I cannot return there again because the evil is done. We practically beg to be fed, yet we cannot leave here. My years of labour are gone.”

Abayomi Isinleye, the 60-year-old chairman of the farmer association in the forest, said the settlement used to be very lively. Petrol generators would light up the camps in the evening, there was more than enough food, and farmers were able to send their children to universities across the country. But the crisis changed everything, and the camps were getting deserted after occupants lost their farms.
“I came here in 1996 and I met some people who were already cultivating cocoa in the forest. The king of Odigbo was the one who assigned the forest to the farmers. We sold the proceeds of our cocoa farms to the Ondo state government until the crisis started two years ago,” Isinleye told TheCable.
“Before the crisis started, the government invited farmers to Akure, the state capital. We went there and the government officials asked about our location and what we planted. They welcomed us and commended us for feeding the population. They said it was because of our efforts that the state has one of the best grades of cocoa in the country.
“During the meeting, they said the reason they called us was because they wanted us to pay taxes for the land to the government. Before, the forest guards used to collect taxes from us. It wasn’t a fixed price. They collect up to a million naira or less. The governor said we needed to have an association as Ondo state farmers. They made three identity cards for us. We were charged N3,000 ($4) for the first one, N5,000 ($6) for the second, and N7,000 ($8) for the third one. The government officials later came to survey the farmlands in the forest and we were given a document stating that we had become recognised farmers in the state.
“Thereafter, they said we’d be paying N10,000 ($11) tax per hectare. We cultivated over 518 hectares of land in this camp. So, we have been paying about N6 million ($6,726) in taxes to the government as and when due, and we have the receipts for this year. When the governor wanted to go for a second tenure in 2020, he had another meeting with us and said that he wanted to take our names to the national assembly so that we could become ‘federal-registered farmers’. He asked us to vote for him, and that he would do everything he had promised us.
“After we voted for him and he got re-elected, that was when we overheard he had sold all the lands in the forest to agro-investors and all farmers were asked to leave. The government did not dialogue with us on the plan to send us out of the forest reserve. When the investors came to tell us, we told them we had nowhere else to go and we were ready to resist the quit notice. But they came with 16 bulldozers and overwhelmed us with security officers.”
As the investor jumped from one farm to the next, tearing down cocoa trees to spread its tentacles across the forest, the farmers wailed. They ran from pillar to post, begging the community and traditional leaders to intervene. Nothing came out of it. They proceeded to court and filed a lawsuit against the state and the agro-allied company.

In May, Justice Aderemi Adegoroye of the Ondo state high court granted an interim injunction restraining the state government and others from further grading or continuing to grade the cocoa plantations, which he described as an act of anarchy as the farmlands were the only source of survival for the farmers.
The farmers felt some respite. But it did not last long. Despite the injunction, the investor graded more cocoa farms and planted palm trees in their stead. The farmers mobilised to resist the expansion, but thugs attacked them and riddled the camps with bullets. The farmers stood their ground, overpowered the assailants, and recovered guns and motorcycles. Yet, the attacks on the farms continued.

“We have more than 3,000 farmers in our camp and there are more than 14 camps in the forest. Farmers, who were making millions of naira annually, are now begging for food. We have nowhere to call home. We are suffering,” Nurudeen Oladipupo, who had farmed in the forest for two decades, told TheCable. His voice beamed with anger and frustration.
“We went to court because that is where our only hope lies. That is our last hope. We know the government owns the court, but no one is above the law. If not, it is going to be another Agbekoya revolt. We are ready to face the guns and die.”
The Agbekoya uprising of the late 1960s in south-west Nigeria was orchestrated by peasant cocoa farmers to agitate against excessive taxation by the government. The armed struggle led to violence and bloodshed across the region.
Yemi Ilesanmi, a 40-year-old farmer, said she was ready to join the men in the resistance against the takeover of their farms by the government and investors. Ilesanmi graduated with a degree in business administration from Lagos State University in 2003. Armed with her credentials, she walked the length and breadth of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial city, for a job, but she could not secure a reliable one. She left Lagos, got married, and joined her husband in the forest to till the soil.
For Ilesanmi, leaving the city and its allure to embrace farming in the forest of a rural community was a very difficult decision she had to take. But when the farm began to yield produce, life became better. She could laugh all the way to the bank and fend for her four children comfortably. The only place you can call home is where you have peace and a job to keep life going, she said.

“This forest is our home. We don’t want any alternative land. Do you know what it means to leave your home, enter the forest, plant food, and nurse it until it starts yielding fruits after some years? We have been doing this for about 30 years,” Isinleye told TheCable.
“How do we start afresh when you displace us from here with the thought that resettlement can solve it? What if another government decides to chase us away from the new settlement? Are we going to be displaced all our lives because we want to provide food for a nation battling with food insecurity and inflation? Farmers are the last hope in the world. Or is it a crime to be a small-scale farmer? The forest reserve is so massive that it will contain the smallholders and the big investors. The question we keep asking them is: Why our cocoa farms?
But conservationists are asking a different question: why is no one talking about how the conflict between the farmers, investors, and government is encroaching on the reservation of the forest, which is a sanctuary for the endangered Nigerian-Cameroonian chimpanzees and other animals on the verge of extinction?

TheCable | 13 January 2023

Red gold project: Battle for soul of depleting Nigerian forest reserve (PART II)

Abayomi Isinleye, chairman of the farmers’ association at the Oluwa forest reserve, put the losses incurred from the destruction of the cocoa plantations at N500 million ($560,538) or more.
“Just one cocoa tree is generational wealth. You keep profiting from it until you age and hand it to your children. On a plot of land, you can harvest two thousand cocoa seeds annually. Right now, SAO Agro-Allied Services Limited has graded up to 2,000 hectares of cocoa farms,” Isinleye told TheCable.

“In a year, one can make up to N10 million ($11,210) from a cocoa farm, sometimes N20 million ($22,421), depending on how big your farm is. At the moment, cocoa is N3,800 ($4.3) per kilo. A ton is N3.8 million ($4,260). Some harvest six, eight, or ten tons annually. Aside from that, we have other produce on the farm, like yam, kolanut, cassava, and vegetables that we sell to people. So, when a farm is destroyed, the loss is unquantifiable. It is the major source of wealth for many farmers in the state.”
Nigeria is the fourth-largest producer of cocoa in the world, according to the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), making the country a leading player in the global cocoa industry. Data on the NEPC website shows that the major destinations for the country’s cocoa are the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Malaysia, and the United States, where it is used to produce chocolate.
According to the Ondo State Development and Investment Promotion Agency (ONDIPA), the state is the largest cocoa producer in Nigeria, and it is responsible for over 40% of all cocoa exports in the country. The agency noted that the current cocoa production volume in the state stands at 240,000 metric tonnes per annum.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report also shows that cocoa-related exports in 2023 totalled N230 billion (about $258 million), which makes the cash crop the highest-earning agricultural export in Nigeria. This emphasises the significant role cocoa exportation plays in the country’s foreign exchange earnings.
The 2023 third-quarter report of the NBS stated that the export of agricultural products was dominated by superior-quality cocoa beans valued at N42.2 billion ($47 million), which were exported to Indonesia and the Netherlands.
On the other hand, the first and second quarter reports of the NBS show palm oil was only imported into Nigeria from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cameroon. In the first six months of 2023, Nigeria imported crude palm oil worth N27.8 billion ($31 million) from Malaysia. From 2017 to 2022, Nigeria imported N300 billion ($336 million) worth of palm oil, making it one of the top five imported agricultural products into the country.
In summary, while Nigeria earns a lot of money from cocoa exportation, it spends a lot more to import palm oil.

According to a PwC report, in the early 1960s, Nigeria was the world’s largest palm oil producer, with a global market share of 43%. But today, it is the 5th largest producer, behind Columbia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with less than 2% of the total global market production of 74.08 million MT.
“In 1966, Malaysia and Indonesia surpassed Nigeria as the world’s largest palm oil producers. Nigeria is the largest consumer of palm oil in Africa, with a population of over 197 million people. To meet the supply gap for palm oil, the country had to depend on importation over the years. From being one of the leading exporters of crude palm oil in the 1960s, Nigeria is now a net importer,” the PwC report stated.
“According to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), if Nigeria had maintained its market dominance in the palm oil industry, the country would have been earning approximately $20 billion annually from the cultivation and processing of palm oil as of today.”
As things stand, both cocoa and palm oil are key to the agricultural policy of the government in terms of foreign exchange earnings and meeting local market needs. But the question begging for answers is: why is there an onslaught on cocoa plantations for industrial palm oil cultivation when smallholder farmers and big investors can plant separately on the land?

Akin Olotu, the senior special assistant on agriculture to the Ondo governor, provided the answer as to why the cocoa farmers were asked to leave the forest reserve for SAO Agro-Allied Services Limited to grade and plant palm trees in line with the CBN initiative.
“They have done incalculable damage to the cocoa business in Ondo state. In the global market, it has been observed that cocoa in Ondo state is planted in the forest reserve, and the EU is of the opinion that they don’t want any chocolate product that is coming from forest reserves. Those that will bear the brunt are the real cocoa farmers that are farming on community land,” Olotu told journalists.
But the government is issuing licences to investors to plant palm trees on the same forest reserve, Tope Temokun, the farmers’ legal counsel, queried. The lawyer said if the government was sincere with the Central Bank scheme, it would revive the abandoned palm tree plantations and palm oil processing companies across the state to redeem its lost glory as the number one producer of palm oil in the world—instead of promoting industrial cultivation in a forest reserve.

Ondo is said to be the richest state in forest resources in south-west Nigeria. When the state was created in 1976, it had sixteen forest reserves of about 308,000 hectares. Presently, they have depleted to about 250,000 hectares, as some have been completely encroached on. The Oluwa forest is one of the last remaining forests in the area.
The Oluwa Forest Reserve, covering about 678.06 km2, is a tropical rainforest and one of the most important reserves in the country because of its rich biodiversity.

A 2007 Nigerian Conservation Foundation report showed elephants and chimpanzees still inhabit the forest. Some researchers from the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA) in the state, who were conducting a survey, were said to have had four sightings of chimpanzee groups in the forest between September 2011 and February 2012. The 2007 conservation report made a recommendation that protected areas should be established in the natural forest.

According to satellite data from the University of Maryland visualised on Global Forest Watch, Oluwa Forest Reserve lost about 14% of its primary forest cover between 2002 and 2020, and preliminary data showed forest loss likely surged higher in 2021.
The researchers from the university said an axis of the forest reserve has been completely cultivated for farming, and there is pressure to convert other parts of the natural forest into farmlands, which would make it difficult for the chimpanzees to inhabit the forest.
Mark Ofua, spokesperson for the Wild Africa Fund, an international wildlife conservation organisation, said cutting down forests to make room for agriculture is one of the major drivers of deforestation and habitat loss in Nigeria.
“Forest reserve clearing results in the felling of iconic trees that have taken hundreds of years to grow and may be endemic to these areas. This means some of these can never be recovered. The loss of forest cover on these reserves also means we may forever lose some of the iconic animals that inhabit these forests,” Ofua said.
“This biodiversity loss is a major driver of climate change and fosters hardships in our environment. Nigeria as a country has over the years lost a significant portion of its biodiversity, and this unprecedented level of forest reserve clearing, as is happening in the Oluwa forests in Ondo state, the Agodi area of Oyo state, will drive what’s left in these areas to the brink of extinction.
“A state of emergency should be declared in the effort to save our forests and forest reserves. The current law that puts the powers/ownership of these forests in the hands of state authorities, who make it their primary objective to amass as much wealth as possible, even if it means driving our forests to extinction, must be reviewed. The Oluwa Forest Reserve in Ondo state must be protected at all costs. It is a natural habitat for pangolins, bats, and other fauna and flora, and a travel path for our few remaining elephants.”

On his part, Chinedu Mogbo, conservationist and founder of Greenfinger Wildlife Initiative, said aside from the fact that revenue will be generated from the cash crops, there are a lot of disadvantages to using the forest reserve for large-scale farming. 
“It leads to the loss of large land masses of forests, rendering numerous animals vulnerable, losing carbon sinks, fostering more human-wildlife conflicts, and breaking the threshold for disease transmission from wildlife to humans. This large-scale farming will favour the use of chemicals, which will affect soil and disrupt the ecosystem and other nutrient cycles,” Magbo said.
“Many of our flora and fauna are listed as threatened or critically endangered species. The consistent destruction of forests that house many of these species will ultimately lead to their extirpation.”

Meanwhile, the Idanre forest reserve (OA5) in the state is also facing the same conflict as the Oluwa forest – with the same investor, SAO Agro-Allied Services Limited.
The farmers in the reserve took the state government to court over the alleged sale of their cocoa plantation to the investor. The farmers, who had cultivated cocoa in the forest for over two decades, took to the streets to protest after their farms were graded for the firm to plant palm trees.
The Idanre reserve is a protected natural forest and an important conservation area for the local flora and fauna.

Information on the website of SAO Agro, the company at the heart of the conflict in the forest reserves, stated that the firm is the lead investor developing the Ondo Special Agro Processing Zone supported by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Ondo government in the bid to increase state IGR through national and international agricultural trade.
This reporter reached out to SAO Agro through its corporate emails, website, and phone calls, seeking information on the agricultural activities of the investment company in the forest reserves in Ondo state and whether it is aware of its negative effect on the conservation of the depleting forest. Further questions were asked on the alleged involvement of the company in the assault of farmers in the forests. But there were no responses from the company.
In his reaction, Ebenezer Adeniyan, chief press secretary to Lucky Aiyedatiwa, the new governor of Ondo, said the issue was inherited from the past administration in the state. He said he was unsure if the matter had caught the attention of Aiyedatiwa, who was the deputy governor in the previous administration.
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