Saving Iko-Esai Forest through Community Based Action

 Bush mango nursery in iko-Esai © DEVCON

- By Martins Egot


Located around the western edge of the Oban corridor of the Cross River National Park Oban Division and straddling the border with Cameroon, Iko-Esai community forms the Eastern end of the Guinean Forests biodiversity hotspot. The community had set aside 20,000 hectares of community-owned pristine forest (designated RHOKO Camp) for Primate Rehabilitation and Reintroduction, including serving as area for environmental and ecological studies. However, this area was managed by an international organisation which, pulled out, leaving the community with little (if any) capacity to sustain the conservation effort. This area provides refuge for the most diverse range of primate species including Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Presus Red Colobus, drills, Guenons and Mangebeys, including forest Elephants, which play very vital role in the rainforest ecology through seed dispersal.

Prior to the CEPF funded project roll out , animals held in temporary captivity were released into the Oban Division of the National Park, contiguous with the Rhoko Camp, raising further concern and the urgency to undertake measures to safeguard the survival of these species especially from the impacts of logging, farm expansion, and poaching. Development Concern (DEVCON) works in 30 forest dependent communities reaching out to over 25,000 people including youths, women and men in Cross River State to protect at least 60,000ha of community-managed pristine forest. Specifically, DEVCON worked with Iko Esai community to develop the project titled “Community Based Action to Save Iko-Esai Rhoko Forest”, supported by the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Facility (CEPF) within an implementation period of 18 months. The project had the specific objective of strengthening the capacity of Iko-Esai community to protect and manage their 20,000 hectares community forest.

The project had four critical components: which include a sustainable forest management component to consolidate the community land use plan, ecotourism component to improve forest value and create opportunities for local communities, policy component to create linkages with relevant government institutions to sustain support for the project outcomes in addition to a livelihoods component that focuses on improving commodity value chain including cassava, bush mango and bee farming to address the needs of women and youth. Overall, the project focusses on ensuring the development and operationalization of a community land use plan and by-laws in the project area.

 Nursery Development activity by Iko-Esai community Eco-guards © DEVCON

Livelihood improvement component and impact

The livelihood component was key to achieving the overall project objective of promoting sustainable biodiversity management. Under the project, a number of livelihood options were implemented including improved cassava value chain, domesticating of improved species of bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis) and training of farmers to set up and manage apiaries. To this end, two sets of cassava processing equipment were provided to beneficiaries, 1,500 stands of improved species of bush mango procured and distributed to groups and individuals, also 10 beehives and training provided for community members on bee farming for honey production.

This component addressed the needs of youth, women and men. Cassava is a major staple with high economic value. with women taking the lead in cassava cultivation, processing and marketing. Prior to the project, women depended on manual processing of cassava into garri, taking minimum of three days to process a basin of this product. The project supplied the women with semi mechanised equipment that enabled them process up to five basins in a day. From analysis, households in the community cultivate between 0.5 to 2.5ha of cassava farm. Cassava processed into garri sells between N2,000 and N6,000 per basin, depending on seasons and market factors. Iko Esai has the potential to produce 500 basins of garri per year. Sold at the average cost of N4,000/basin the gross income from cassava per year will be N1,500,000, generated by women. This has huge economic implication and potential to trigger sustainable forest management as income from other sources.

 Garri processing © DEVCON

Forest business development anchored on agro forestry and non-timber forest products (Bush mango and bee farming)

Farmers beginning to adopt agro-forestry practice involving bush mango integration in farms to simulate forest environment while guaranteeing food and income security of households (a hectare i.e. 2 – 3 hundred stands) can generate minimum of N1,500,000 (about 4,200USD) annually. More households are beginning to introduce bush mango in their farms, while others are beginning to adopt the same approach with cocoa farming with the aim of increasing productivity with minimal farm input on existing far lands.

The Eco-Guards adopted bee farming for honey production as means of demonstrating sustainable honey production without burning trees and of generating income to support their forest monitoring without encumbering community members.

Scale up and replication

DEVCON worked with Esai community to design the scale of the project at the individual community level with the conservation objective of sustainably managing 20,000ha of community forest. While the project proposed to build the capacity of Esai Conservation Forum as platform for a robust participation of community members in forest management and biodiversity conservation, actual implementation went beyond this to establishing a formally registered community based organization and building of volunteer forest surveillance team consisting both men and women.

As a testament to this remarkable success, the project is already being replicated in several neighboring communities. Linkages and collaboration with neighboring communities are already being established and yielding results as more communities have not only indicated interest but are taking steps to replicating some of the activities in their communities.