Fuel Price Hike Spells Doom for Nigeria’s Forest

By Abiodun Raufu

LAGOS, Nigeria, July 15, 2003 (ENS) - Inhabitants of an oil rich country, Nigerians have had to resort to fuelwood due to the increase in price of petroleum products. When the Nigerian government on June 20 suddenly increased the prices of petroleum products such as petrol, diesel and the commonly used kerosene by about 50 percent, it was a decision with far reaching effects.

Nigerian environmental groups say that massive deforestation of the nation’s severely depleted forest may follow if the fuel price increase is not reversed.

"There is no doubt that the new price regime will bring pain, misery and despair to the Nigerian masses," says Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Environmental Rights Agency (ERA).

deforestation

Deforestation in Nigeria (Photo courtesy Iroko Foundation)
"We are particularly worried that those who can no longer afford gas and kerosene would resort to felling trees to get fuelwood. This would lead to massive deforestation, biodiversity and habitat loss, including siltation of streams due to land cover clearing."

In Nigeria, kerosene and gas are the major cooking fuels. The majority of the people rely on kerosene stoves for domestic cooking while only a few use gas and electric cookers. In the past, increases in the price of kerosene have forced rural dwellers and the urban poor to abandon their kerosene stoves in favor of the comparatively cheaper fuelwood, which is seen as a substitute source of energy.

The result is that felling of trees tends to become rampant, as the fuelwood business thrives any time there is a sharp increase in demand fueled by the high cost of kerosene.

Local activists say that with the increase in the prices of kerosene and other locally consumed petroleum products, more people who are currently using kerosene stoves may abandon their stoves for fuelwood.

Past experiences justify the activists’ fears. Since the 1980s, successive Nigerian governments embarked on a series of fuel price hikes compelling the urban poor and rural dwellers to put aside their kerosene stoves, leading to unprecedented demands for fuelwood.

The situation is worsened by the large scale racket in the Nigerian oil industry. Even now that the official price of kerosene per liter is around 32 U.S. cents per liter, profiteers will ensure that it gets to the final consumer at a higher price. This has been going on for years with the government unable to do anything about it.

Petrol, or gasoline, which had been previously selling for about 22 U.S. cents per liter, was hiked to about 35 U.S. cents. A liter of kerosene jumped from about 19 U.S. cents to about 32 U.S. cents. Diesel also moved from about 20 U.S. cents to 32 U.S. cents.

As expected, the announcement aroused a bitter public outcry from an irritated citizenry, who fear the inflationary implications of the decision.

The fuel price increase pitted the Nigerian labor movement against the government, which resulted in a violent nationwide strike when labor and government could not reach a compromise on the appropriate prices for the petroleum products.

fuel

Filling up on Nigeria's black market (Photo courtesy Guildford-Nigeria Link)
But on July 8, after 10 days of strife, the two parties reached a truce. The price of petrol was pegged at about 30 cents per liter. Diesel and kerosene were also adjusted downward a little to pacify the Labor Party.

President Olusegun Obasanjo justified the increase, arguing that "the federal government could not continue to subsidize the petroleum sector to the tune of more than $200 million per annum and still be able to fulfill its social responsibilities."

He also argued that it was necessary to increase fuel prices to curb the large scale smuggling of Nigeria's relatively cheaper petroleum products to neighboring countries.

"The consequence of the price hike on forest depletion is predictable," says ERA, one of Nigeria’s leading environmental NGOs opposed to the proposed fuel price hike. "Kerosene has become a luxury item and only few Nigerians can afford to use it now for cooking. The bulk of the people are turning to fuelwood.”

ERA explains, "Only five percent of Nigeria’s prime forest is left. Faced with the spate of uncontrolled, and outright illegal logging of our forest, it has often been estimated that our forest resource would be almost totally exhausted in the next 10 years."

Nigeria’s original natural forest cover used to span over 600,000 square kilometers (231,660 square miles) at the beginning of the 20th century.

Acute deforestation driven by uncontrolled demand for wood, mostly for fuelwood and also for export, has within a century reduced the country’s forest cover to less than 38,620 square kilometers (14,910 square miles), less than five percent of its original size.

"Between 1976 and 1970, deforestation proceeded at an average rate of 400,000 hectares per annum," says a recent government study known as the Vision 2010 report.

logs

Logs from a Nigerian forest on their way to market (Photo courtesy Geomatics Nigeria Ltd.)
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that if this rate were maintained, "the remaining forest area in Nigeria would disappear by the year 2020."

Today, the situation is so bad that the U.S. based Rainforest Action Network estimates that deforestation in Nigeria takes place at an alarming rate of 14.3 percent annually.

The World Bank estimates show that losses to Nigeria in sustainable production of timber and fuelwood from forest resources is a staggering US$750 million annually as a result of deforestation.

The loss in terms of destruction of biodiversity is probably worse. Currently, more than 484 plant species in the country are believed to be threatened with extinction, while deforestation has also decimated several species of the country’s wildlife.

"Nigeria’s wildlife is rapidly declining due to habitat loss and increased pressure from hunters, poachers and bush burning," says the Vision 2010 report.

"Animals that have disappeared from Nigeria include the cheetah, the pygmy hippopotamus, the giraffe, the black rhinoceros and the giant eland. About 10 to 12 species of primates including the white-throated guenon species of primates and sclater’s guenon are under threat due to habitat loss and deforestation," the report states.

Some local experts contend that indiscriminate felling of trees is already affecting Nigeria’s climate. Illegal felling of trees leading to deforestation is responsible for desert encroachment in the north, coastal erosion in the south and the harsh weather in the central belt of the country," says Dr. Olaniran Yaya, national technical coordinator of the National Tree Nursery Development Committee.

Despite the gloomy predictions that the most recent fuel price hike portends for Nigerian forest and wildlife, it is unlikely that the Obasanjo administration will have a change of mind, even if the prices rise at the expense of the country’s fragile environment.

{Published in cooperation with Health & Science Environment, Islam Online, on the web at: http://www.islamonline.net/english/index.shtml}