Desperate, IDPs in Northeast Nigeria are plunging into the forests for their daily bread, despite the danger posed by lurking terrorists and the risks posed to the environment.
Opposite Dalori II displacement camp, located at the outskirts of Maiduguri, Northeast Nigeria, is a mound of hay, nearly six feet tall and twice as wide. It had been torched and now the fire smoulders gently, with smoke escaping from one side. Buried inside are big logs of wood that will turn to charcoal in a few days. Two young men guard the hill with a rake and spade to keep it in shape. Others sort through an assembly of axed tree parts lying around.
Abubakar Ibrahim, 40, who leads this team of loggers and charcoal manufacturers, is an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) from Ashigashiya, a town in Gwoza Local Government Area (LGA) that lies on the border with Cameroon. In 2014, the notorious terror group, Boko Haram, had hoisted its flag in the town and declared Gwoza its headquarters. About a year later, Nigerian troops recaptured the area, giving room for locals to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Abubakar chose Maiduguri, Borno’s state capital. And with Boko Haram still actively operating in Gwoza — even particularly Ashigashiya, he has not looked back.
Of the over 2.1 million IDPs in Nigeria, Borno State alone hosts roughly 1.6 million. Every morning, thousands of them, mostly middle-aged men and women, set out on foot and in old pickup trucks, hoping to return hours later with a piece of the surrounding forest area. They use some of the wood they gather for cooking and sell the remaining to take care of various essential needs.
Most of them, previously farmers and cattle herders, lost their livelihood to the insurgency. While there are relief programmes that provide foodstuff and cash allowances on a monthly basis, not everyone benefits. Those who do, complain that the support does not sustain their households through each month so they are forced to seek other ways of making ends meet. One of the most obvious ways is cutting down trees in the forest that can be used as fuel and trading them for money and valuables. A few like Abubakar first convert the wood to charcoal, another cooking fuel that is popular among locals.
Despite the significant adverse effects the practice has on the forest areas, it has continued to thrive. One factor responsible for this is the accessibility of fuelwood and the lifestyle of residents generally. Fuelwood is used for domestic cooking, commercial beef roasting, and in bakeries. Forest resources are also used for construction and medicinal purposes. A United Nations study conducted in 2019 showed that up to 95.5 per cent of the households in Borno relied on firewood and charcoal for routine cooking, with two-thirds getting them from local sellers. Also, only 21 per cent of those surveyed said they would change their energy source if they had a chance to.
Abubakar was a farmer in his hometown but, in Maiduguri, similar land resources are not available to IDPs. So he took to combing the forests for fuelwood and has been doing so for the past six years.
“I go to the bush from time to time with 10 of my boys to get the wood,” he tells HumAngle, sitting on a pile of branches. “I started it for the first time when I came here and became a boss in the business.”
Aside from the 10-man exploration team, he has 20 other people working with him to produce charcoal. While the IDPs mostly do not discriminate between one type of tree and the other, Ibrahim’s men target the Gawo, Neem, and Tamarind, preferring the last two because they make better charcoal. They sell their products to members of the neighbouring Dalori II camp and traders from downtown.
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