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2016 Earth Day: What Is More Important In Nigeria, A Tree Or A Human Life? By Churchill Okonkwo

April 22, 2016

As the world marks 2016 Earth Day on April 22nd, the theme ‘Trees for the Earth’ has made this question pertinent; what is more important to the Nigerian government; a tree or a human life? I know the question sounds stupid so I will rephrase; can a government and a people that appear not to give a damn about human life care about natural environment and forests? To answer this question, we have to critically look at the country's response to religio-ethnic killings, farmer-herdsmen clashes as well as countless murders that go unreported, unrecorded and uninvestigated. Then, we can begin to appreciate the serious challenges facing us in our quest for sustainable environment and development as a nation.


On March 22, 2011, my cousin Chukwuma Odunukwe together with his assistant was shot dead in broad daylight in Maiduguri by ‘unknown' assailants. Every day in Nigeria, dozens of similar brutal killings never makes it to the limelight. In fact, they are not even investigated talk less of perpetrators apprehended. Not even the tears of the helpless loved ones are noticed.

In the last election cycle, the number of Nigerians killed in clashes, campaign and post-election violence was more 1000. As you read this, hundreds of lives are lost each month on avoidable road accidents due to bad road network. The everyday violence in Nigeria is thus a mirror image of the destruction of forests and natural environment in all parts of the country. If lives of Nigerians at the peak of Jos Plateau or at the Valley of Idemili River are extinguished without restraint; who will listen to my protest about trees, forests and the environment? Why should you care?

Let's face it; we could not exist as we do if there were no trees. A mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year. What many people don't realize is the forest also acts as a giant filter that cleans the air we breathe. Forests provide not only environmental protection, but also significant income and livelihood for more than 40 million forest-dependent Nigerians. For the rest of Nigerians, trees provide a wide range of products (timber, fruit, medicine, beverages, fodder) and services (carbon sequestration, shade, beautification, erosion control, and soil fertility). Without trees human life would be unsustainable.

But for tens of years Nigerians have asserted its dominance over the rest of life by destroying its environment both directly and indirectly, killing off other species of plants and animals, with reckless abandon while regulatory authorities watch. The biological health of the Nigerian cities has been declining so rapidly that nothing short of an immediate turn around in environmental consciousness through tree planting can reverse the slide towards poor air quality and filthy suffocation.

While the urban population in Nigeria suffers from the effects of industrial air pollution, close to 40 million people mainly women and children in poor rural areas have their health compromised by the inhalation of smoky, indoor air deriving from the burning of organic fuels – wood, charcoal, – for cooking and heating. The multiple deleterious effects of the firewood crisis on health and the environment is surprisingly not a major concern of development and environmental specialist in Nigeria.

The scale of deforestation and its ecological consequences can hardly be exaggerated. The picture is bleak wherever one looks in Nigeria. Since the poor societies in Nigeria are overwhelmingly rural societies, they depend on what they are able to draw from the land. Deforestation is not only a major catalyst of soil erosion, but it contributes to climatic disorder such as irregular precipitation cycle. Further, it results in loss of biodiversity, landslides, atmospheric damage and in numerous other interrelated problems on an expanding scale. It is clear that the ecological cost of deforestation has exceeded its economic benefits

So what would be an alternative to this traditional biomass burning that exacerbates deforestation? That is where the forgotten ‘Gas master Plan' would have been the most welcome development. But my fear is that, the so called gas revolution may have been a political gimmick aimed at re-election. Can a country that cannot legislate and enforce ban of gas flaring; a country that cannot refine its crude oil; and a country that appears incapable of first understanding what its environmental and sustainable development challenges are deliver on the gas plan?

The Nigerian government today needs to usher in a season of real transformation, a season of stewardship to make long overdue constitutional commitment to protection and improvement of environment and security of future generation. Nigerian new legislatures should rise to occasion and act in a manner that fundamentally changes the lives of the poor and instill confidence by implementation of laws and policies to usher a humane, equitable and environment friendly society. But what can we do as individuals if the government continues to neglect its responsibility of protecting us and the environment? What can we do to save the trees and by extension human lives?

Recognizing the role rainforests plays in maintaining food security, storing scores of medical plants, income generation and adverting local climate offset and, realizing the alarming rate at which the forest of Nigeria is disappearing, it is imperative and incumbent upon the all of us as individuals to take some mitigating measures by planting trees.

As I conclude this, the farmer-herdsmen conflict across Nigeria is still claiming lives. Regrettably too, it is clear that Nigerians rather than articulating a practical solution to the conflict are busy displaying their BMW – bitching, moaning and winning. We all know that a live is more important than a tree. Until we as a nation feels the need to protect human lives irrespective of ethnicity, class, religion or political alignment, let us plant a tree today. That's the least we can do on this 2016 Earth Day.

My final word is from John F. Kennedy; "The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!"


Churchill Okonkwo (Ph.D.) is the Director of African Center for Climate Science and Policy Research, Washington DC. You can email Churchill at [email protected] or follow on Twitter @churchillnnobi