Environmental health warrior Akin Abayomi and his battle to save Nigeria’s Emerald Forest
Amid the towering indigenous trees in Nigeria’s Emerald Forest Reserve, Prof Akin Abayomi seeks to make conservation of the natural environment everyone’s business.
Prof Akin Abayomi and his family have been running and restoring the Emerald Forest for the past 23 years. The reserve, on the banks of the Osun River in Osun State, Nigeria, now extends across 122 hectares.
But vast swathes of countryside around the reserve are completely barren as a result of expanding cities, logging and deforestation.
The forest is home to a huge variety of fauna and flora, birds and other wildlife seeking refuge since conservation efforts began more than two decades ago. This includes pangolins, which are threatened with extinction.
In an interview with Daily Maverick, Abayomi explained that the Emerald Forest is essentially a farm that uses restoration of the natural environment to foster alternative agriculture.
The forest also acts as a carbon sink, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and strengthening against climate change impacts while furthering education and local economic development by engaging the surrounding community in this project.
Abayomi specialises in internal medicine, haematology, environmental health, biosecurity and biobanking. He is the immediate past commissioner for health in Lagos, a one-health advocate and biosecurity expert and previously held the position of chief pathologist and head of the Division of Haematology at the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Medicine Sciences.
He is the founder of the Global Emerging Pathogen Consortium and CEO of Abayomi Farm Estate.
When growing up with his father, a farmer, on the outskirts of major cities in Nigeria, Abayomi took an early interest in environmental health as he had always been exposed to vast expanses of land, rivers, trees and birds.
As he grew older, Abayomi noticed the chaotic expansion of cities in Nigeria and massive deforestation taking place. Huge forests with massive indigenous trees were disappearing at such a fast rate that one could notice the topography of the land changing.
He then decided to combine his medical degree with environmental issues after finding, through his travels and research, that there was an increasing number of infectious outbreaks and that among the contributing factors were that populations were encroaching on wilderness, and therefore getting exposed to potential infections.
He said infections jump from the animal kingdom to the human population when there is close proximity to wildlife, or through unsanitary animal husbandry in agriculture. These become more pronounced with the rapid decimation of wildlife’s natural habitat, which disrupts the ecosystem. Abayomi said that, here, the connection between environmental conservation and human health became clear.
Apart from his medical profession, he established a model at the forest where private citizens could contribute to the restoration of natural habitats and the preservation of biodiversity.
The forest also attracts researchers and nonprofit organisations such as the Wild Africa Fund, working to promote efforts that preserve Africa’s natural beauty and wildlife.
He said the government had a duty to not only set laws, policies and guidelines that preserve the natural environment, but also to enforce this and prevent poachers, loggers and farmers from carrying out damaging excursions into these areas.
According to Global Forest Watch, an online platform that provides data to better protect forests, between 2001 to 2022, Nigeria lost 1.25 mega hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 12% decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 671 megatonnes of CO₂e emissions (carbon dioxide equivalent).
Reuters in June 2022 reported that the situation had become so extreme that loggers now outnumbered trees in Nigeria’s disappearing forests.
Through the model employed at the Emerald Forest, Abayomi seeks to show how preserving ecosystems and biodiversity can be a lucrative economic activity, by bringing in tourists, educating locals, creating job opportunities and more.
Another aspect of the Emerald Forest is that it earns carbon credits.
“If you have 1,000 acres of land, you can actually make more money by preserving it in its natural state and converting it into a private reserve… By promoting, instead of cutting down all your trees and killing all your animals to plant corn, rice, and wheat, you’re making more money from preservation.
“The other thing that it does, which is becoming increasingly more important, is the fact that you can now earn carbon credits – then you’re earning from multiple sources,” he said.
Abayomi explains that this forest is actually a seed bank, where suitable conditions are maintained to conserve seeds of different species, and they plan to use the richness of the seed banks, land them into a nursery and then, from the nursery, educate the community.
“Gradually the community is beginning to understand that this collection of biodiversity is earning you a livelihood on a continuous basis,” he said.
Through this model, Abayomi and his team seek to convert hunters, poachers and loggers into conservationists who will protect the environment instead of taking advantage of it.
“The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture is a big research organisation, and they’re responsible for a lot of research into agriculture and natural environments.
“They got to know about this protected area. So over the period of three years, they’re hoping to demonstrate that this place should qualify for being designated as an important biodiversity and bird area, which would then make it a heritage site in the sanctuary and protected,” Abayomi said.
“It’s called the Emerald Forest because when you’re in it and the sun is shining, it’s the sun reflecting through the green leaves of the forest and when you look up at the sky, it’s as if you’re looking at emeralds that are sparkling,” Abayomi said.
Although the Emerald Forest is protected, logging outside the forest has continued and the difference between the forest and the logged-out areas has become like night and day.
According to the professor, everything outside this Emerald Forest is completely barren, whereas 10 to 15 years ago, one could not see for more than 200m because of the big trees – all of which are now gone.
“So when people come to the Emerald Forest and see that we’ve been protecting it for a long time, they’re shocked that this is what this environment used to look like. A lot of the animals are squeezed into the Emerald Forest because there’s nothing left for them outside,” he said.
As a result, the forest is now teeming with birds, reptiles, cats, monkeys, antelope and more, amid the streams and trees of the area.
Now they are planting the seeds from these trees, out into the community or for anybody who wants them, hoping to slowly return the region to its original state. DM
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