Experts agree that an estimated 35 percent of land that was cultivatable 50 years ago is now desert in 11 of Nigeria’s northern states, but what they are not so sure about is why.
“These are indications of global warming which the world must grapple with,” Igiri West, a Kano-based environmentalist told IRIN. “The level of industrial and vehicular emissions [in industrialised countries] is so high that they are capable of drastically affecting the climate [in northern Nigeria].”
But Kabiru Yammama of the National Forest Conservation Council of Nigeria disagrees: “Deforestation constitutes 75 percent of the environmental problems in northern Nigeria,” he said.
“The increasing need for wood fuel for domestic use has caused the rapid depleting of trees which has… caused increasing havoc on the environment and put farming activities at great risk,” he said.
Yammama said the population burns over 40.5 million tonnes of firewood each year which destroys over 400,000 hectares of forest.
Environmental activists have been lobbying the government to create a Desert Control Commission and pass a federal bill to address desertification, but parliament has not yet taken action.
One of the worst affected areas is Yobe State in northern Nigeria. “Sand dunes are encroaching at a rate of 30 hectares a year, taking over [entire] villages,” Suleiman Garba, project manager of the federally-funded North East Arid Zone Development Programme, told IRIN.
Other affected areas include Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi states.
The symptoms are erosion, rain shortages and drought, said Basiru Buwa Adamu, Kano state director of afforestation, adding that the livelihoods of over 55 million people are threatened, more than the combined population of Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania.
A report of Nigeria’s National Meteorological Agency released in early March 2008 said the rainy season in the north has dropped to 120 days from an average of 150 days 30 years ago and as a result crop yields have dropped by 20 percent.
For environmentalist West this is an indication of global warming. “The Himalayas and the Arctic provide a cooling effect to global climates and temperatures that are becoming warmer by the day with the ice melting, causing climatic change globally. While the other parts of the world are experiencing flooding and excessive rainfall, here we are experiencing rain shortages and drought”.
Yet for Adamu, Kano State’s director of afforestation, “global warming pales into insignificance [compared] to the environmental problems… which deforestation engenders.”
The forests in northern Nigeria have almost vanished and lumberjacks keep moving steadily southwards. Nigeria has the world’s highest deforestation rate of primary forests according to a 2005 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report. “[This] puts it on track to lose virtually all of its primary forest within a few years,” the report said.
Crop yields of farmers in more southerly states such as Niger, Plateau, Kogi and Benue have dropped and, at the same time, northerners are migrating south looking for greener pastures for their cattle, and that leads to increased conflict over land.