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Environmental Heroes:  Africa's Odigha Odigha - 2003-05-05

The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world's largest award for grassroots activism and environmental achievement. The recipients- and there have been a total of 94 of them since the prize was launched in 1989 - hail from every region of the globe.

In the first of a series of profiles on the 2003 award winners, VOA's Rosanne Skirble spoke with Odigha Odigha, a Nigerian forest activist and educator.

Odigha Odigha recalls what it was like as a child to walk to school under the canopy of the rainforest in Cross River State in southeastern Nigeria.

"You could walk several kilometers without seeing the sun's rays," he said. "You only hear the sounds of animals, birds, and see wonderful butterflies, and then you come in close contact with nature, run around [and] pluck some leaves and fruits. As an adventurous kid [I] so enjoyed [it]. And, then you get into the fresh water, [which is so fresh] that you can drink it."

The rainforest was a paradise in the eyes of the young boy. It had vast stands of hardwoods and was home to the world's endangered gorillas. But 40 years later, the rainforest in Cross River State has become a much different place.

"What we have now is vast desert encroachment coming in from the north, coming towards the coastal area," Mr. Odigha said. "The trees have gone, trees like mahogany, ebony. It is a pathetic situation. I am not sure that we have fully come to terms with what we are losing, what is happening to us as a country."

A century of excessive and largely unchecked logging has had devastating consequences, says Mr. Odigha. Less than 10 percent of Nigeria's original rainforest survives. He says interest in the region began in the 1920s when European companies set up forest reserves.

"I don't know whether they were motivated to protect the forest or as a means to get the wood out. But incidentally, they came back to get concessions," he said. "These [areas] were logged and taken back to Europe and other parts of the world."

But it was the Hong-Kong based Western Metal Products Company, or WEMPCO, that motivated Odigha Odigha to champion the rainforest. In 1993 WEMPCO, with approval from the Nigerian government, began work on a project to build the largest wood processing plant in West Africa along the banks of the Cross River.

Mr. Odigha, convinced that the project would be an environmental disaster, set out to stop the company. He sold his car and set up the NGO Coalition for the Environment in his house.

"They said they were going to process wood, and I ask, 'Wood from where?' We have lost all the wood and have a gigantic factory to be built here," he said. "That means these guys are going to log broom sticks in the place! So what do we hapless people do to stop these people?"

He went on to describe the actions he spearheaded, and the results.

"What we set out first to do was to sensitize the government that [they were] wrong to cut down the rainforest. So we had to search through the laws and they looked at us as enemies to progress. What, [they asked] are you going to tell the company that wants to bring progress and you say they shouldn't go ahead with their logging operation?

"That was during the Abacha dispensation. We said to the government, 'Look, we are not against development, but we want [the company to comply] with your own laws.' We [wanted] to make sure that the company complied with the Environmental Impact Assessment Decree #86 of 1992. We said, 'Look government. This is your own law. Can you for goodness sake enforce this law?"

Mr. Odigha launched other strategies, including a letter-writing campaign to Nigeria's military regime.

"And so we caused about 3,000 letters to be written to [General Sani] Abacha," he said. "You can believe that he didn't find that funny. And he made us uncomfortable. I was really uncomfortable."

Fearful of intimidation and threats to his life, Odigha Odigha hid from authorities. He fled to the rainforest, where he traveled from village to village people's awareness of the threats facing their environment and the importance of forest protection.

When a democratic government was elected in 1998, Odigha Odigha's NGO Coalition for the Environment again demanded that the government regulate forest practices.

"We asked for a moratorium on logging, which they granted," he said. "Also we went ahead and asked for a forestry commission that is democratically put in place."

Odigha Odigha achieved both goals, and continues to lobby for strict enforcement of environmental laws and the moratorium against WEMCO in Cross River state. He says his dedication to the rainforest is a debt he owns to nature.

"And I feel that to all of us as human beings we should ask ourselves. We are taking from Nature the air we breathe, the food we eat. There is nothing that we don't take from Nature," he said. "So, what are we putting back? So we should be on the giving side as well. And, I think that it is a greater pleasure to give than to receive. That is my motivation and excitement in doing [what I do]. And, it [makes] me feel so joyous, so happy in doing what I am doing."

Odigha Odigha says he will use the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize to show people who live in and near the rainforest that there are ways to earn their livelihoods from the environment without doing harm to it.