Can public-private partnerships preserve the dwindling biodiversity of Lagos?

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Mongabay, Lagos, Nigeria

“When you’re dealing with organisations that are destroying the environment, you should not be antagonistic,” says Adeniyi Karunwi, the director general and CEO of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF). “You need to engage them.”

Karunwi points to the fruits of NCF’s engagement with Chevron, one of the world’s largest oil giants and a key player in Nigeria’s petroleum industry. In 2015, Chevron’s daily production in Nigeria averaged 224,000 barrels of crude oil, 246 million cubic feet of natural gas, and 6,000 barrels of liquefied petroleum gas. With such output, the corporation contributes billions of dollars to Nigeria’s economy every year.

The corporation has significant energy operations in the Niger Delta but maintains its Nigerian corporate offices in Lagos, the former federal capital situated in the far Southwest of the country. Chevron’s sprawling campus in the Lekki peninsula sits atop prime Lagos real estate.

But beyond its economic importance, Chevron also tries to play the role of a good neighbour. It spends millions of dollars on welfare projects to benefit education, health, and the environment, especially in its host communities across the country. As part of its corporate social responsibility and public relations activities in Lagos State, Chevron supports NCF’s flagship project — the Lekki Conservation Centre.

LagosLagos draws its name from the lagoon that made the port a place of aquatic splendor. Photo by Hamed Adedeji.

A vision of past vegetation

Launched by NCF in 1989, the Lekki Conservation Centre (LCC) comprises 78 hectares of mangroves, secondary forest, and savanna grassland just 30 kilometres from central Lagos. The land is valued at 20 billion naira (about US$100 million), according to Karunwi.

From the observation deck of the centre’s 400-metre long canopy walkway — the world’s second-longest — the reserve’s three ecological zones intertwine and spread as far as the eye can see. The vista hints at the floral coverage of the peninsula before citification from Victoria Island reached it two decades ago. The forest canopy overlooks the entire landscape and transports visitors back to the period when the entire peninsula was still sparsely populated.

Down below, monkeys peek from mangrove shrubbery and butterflies flitter tirelessly from tree to tree. A 25-metre high treehouse affords birdwatchers the perfect location to spot the reserve’s avifauna, which, according to the Lekki Bird Club, includes at least 49 species. These treasures include herons and hornbills, sunbirds and starlings.

Even around the rotunda complex that houses the offices of staff members, African spurred tortoises grace the immaculate lawns and the clean air makes for an atmosphere for family recreation. The reserve seems a world away from the maddening pace of life in Nigeria’s largest metropolis. Life inside the LCC is simply a peaceful continuum of unspoiled greenery and gregarious animals.

But outside the reserve, the reverse is the case. Much of the native flora and fauna of Lagos had been lost to reckless urban development. It’s a story with long roots.

forest walkwayThe 400-metre forest walkway is the second-longest in the world and it was constructed with financial support from the government of Lagos State. Photo by Hamed Adedeji.

From small port to glistening mega-city

Lagos was founded in the 15th century as a small settlement and slave port, originally called Eko. It now straddles the creeks and lagoons that stretch from the Lekki peninsula through Badagry to Porto Novo, the capital of neighbouring Benin Republic. The seaside location quickly assumed significance when the British seized Lagos as a colonial possession in 1862.

By 1914 the city had been declared the capital of the newly formed country and the stage was set for its dominance of national affairs. For the next 77 years, despite being situated in the southwest extremity of Nigeria, Lagos would go on to become the cultural centre of the nation and a force for business and politics in West Africa and indeed the entire continent.

But having been restrained by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the south and hemmed in by a network of lagoons from which the city drew its name (Lagos means lagoons in Portuguese), the city was really choking under the weight of its own success.

In 1991, during military rule in Nigeria, the regime of Ibrahim Babangida stripped Lagos of its federal capital status and moved the seat of government to Abuja, in part because Lagos lacked land into which it could expand. The new centrally-located and purpose-built city of Abuja was meant to symbolise the unity of Africa’s most populous country. Nonetheless, the economic dominance of Lagos has endured.

The magnetic pull of the former capital, enervated by its glistening high-rises and aluminium-clad factories, still draws in an average of 3,000 new inhabitants on any given day. These migrants come in search of social mobility amidst the vast array of economic opportunities the sprawling metropolis affords its residents. This influx of people has engendered Africa’s largest mega-city.

mapThe map of the greater metropolitan Lagos showing the Lagos Lagoon (in the centre) and the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Google Maps.

No holistic plan for urban development

From its centre on the Lagos Island, the city radiates skywards, seawards and outwards to the mainland and the Lekki peninsula. Today, Lagos is home to over 12 million residents. The Lagos State Government however estimates the population of the greater metropolitan region to be almost 21 million people.

One of the most direct consequences of this huge population is the pressure on land. Already constrained by surface space, Lagosians build wherever they can; the rich on land reclaimed from the sea, the poor on wooden stilts on the lagoons. For the city’s working class population, building on water is not an option. A 700-square-metre plot on Victoria Island, one of the city’s most affluent precincts, might sell for about six hundred million naira (US$3 million). The nearer a plot is to the lagoon the higher its price.

Although Lagos no longer houses the bulk of Nigeria’s federal administration, much of the challenges facing the city stem from its previous dual role as federal capital and federating state. When Lagos was made the capital of Nigeria, the city proper consisted of three major islands — Lagos, Ikoyi, and Victoria — plus a small tract of adjoining territory. The remaining land mass (now consisting of the mainland of Lagos state) was part of the old Western region of the country.

This dichotomy, accentuated by partisan politics, largely prevented the two jurisdictions from formulating a holistic plan for urban development. While the Western region had more land but fewer financial resources, the national government was short of space but not of money. As a corollary, the value of land on the islands increased astronomically, pushing less wealthy people to the mainland. This would set the tempo for the growth of the city over the next decades. When the federal government left in 1991, the business class remained in situ and has continued to shape Lagos’ public spaces ecologically and economically.

Vanishing biodiversity

Wild animals have disappeared, for instance, from the campus of the University of Lagos, on the mainland. “I used to see monkeys around the Faculty of Arts during my freshman and sophomore years,” says Sina Faustino, who graduated in 2012. “By my senior year, they had disappeared.”

former monkey habitatThe site of a building project near the Faculty of Arts on the main campus of the University of Lagos was once the habitat of monkeys. Photo by Hamed Adedeji.

Ebenezer Meshida, a geosciences professor and past winner of the Nigeria Prize for Science, blames the government — and wider society — for failing to protect biodiversity.

“I haven’t seen any state government in Nigeria that is concerned at all about conservation,” says Meshida. “When Chevron started the [Lekki Conservation Centre] scheme, it was meant to be [a small model] of just a few hectares. It is very unimaginable that there’s no such scheme established by the Lagos State government.”

Meshida says Nigerians are destroying natural ecosystems through ignorance. “We don’t know! We don’t care!” He argues that Nigeria consistently disallows knowledgeable people from making their contributions to the society, a culture that is beginning to take its toll on conservation efforts in the country.

Two years ago, he too had noticed that monkeys that used to frequent the arts faculty of the University of Lagos were disappearing. Upon inquiry, he was told that the authorities had decided to clear the habitat of the monkeys for a proposed building project. The project site bears the scars of gravel and cement, a ghost of the dense forest that once occupied the area.

Where once stood mighty trees, vestiges of the natural vegetation when the university was founded more than half a century ago, there is now a barren construction site. A few trees still dot the surrounding area but much of the landscape has been stripped of its vegetation. The whole campus, like the rest of the city, is densely choked with modernist architecture that appears as stubble on the ground.

A road brings change

On the other side of Lagos Lagoon from the University of Lagos stretches the Lekki Peninsula, an area originally settled by Yoruba communities of farmers and traders. The proximity of the peninsula to the islands, where most of the businesses are, has hastily brought new infrastructure to Lekki, and new challenges too.

Back in the 1980s, the government built a minor highway that linked the peninsula with Epe, a small fishing town situated in the northern part of the Lekki lagoon. The new road improved transportation for Lekki’s villagers but land speculators quickly swooped in.

At the turn of the century, when the islands had become too crowded, many companies started moving their operations away from the central business district. Conscious of this emerging trend, developers began to construct luxury estates in the Phase 1 district of Lekki. The vehicular traffic that followed made this route a nightmare for commuters. In 2006 the government partnered with investors to relieve the pressure on the highway by building the six-lane Lekki-Epe Expressway.

Lekki-Epe ExpresswayThe Lekki-Epe Expressway cuts through the peninsula, connecting built-up areas of Lekki with other parts of Lagos. Photo by Rendel.

The expressway did improve the traffic situation but development oftentimes comes with unforeseen costs. Nowadays, a lagoon-front plot of 1,000 square metres in Lekki is priced around US$700,000 on average. The expressway helped in transforming sleepy villages into gated communities for the middle class. Farms and forests have been cleared to make space for luxury condos, shopping malls and even a petroleum refinery. A second airport in Lagos is also planned for the peninsula. Another controversial land use trend in Lekki is the establishment of golf resorts on forested areas.

The Lekki Beach Golf Resort is one of the two golf resorts in the Lekki Peninsula and it covers an area of 157 hectares, with 2.5 kilometres of ocean beach front. The other, Lakowe Lakes Golf Estate, comprises 92 hectare of lush greenery and ponds. They both cater to the city’s affluent business class who throng these recreation centres during holidays and weekends.

While indigenous landowners have lost ancestral lands and properties to the unchecked sprawl of Lagos, the area’s wetlands and associated wildlife have suffered the greater loss.

Solutions causing problems

Take, for example, Igbo Efon, a village-turned-quarter of Eti-Osa local government area of Lagos that is located at the third roundabout of the Lekki-Epe Expressway. The mixed-use district has plenty of fairly modern residences set amidst quaint corner shops, open markets and primary schools. It is a working class neighbourhood of upwardly mobile professionals, but the buzz of the community hides a secret from its past.

“Our grandfathers told us the village has been in existence for over 500 years,” explains Yomi Olukolu, a lawyer and prince of the ruling family in Igbo Efon. “It used to be a forest of buffaloes but they’ve gone into extinction due to the destruction of the ecology. We had remarkable spots like Odo Efon, a waterhole where the buffaloes used to stay. Today, there’s nothing like that anymore.”

Olukolu says the latest craze of the working class to live around Eti-Osa has posed new security challenges beyond the intractable traffic that plagues the community. This pressure has driven the value of land in his village to astronomic levels. The received wisdom is that areas with environmental problems are usually less valuable as real estate. Eti-Osa has consistently defied this general consensus. Since prospective homeowners won’t purchase properties built on marshy lands, developers came up with a solution. They began sand-filling the wetlands of the peninsula to increase the value of their portfolios.

But this ‘solution’ has led to recurrent flooding and coastal erosion. Recently, Muyiwa Kolawole, an e-commerce executive at Konga.com, had a portion of the fencing of his property rebuilt after it collapsed without warning. “Poor drainage, which results in the flooding of the streets, is a major problem that we experience in the area,” he says.

Worse still, the Eko Atlantic City, a Dubai-style development on the edge of Victoria Island, has been susceptible to ocean surges in the area. To combat the impact of the reckless developments, pressure groups have sprung up to take legal action against property developers and businesses whose operations have caused damage to Lekki and its environs. But most residents of Igbo Efon just go about their business despite the environmental issues they face.

Where’s the money for nature?

Amid all of these pressures stands the Nigerian Conservation Foundation’s Lekki Conservation Centre. In a mega-city whose government gives little attention to man’s impact on nature, local conservationists have had no choice but to turn to corporations that have been accused of causing environmental damage for financing. A significant proportion of the annual budget of the Lekki Conservation Centre comes from Chevron.

Mona monkeyA robust population of Mona monkeys thrive in the nature reserve of the Lekki Conservation Centre in Lagos. Photo by Hamed Adedeji.

Adeniyi Karunwi maintains that despite the fact that oil corporations have contributed to the destruction of the environment, Chevron has done more towards ecological sustainability than the [Nigerian] government. For instance, the government’s Ecological Fund, which is financed by oil proceeds, is known to have been misused and sometimes diverted funds to unrelated government expenses. Successive administrations, even after the restoration of democracy in 1999, have merely paid lip service to wildlife protection.

Environmentalists have criticised the controversial Eko Atlantic City project since it was inaugurated amidst much pomp and circumstance by former president Goodluck Jonathan in 2013. Similar large-scale infrastructure projects have attracted equal opprobrium from Nigerians. Lekki residents have repeatedly protested against the siting of an airport and refinery in the area to no avail. It is unbelievable that the reserve, just a few kilometres from the busy Lekki-Epe Expressway, will soon welcome polluting facilities within its surroundings. Given the pace of these ‘unstoppable’ developments, some environmentalists have called for a different approach to preserving biodiversity in Lagos.

“Other areas of Lagos State aside Lekki deserve the conservation of their biodiversity,” says Adewole Taiwo, an environmentalist and executive director of WasteAid International in Nigeria. “But we cannot concentrate on marine biodiversity or the aquatic parts of Lagos alone. I believe [the LCC] can still achieve more success through proper funding, education, and advocacy among the various stakeholders.”

Karunwi agrees. “Every part of Nigeria has its own peculiar challenges. In Lagos, it’s coastal erosion due to urban development. The NCF has a wetlands project that aims to sensitize the citizens on how to protect marine resources. We are engaging the government on the importance of the coast.” He says the projects of his organisation are all-encompassing because all parts of the environment are interlinked. Moreover, since different ecological zones are connected, if conservationists direct their efforts on a single aspect alone, it would be to the detriment of the other aspects. Hence, the LCC also works to preserve Nigeria’s dwindling forests.

Lekki 2

“The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has set a standard that every country should have a quarter (25%) of its territory covered with forests,” he says. “But in Nigeria, today, the forest cover is less than 4%. Forests have been destroyed. There are virtually no forests in the Southwest and in the Southeast. Only Cross River in the South-South region still has forests and those are under threat.”

The Lekki Conservation Centre has an ambitious reforestation plan to increase Nigeria’s forest cover over the next 25 years, but the director admits the LCC cannot achieve such a plan by itself. “One of the benefits of our engagement [with Chevron] is that they want to replicate the Lekki Conservation Centre in the Niger Delta,” says Karunwi. “We have done the study and we have recommended some sites.”

Karunwi believes the LCC has not outlived its mission, rather the flourishing species within its reserve are a tangible proof that conservation works and if it has worked in Lagos, it can work elsewhere too.

Lekki