At 11am, Elizabeth takes a panga from the store and heads out into the hills where she meets her friends from the neighbourhood.
They descend onto the forest in their village of Burak in Shongom, Gombe State of Nigeria to cut down trees and collect firewood for preparing meals for their families. Here they meet tens of other women and children collecting firewood.
When Elizabeth’s mother was her age 20 years ago, the forest was sprouting down the hills near their farm. They didn’t have to move long distances to collect firewood. Today, Elizabeth has to walk at least 4 kilometres to collect the firewood because the forest has been destroyed so much and the bare land turned into agricultural and settlement zones.
The demand for fuel wood in Shongom has grown because according to the state’s website, the population in Gombe State increased from 158,339 in 1990 to 2.8 million people by 2015, increasing demand for cooking energy. Secondly, businessmen cut down trees and transport them to the cities where it is used as fuel wood, timber for making furniture and building houses for the ever increasing population that requires housing.
“In this area, the demand for fuel wood outstrips supply and hence, the risk of deforestation in this part of the country expands at the rate of 1 kilometre per year, which has brought about irreversible damage to the environment,” states Ibrahim Yahaya, a researcher at Gombe State University.
The increasing population of Nigeria, which stands at 200 million people today, is eating up its environment and biodiversity – everything that provides food, energy, medicines, genetic resources and a variety of materials fundamental for people’s physical well-being and for maintaining culture. While the Nigerian government continues to bank its hopes on oil revenues for supporting human and economic development, a large unchecked population will be detrimental to these hopes.
To stop this man-made environmental destruction and loss of resources, much depends on scaling up the use of contraceptives to meet the targeted contraceptive prevalence rate of 36 percent and reduce the population growth. If not, it will be difficult, even with higher oil prices, to make major gains in living standards for the poorest of the poor, if other natural resources, which people depend on are depleted.
“There is a false belief that economic development is the panacea for sustaining an ever increasing population,” says Professor Dolapo Lufadeju, coordinator of Rotarian Action Group for Population and Development. “Persistently high fertility in developing countries like Nigeria, if not checked, will outpace available renewable and non-renewable resources leaving people at risk of hunger and water scarcity.”
Dolapo is convinced that “Nigeria must invest in a robust family planning campaign and make contraceptives available to women who want to limit or stop having children in order to reverse this pressure on the environment.”
Robert Walker, the president of Population Institute says promotion of voluntary family planning services represents a valuable and cost-efficient opportunity for Nigeria. With a population of 200 million, which is projected to reach 411 million by 2050, if all family planning needs were met, population growth could be expected to decline considerably.
The extent of the problem
The geographical area of Nigeria is by nature limited to 923,768 sq.km, which represents a fixed factor. Yet the population is increasing to occupy and exploit this fixed factor. The growing population and its activities are slowly destroying the very environment that supports human life. A rapidly growing population not only increases pressure on marginal lands, over-exploitation of soils, overgrazing, over cutting of woods, soil erosion, silting, flooding; but also increases excessive use of pesticide fertilisers causing land degradation and water pollution. The resulting effects include deforestation, desertification, wild land fires, and loss of biodiversity, land and air pollution, climate change, sea level rise and ozone depletion.
According to Okafor Samuel Okechi, a researcher with the University of Nigeria, the country’s temperature mean increase from 1901-2005 was 1.1°C while the global temperature in the same time rose “only” 0.74°C. This was accounted for by the level of deforestation in the country, which had been attributed with the 87 percent of the total carbon emission, of the country.
Compare this loss to the 550 million hectare Amazon Rain Forest. Also referred to as the Lungs of the Earth, it sucks up about 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen needed by humans. The current wild fires, which are set by humans either intentionally or accidentally, are just part of the deforestation eating up the Amazon. Farmers and cattle grazers are encroaching on it too. In just six months this year, the Amazon has lost 344,468 hectares of its forest cover to human activity according to Washington Post.
In 1990, Nigeria had a population of 95 million people. By 2000, the population had increased to 122 million people and today its stands at 200 million. Presently, Nigeria accounts for 2.35 percent of the world population with every 43rd person calling himself a Nigerian anywhere in the world.
So in the last 28 years, the population of Nigeria has more than doubled, creating a huge demand for land for agriculture, fuel wood, water and housing – all of which are harnessed from the environment. This threatens the country’s rich diversity of forests and wildlife, including at least 899 species of birds, 274 mammals, 154 reptiles, 53 amphibians, and 4,715 species of higher plants.
The predominantly rural population in Nigeria depends mainly on fuel wood to meet basic energy needs for cooking and heating. According to statistics from FAO, Nigeria produces about 1 million tons of charcoal annually of which 80 per cent is consumed in the cities. Fuel wood and charcoal account for about 50 percent of the national primary energy consumption.
In Africa, fuel wood accounts for over 80 percent of primary energy needs. FAO further reveals that over 50 percent of all wood produced in the world is used for energy. Importantly, 85 percent of all wood fuel is collected by women and girls.
Nigeria also faces a multitude of climate-related threats. Drought in the North and flooding in the South could severely affect food production, while rising seas could displace millions of people living along the coast or in the Niger Delta. Climate change could also increase the number of refugees fleeing to Nigeria from the Sahel.
Family planning as a cost effective solution
Conservationists consider renewable energy, public transport and lower consumption as the environmental solution. Reforestation can help to curtail soil erosion, revitalise regional watersheds, restore critical bio-habitats for endangered species and help to alleviate water scarcity.
Yet, there is no doubt that better access to a wider availability of modern contraception provides an important part to a long time sustainable solution.
Over 150 reproductive health and environment organisations from 170 countries, including Nigeria, have come together to support a global campaign Thriving Together that aims at increasing awareness of the link between environmental conservation and family planning. Organisation in Nigeria supporting this campaign include Rotarian Action Group for Population and Development, Health Reform Foundation Nigeria and SIRP Nigeria. Through engagement in maternal and child health and family planning, RFPD aims to foster improvements in human well-being and dignity, women’s empowerment and a sustainable balance between population and environment.
“Having been engaged in maternal and child health and family planning for a quarter century, RFPD is looking to now increase collaboration with agencies and organisations in environmental protection and climate activism. The potential synergies between these two fields are clearer than ever. We are delighted to see the amount of progress made in recent years regarding awareness about the relation between population and the environment!” Professor Robert Zinser, RFPD Co-Founder
In order to help improve the situation, RFPD is supporting the government by training doctors, nurses, community health extension workers in the provisions of professional family planning services. Rotarians will train staff in stock management and ensure that contraceptives are transported and stocked in 4000 health care centres in all 36 states and the Federal Capital, Abuja.
“By easing access to contraceptives at the nearest health centre and staffing them with competent, well-trained personnel responsive to clients’ needs, we are not only helping women make choice of their family size, this is also a sustainable conservation practice,” RFPD-coordinator Dolapo adds.
Robert Walker, the president of Population Institute says that even if population growth had no impact on the level of greenhouse gas emissions, the case for incorporating family planning into climate change discussions is still compelling. Preventing unintended pregnancies helps women and families adapt to climate change. When families are struggling to survive in the face of drought, flooding or rising seas, smaller families are more likely to survive and, hopefully, thrive.
Population Scholars John Bongaarts and Brian C. O’Neill argue that helping women avoid unwanted pregnancies will slow population growth, which in turn could reduce global carbon emissions by 40 per cent or more in the long term.