Niger Delta Ecosystems: the ERA Handbook/The Resources of the Niger Delta: Forests


  • The Nature of the Resource
  • Classification of the Forest Condition in the Niger Delta
  • Forest Resources by Ecozone
  • The Economic Problem of the Forest Resources
  • Economic Cost Benefit Analyses of Forest Exploitation


The natural ecology of the forests of the Niger Delta is covered in Chapters 5 to 9. In this chapter the forests are considered as a resource which is useful to mankind.

Forests constitute the most valuable renewable resource in the Niger Delta, which after Cross River State, has the largest area of relatively undisturbed forest in Nigeria and probably West Africa. The resource is especially valuable because the hot humid climate of the Niger Delta encourages the fast regeneration of forest, so that the economic returns are far greater than for forests in other biomes. In terms of resource management it is useful to define the condition of the forests of the Niger Delta according to six classes, as below.


12.2.1 NATURAL

There are no truly natural forests, but some have experienced minimal human interference. Their ecosystems operate very closely to those of a natural forest, although some of the populations of the larger animals are reduced or extinct.


Where the bigger trees have been removed, where some of the populations of the larger animals are reduced or extinct, and where other forest products are exploited to some degree, these are forest ecosystems which operate much as natural forests.


A viable forest ecosystem may not only be depleted but also have a substantially altered composition due to exploitation by mankind (including farming and the introduction of exotic species).


A forest may be exploited and encroached upon by farming and other human activities to such an extent that it no longer operates as a forest ecosystem and is converting into derived savannah, Potential or Lost forest (see below).


This may be degraded forest or wasteland (including very low yielding or abandoned agricultural land) that can practicably be managed back to some sort of viable forest ecosystem capable of sustainably yielding forest products. Such management will include plantings of mixed indigenous forest species. Mono-specific plantings of indigenous or exotic trees are plantations, which can never function as true forest but can be appropriate in certain situations).

12.2.6 LOST

Some land can never be practicably brought back to forest use. This is either because it has some other well established use (agriculture, settlement, commercial, industrial); or because it is adjacent to a land use that makes forest establishment impracticable (e.g. beside urban areas where squatting or the risk of fire is a problem).


In terms of human needs, there are four main categories of forest resources.


  • Construction - such as houses and community buildings
  • Joinery - such as furniture.
  • Fuel, generally for processing food:
    • drying fish;
    • drying rice, after it has been soaked and prior to milling;
    • distilling raffia wine into gin;
    • sterilising and softening oil palm fruit;
    • separating palm oil; and
    • drying bush-meat.
  • Canoes and paddles.
  • Small wood items like axe and hoe handles, fence posts, cages for domestic animals and carvings.

Non-timber Forest Products - NTFPs

Until recently these have been overlooked, and yet in terms of income and income equivalent they often yield more than timber. When forestland is converted to other uses, it is the NTFPs that communities, and especially women, miss the most. Some of the NTFPs that come out of the Niger Delta forests so as to indicate the range.

  • Bush Meat is a prime source of protein and cash income in the FAM ecozone, and although it is technically illegal to hunt a wide range of animals (The Endangered Species Decree No. 11 of 1985) commonly hunted animals include: Duikers ("Antelopes"), Civets, Monkeys, Cane Rats ("Grass-cutters"), Porcupines, Pangolins, Giant Rats ("Hares"), Squirrels, Red River Hogs ("Bush Pig"), Monitor Lizards, Otters ("Bears"), and Water Chevrotains.
  • Other animals collected in the freshwater forests include Snails and Fish; in the mangroves, Oysters, Crabs and Periwinkles are taken.
  • Types of Kola Nut (e.g. Cola acuminata) which are chewed as a stimulant.
  • Dozens of fruits, leaves and spices that are used both for adding taste and substance to soups and stews, and as vegetables. The best known are the Bush Mangoes, (Irvingia spp.), and afang leaves. The charcoal from Rhizophora propagules is used to make a popular cooking salt.
  • Medicinal roots, leaves, barks, fruits and nuts, upon which many people, especially women and children, depend.
  • Rattans, canes and ropes.
  • Honey
  • Wine tapped from Raffia Palms.

Ecological Functions

Thirdly, the forests of the Niger Delta provide ecological benefits, especially in terms of the hydrological cycles, erosion control and off and on-shore fish breeding. But they also have a place in the global and regional ecosystem, particularly in terms of rainfall patterns and climatic stability (although the full extent is not yet fully understood).

Biodiversity Finally, as explained in chapter two, the high diversity of the forests of the Niger Delta should be treated as a valuable resource. Along with the other main Nigerian area of tropical rain forest, in Cross River State, they probably contain 60-80% of all Nigerian plant and animal species. As tropical rainforests are destroyed elsewhere this resource is becoming an increasingly valuable asset.


A full survey of the conditions of the forests of the Niger Delta has yet to be undertaken. The cheapest and quickest way to do this would be either by low cost aerial photography or by remote sensing, both with sample field inspection and analysis, in order to enable the development of an up-to-date Geographical Information System based upon digitised maps.

However our observations so far suggest that, by ecozones, forest conditions are as set out in the following sections.


Here the forest condition is mostly lost or degraded, but with some riverine cultured and degraded forest, and potential for reforestation.

There is no natural or depleted lowland tropical rainforest here: the remaining degraded riverine and relic shrine forests (often no more than a few trees) are under pressure, and the few harvestable timber trees left are needed for local consumption. However the deep soils of the area have the potential for the establishment of cultured forests of mixed indigenous timber species (Chlorophora, Entandophragma, Irvingia, Khaya, Parkia and Terminalia species are suitable for planting, as is eminently, the Silk Cotton Tree, Ceiba pentandra), and exotic economic fruit species such as the Mango (Mangifera indica). If they were to be established on the most degraded agricultural soils, perhaps around a surviving forest shrine or beside a riverine forest, and properly managed by the local community, such forests would give higher returns than current arable agricultural practices and could therefore be attractive to Local People. Also, these restored forests would have the additional economic advantages of improved and more biodiverse ecosystems. Such forests would supply local timber needs for construction and joinery, which are currently imported into the area.

The cultured riverine forests are under pressure from agriculture yet they could continue to yield non-timber forest products (NTFPs) if they are effectively managed. The raffia palm is the basis of most NTFPs (raffia wine, twine and leaves used for thatching), but some bush meat (mainly rodents) and medicinal plants are also produced. Homesteads established by raffia gin distillers have introduced exotic species to the edges of these forests, but natural useful timber species are rare.


The forest condition here is mostly lost, degraded and cultured.

Competition for arable agriculture is intense but there is some potential for reforestation along the lines described for the LEM ecozone above, and in conjunction with agroforestry techniques described in chapter 17.

A wide range of NTFPs come from the cultured forests, including bush meat which ranges across from other sub-ecozones.


The forest condition here is lost and degraded around urban centres. In accessible areas the forest is mostly depleted (of the large timber species in the seasonal swamps) and cultured (in terms of raffia, oil, and to a lesser extent, raffia palms). However it is still natural or merely depleted in the less accessible areas.

The ecological value of the forests in this area is high because of the low proportion of lost and degraded forest, and sustainable economic returns are high in terms of palm products. However these forests are sensitive to water pollution, particularly oil spills (which particularly reduce already low levels of available oxygen in the water) and they are threatened by drainage for agro-industrial oil palm plantation projects.


The condition of these forests is that some are lost to agro-industrial rice and oil palm, small-farmer rice, urban uses, and oil extraction related activities. All accessible areas are depleted, and are cultured close to settlements. In less accessible areas the forest is depleted or natural.

Within the Niger Delta, these forests probably have the highest economic value in terms of all forest resources, particularly timber, but they are under greatest threat from both small farmer and agro-industrial agricultural expansion.


The over-riding importance of the mangrove forests is that they are largely natural (apart from the 5-10% that have already been lost, mainly to urban, industrial and oil extraction activities).

The economic value of the mangrove forests is mainly in terms of their ecological function. They play an essential part in the breeding and feeding cycles of estuarine and offshore fisheries, and in the physical stability of the Niger Delta as a whole. Also their production of the NTFPs, oysters, periwinkles and crabs is high and important to communities that live in and adjacent to the mangroves.

Properly managed, mangrove species have very good regeneration qualities and there is a high potential for forestry management to produce wood for charcoal fuel (mangrove species have a high calorific value), and sawn timber for basic joinery, and poles.

Currently, there are two major threats to the mangrove forests. The first comes from careless oil extraction activity, and the second from infestation by the exotic Nipa Palm (Nypha fructicans) introduced in the 1920s from Malaya to supply an alternative to oil palm wine (which it failed to do).

The Nipa palm is becoming a serious problem in parts of the Brackish-Water ecozone. This is particularly the case in the Bonny and New Calabar river systems, and Eastwards towards the Cross River, where it successfully competes with mangrove species. However the palm does not have the same useful land formation and protection qualities; neither is it able to act as a home for oysters and crabs.

However as demand for food increases, trends in the rest of the West African BAM ecozone suggests that pressures will increase to convert much of the area (primarily on the Fresh-Water ecozone fringe) for rice cultivation, the technology of which is well understood by Nigerians.


In their forest condition, the barrier islands are a microcosm of the Niger Delta, showing, in small areas, the same range of forest as is seen in the Delta as a whole. The overriding impression of the accessible areas is of forest that is depleted and cultured; some is lost, mainly to urban and industrial activities, but not dramatically to agriculture because of the economic dominance of fishing. There are small areas of natural forest remaining (for instance in Adoni where elephants and sea hippopotamus are supported), including mangrove forest. Because the agricultural pressures are not intense at present there is a potential for improving some of the depleted forest.

However the prime threat to the forests of the barrier islands is the decline of fish yield, which would be made worse by damage to the mangrove forests. A substantial decline in income from fishing, would force a more intensive use of the forestland in the future.


The economic problem of forest resources is that "ownership" is complicated and the resources are sold cheap.

Regardless of formal legality, in essence, state governments control forest reserves and Local People control the forest outside the reserves.

State governments are generally ignorant of the potential financial value of the forests and effectively give away logging concessions or land use concessions as political favours or in return for favours. Local People, on the other hand, may also be ignorant of the financial value of the forest but may in any case be unable to take advantage of the market for forest products. Either way the forest does not yield its potential financial returns and is therefore not seen as something that is valuable. Hence the generally held opinion in government house and in the village that the forest is just "bush", and an obstacle to development.

The bottom line for the villager is survival: if she cannot feed and support her family from the forest as it stands, then it must go for farmland. The bottom line for the state government is to maximise income for the period that a particular regime is in office.

The irony is that, properly managed, the forest could yield large and immediate cash flows to both government and village alike, in addition to all the other economic benefits. Here are two examples of wasted opportunities:

  • Iroko trees (Chlorophora excelsa) are sold by village chiefs to timber dealers for about N60 (about US$2.50) per stump (the whole tree) while, illegally exported, they fetch about $3000 per m3 in New York; and
  • Forestry land containing standing timber worth N21 million (about US$800,000) was recently "sold" to an international rubber company for planting rubber for N40,000 (about US$1600).

Despite the low value that governors and villagers place on the long-term ecological value of forest reserves and on their ability to yield income continually, there is an intense competition for the short term returns arising from the sale of timber as logs and of land as cheap "virgin" land for plantation crops. Thus there is a thriving black market relationship between those who have the political control over forest reserves and those who want to make short-term high profits. This in turn makes political control over forest reserves lucrative and therefore desirable. Control over forest reserves seems to be a major incentive to gaining political power (second only to control over oil revenues). In the end, while the destruction of forest reserves makes a few powerful people very rich, it makes the mass of Local People much poorer.

As far as the Niger Delta is concerned, the economic problem is the cause for the loss of the last areas of forest that might have been sustainably managed in the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone, (the last forest of this type in Botem-Tai was cleared in 1992/93). Elsewhere in the Delta large areas of forest are intact in their various conditions because of their comparative inaccessibility for large-scale logging or plantation activities, compared with other parts of Southern Nigeria. However as forest resources are used up in these parts, the FAM ecozone of the Niger Delta, in particular, becomes more economically attractive

Small businessmen and Local People have, nonetheless, found it economically worthwhile to exploit timber in some of the most inaccessible areas of the Fresh-Water ecozone since the 1960s and perhaps earlier. On the flood plains, high value timber is felled in the dry season and floated out along ditches in the wet season.


If the forests of the Niger Delta are to survive into the 21st century, then their true economic value must be understood by all who are in a position to influence their use. An understanding of their economic value is not enough, and financial management needs to be reformed in order to ensure that there is a real financial incentive for the political controllers of the forest not to destroy them unnecessarily. Market conditions have to be improved so that cash actually reaches forestry departments and Local People; and forestry policy has to be reorganised so that fees paid for exploitation of forest reserves actually match the real values of forest products, (and continue to match, despite devaluation of the currency).

Economic cost benefit analysis (CBA) of forests in relation to other uses of the land is not easy because of the practical philosophical problems of valuing ecological and biodiversity resources. Nonetheless it is necessary to make the effort so that the costs of losing forest are fully understood by political leaders and their advisers. For instance a proposal to convert high yielding natural forest to an oil-palm plantation might analyse costs and benefits upon the following basis.

Managed Forest Costs
  • Direct Costs as production of forest products;
  • Indirect Costs as damage by wildlife to crops; and
  • Opportunity Costs of land for other purposes.
Managed Forest Benefits
  • Timber and NTFPs;
  • Down-stream secondary industry;
  • Ecological functions;
  • Tourism and associated Income;
  • Intangible benefits, e.g. cultural significance.
Oil Palm Plantation Costs
  • Direct Cost as establishment and production costs;
  • Indirect as migration into the state, and environmental costs;
  • Opportunity Costs as loss of forest;
Oil Palm Plantation benefits
  • Secondary industry down stream;
  • Employment and associated services;
  • Transfer of skills;
  • Environmental benefits of tree crops.

The problem with current methods of Economic Cost Benefit Analysis is that it they do not adequately take into account the future value of forests because the present value of the income from a forest in 25 years time is negligible. But the fact is, that in 25 years time a properly managed forest will be yielding the same, or even more than it does now, while a rubber plantation after 25 years will have passed its peak and the soil may be irrecoverably damaged. How do we value the benefit of forests to future generations?

Hard pressed decision-makers, (whether they are state governors wanting to pay salaries or villagers wanting to eat and pay school fees) are, understandably, more interested in immediate financial returns. So it is essential that at the very least financial CBAs are undertaken when there is any proposal to change the use of forestland. These usually are greatly in favour of the forest, often because the management costs of a forest are so much less than of plantations. Moreover NTFP prices are rather less elastic than the prices of plantation products: future prices of mahogany are likely to be a good deal more stable than cocoa prices.

We stress, however, that forestry will only be attractive if cash returns reach the man in government house or in the village. If it does they will fight to retain the forests. If it does not, the forest and future income will be lost.