Niger Delta Ecosystems: the ERA Handbook/The Resources of the Niger Delta: Soil and Agriculture


  • Introduction
  • Agriculture in the LEM Ecozone
  • Agriculture in the Fresh-Water Ecozone
  • Agriculture in the Brackish-Water Ecozone
  • Agriculture and the Barrier Island Ecozone
  • A Summary of the Agricultural Resources in the Niger Delta



Agriculture, unlike say forests or water, is not a resource, but arises from the use of other resources, primarily soil. Agriculture is best understood in terms of soil, because as we explained in chapter two, soil is a unique expression of geology, topography, climate and hydrology. Moreover, as explained in chapter three, soil is also related to the vegetation that grows on it and for which it provides the medium of growth.

Thus soil is a valid way of defining ecozones and, in any given place, just as the soil indicates what the climax vegetation would be under natural conditions, so it also indicates agricultural potential. In pre-industrial times soil was an important influence (amongst others) on settlement patterns (because people settled where the land was good for agriculture) and on agricultural practice which was (and still is, to a great extent) determined by the specific soil conditions. In this respect it could be said that soil, by determining agriculture, has been an important factor in the evolution of human society and culture.


The soils of the Niger Delta are described in detail in Chapter 4. Section 5, however, for convenience, a summary is given here:-

INCEPTISOL AQUEPT SOILS The most widespread soil of the Niger Delta and typical poorly drained tropical soils.
Shallow, waterlogged soils found throughout the FAM and BAM ecozones. Their agricultural use is limited by impeded drainage but nonetheless, in the FAM ecozone, where there is an element of seasonal drainage they can be valuable for to rice cultivation, oil and raffia palms and short dry-season cropping. These soils are particularly subject to flooding.
SULPHAQUEPT SOILS A specific type of Inceptisol Aquept soils
The acid sulphate soils of the BAM ecozone. In the Niger Delta they are known as Chicoco where they are the older peaty clay soils formed by the thick mat of mangrove secondary roots. Although these soils generally have a very limited value, where Chicoco soils are properly managed, they can grow a variety of crops including rice, oil palm, bananas, plantains and pineapples.
UDIC-OXISOLS Typical well drained tropical soils
Soils formed in hot rainy climates where drainage is free. Thus, where fertility is not maintained by additions of biomass, they tend to be poor and sandy. And especially sandy in the Niger Delta where the primary soil parent material is sand.


Before we go any further, it must be stressed that outside the LEM ecozone of the Niger Delta, land that is naturally dry all year is found only on the ridges of the sand-barrier islands, on the levees of the Fresh-Water ecozone, and on reclaimed land. This limits areas available for dry-land agriculture (for instance for growing Cassava, Yams, Plantains and Bananas). Nonetheless, farmers make the most of planting annual crops during the dry-season on the margins of seasonal lakes, swamps and flood plains, and also on the deposits of alluvium exposed when the rivers are low. Moreover agricultural potential is extended in the Fresh-water ecozone and sub-ecozones because the areas are very well suited to growing Rice.

But, farming is not easy in the Niger Delta where farmers are caught between the devil of the waterlogged Inceptisol Aquept soils and the deep blue sea of the sandy Udic Oxisol soils. Making the most of these soils requires a great deal of skill.


Because agriculture is determined by soil conditions and because soil conditions are an expression of ecozones, the agriculture of the Niger Delta is considered in terms of each ecozone. In this chapter general agricultural conditions are considered; more detailed descriptions of agricultural activity appear in the later chapters about the human ecosystems of the Niger Delta.


CASSAVA - Manihot esculenta: a high starch tuberous root crop used to produce Garri which is the staple food of Nigeria (and which tends to be known in Europe as Tapioca). The root is peeled and washed, and then grated or ground. The resulting pulpy flour is partially fermented and pressed (in porous bags), and then fried on steel plates or dishes which creates a dry, powdery substance of small pellets which has a sharp vinegary smell. The dry Garri is white or, where small amounts of palm oil are added during frying, yellow. When this dry Garri is mixed with hot water a soft pasty lump of food is formed (which may be called Garri or Eba) which is the energy base of most Nigerian meals. Garri may claim to be the world's first instant food.

Fufu has a similar place in the diet as Garri. The peeled and washed Cassava roots are soaked in water for a day or two until they are soft. Then they are washed and squeezed into a firm paste which is boiled and pounded to produce a substance not unlike mashed potato.

Cassava contains cyanide, which is removed during the washing and cooking processes.

Because cassava is so important in the Nigerian and West African diet a great deal of breeding research has and is being undertaken using other Manihot species.

Cassava comes from South America and was introduced to West Africa by the Portuguese, probably through Benin and Warri. While Yams may claim to be the traditional staple of the region, Cassava does well on impoverished soils and has taken over as the human population of the region has increased.

YAMS - Dioscorea spp: another tuberous root crop found throughout the Niger Delta. Large tubers develop underground nourished by the above ground vines which are trained on poles. Pounded Yams serve the diet in the same way as Garri and Fufu: they are peeled, cut and boiled, and then pounded into a stiff paste.

Not to be confused with Cocoyams.

COCOYAMS - Colacasia spp: a tuberous root crop with large leathery 'elephant's ear' leaves, which likes shady damp conditions. Often used to make Fufu.

PLANTAINS AND BANANAS - Musa spp: botanically the same plant although some types are more suitable for Plantains and others for Bananas. They are treelike herbs, the 'stem' actually being made up of a sheath of leaves which produces a single flower that becomes the bunch of fruit. Plantains are unripe and cooked as vegetables while Bananas are ripe and eaten as fruit.

Tubers: underground swellings of the stem or root, which stores carbohydrates and acts as the propagator of the plant.

Carbohydrates: giant molecules made up of smaller molecules called sugars (thus polysaccharides), widely distributed in plants and animals as structural molecules and energy storage molecules

Starch: the most common form of energy storing carbohydrate in plants.

RICE - Orysa sativa: a type of grass grown for its grains which tolerates wet conditions to an extent where it grows well in flooded conditions so long as the flowers (which produce the grains) remain above water level. High yields are obtained because the floodwater restricts the development of competing weeds. It is the most common food crop in the world and will become increasingly important in the Niger Delta.

African Rice - Orysa glaberrima: the traditional rice of Northern Nigeria and sometimes found in the South (e.g. around Oban in Cross River State in the early 1990s), but now being replaced by the higher yielding O. sativa.



In the LEM ecozone, as indeed in most of Southern Nigeria, farmers farm to survive, growing subsistence crops which are primarily cassava, yams, and cocoyams, but also increasingly rice, maize and sweet potatoes. In addition essential soup crops are grown such as melon seed (Egusi), okra (draw soup), bitter-leaf, waterleaf, chillies and other spices. Surpluses are sold for cash either as raw or processed products.

Other crops are mainly grown (and sometimes in wild and semi-wild conditions) for local, national and/or international markets. These include plantains; oil, raffia and coconut palms; citrus, cocoa, kola, mango and rubber trees; and pineapples, pawpaws, ginger and groundnuts. Chickens and goats are reared also.

In addition to farming, farmers will exploit fish and forestry resources when they are able to do so. The latter include timber, bush-meat, rattan palm, and a wide variety of fruit and herbs.

Nigerian farmers respond well to market demand so that urban markets are always well supplied with agricultural produce. Generally farmers rely on family labour and do not have access to fertilisers. They depend on fallow periods to restore fertility or on clearing new agricultural land from forest. All their energy is expended upon production for immediate consumption or sale for necessary cash: surpluses cannot be stored because storage technology is limited. Very rarely is sufficient capital accumulated to allow for resources to be used for investing in the future, and it is interesting to note that farmers who plant tree crops tend to be old or young, having no families to worry about; otherwise tree planters are especially innovative or entrepreneurial men (rarely women).

The farmer in the LEM ecozone struggles, but the struggle gets worse because the human population is growing fast whilst the supply of good agricultural land is limited. In parts of the ecozone, rural population densities exceed 600 persons per square kilometre; there is no forestland left to clear, so that fallow periods are being reduced and thus soil conditions are declining rapidly. The farmer works harder and harder for lower yields. A common scenario is where an entire landscape is converted to fallow land dominated by the exotic weed Chromalina ordorata (Akintola weed in the West, Awolowa Weed in the East), and patches of low yielding cassava which may demand up to seven weeding rounds in a year because a decent canopy does not form. The only trees are the fire tolerant oil palms and colonising Anthocleista spp. with the occasional Mango tree marking the site of an abandoned homestead.

In its defence, it must be said that Chromalina is a good fallow weed in so much as it is able to grow fast and produce large quantities of biomass. However it discourages the establishment of other plants and especially tree species (it is dreaded by foresters). Nonetheless, Chromalina seems to impede the spread of the grass weed Imperata cylindrica, a notorious Southeast Asian weed which is devastating to soil fertility and which is already apparent in Nigeria: Chromalina may be the lesser of two evils.

This change, from a fertile and biodiverse landscape to one of low biodiversity and declining fertility can be very sudden. It happens as human population densities in a given area pass a critical point, so that older people can truly remember better and easier times, and do not know what has hit them. More thoughtful farmers realise that they struggle against insurmountable odds, as one farmer has said, when asked by an ignorant expatriate researcher if he realised that his farming methods were not sustainable: I have to eat today, I cannot lie down and die: tomorrow will have to look after itself.

These dire conditions are not typical of the whole of the LEM ecozone by any means, but they do represent a dangerous trend where more food must be produced on a limited area of land without the aid of fertilisers. Undoubtedly hybrid varieties of cassava and maize have eased the situation, but they cannot stop the soil degradation which is the ultimate cause of the farmers' problems.

The agricultural problem of the LEM ecozone is a problem of declining soil conditions under an increasing pressure to produce more food, as a result of a rapidly expanding population. Within the foreseeable future, rural population densities in parts of the LEM ecozone will exceed 1000 persons per square kilometre. Generally this rapid population growth manifests itself in increased food production arising from extending agricultural land at the expense of forest rather than by raising productivity. The implications are not only declining soil conditions and reduced forest cover, but also a resulting disruption of hydrological systems: increased silting-up and turbidity of rivers causing a decline in fish biomass, a lowering of water tables, and the complete drying up of rivers in the dry season.

This bleak picture is a reality for many farmers, particularly women, but there are many reasons for optimism, not least because as the farmer said, I cannot lie down and die. Farmers do find ways to survive and in doing so often find sustainable solutions which can be seen throughout the LEM ecozone. For a start, the bleak Chromalina/Cassava/Oil Palm landscape generally represents land far away from home so that much farmer energy is wasted in walking to and from the farm. Land nearer home is often more thoughtfully cultivated and thus more productive, while compound gardening is often very productive and diverse, producing good soil conditions. Urban and urban-fringe agriculture is similar in many ways to near home and compound farming in rural areas.

The overall solution is an improvement in soil conditions as the foundation of improved agricultural productivity. This is sustainably achieved by raising humus and biomass levels, through increased tree and shrub cover. Crop hybridisation and the liberalisation of fertiliser marketing (so that small affordable amounts of fertiliser reach the small farmer) are also essential to improved agricultural productivity but these inputs cannot be maximised unless the soil conditions are good. The sandy easily leached soils are by no means the best in the world but there are three important redeeming features: the soils are deep, light, and have accumulations of nutrients in the lower horizons; lack of rainfall is not a limiting factor; and farming is the way of life. Thus the soils and climate are ideal for deep-rooting tree crops which repair soil by tapping deeper nutrients and recycling them as humus. Moreover, Local People are acutely aware of the agricultural problem that they face. The answers, of course, have already been discovered by Local People in the Compound and Loo farming (see the box below) where a remarkable variety of crops are found in very small areas. Small plantations of rubber and oil palm trees are common throughout the ecozone and are appropriate because they maintain soil conditions and generally contain a wider biodiversity than is found on arable land.

While large scale industrial farming may have a part to play, it is not the answer to problem, because such farming, particularly in the tropics, often leads to accelerated soil degradation which is hidden by high yielding (but often disease susceptible) hybrids and large inputs of fertiliser. Moreover, such forms of agriculture take wealth away from the countryside as accumulated capital, thus exacerbating the rural to urban drift of population and rural poverty. A wealthy and healthy rural environment depends on small farmers working efficiently and productively for themselves. Food security is not achieved through large-scale farming but through production diversity and storage of surpluses.


An answer to the agricultural problem in the LEM ecozone is Agroforestry, as we have already suggested above. Agroforestry is:

the maintenance and enhancement of soil conditions with the use of tree and shrub crops, and/or leguminous trees, shrub and herbaceous plants in order to maximise sustainable agricultural productivity. It may be used to maximise production on good soils through mixing a variety of tree and non-tree crops, or to maintain production on poor soils.

It must be stressed that there is nothing new about agroforestry in Nigerian agriculture. Indeed it is true to say that traditional agriculture is agroforestry which has historically been able to adapt in response to changing social, economic and climatic conditions (for example it is interesting to see how agriculture quickly changed in the Niger Delta in response to a demand for palm oil in Europe from about 1850 onwards: whole communities re-organised themselves and their land in order to maximise the production of the oily gold). However, recently, the modern population has grown so fast and so suddenly that traditional systems have been unable to adapt fast enough, with the result that there are indications in parts of the LEM ecozones of Nigeria of a collapse of agricultural systems altogether.


Shifting Agriculture

One of the sustainable relationships that viable society had with their environment was shifting agriculture in the tropical rainforest ecozones. Because it has been misunderstood by modern observes who see it operating today in areas where it is impracticable because of unsustainable high population densities, shifting agriculture is often derided as an inefficient form of agriculture that damages the environment. In fact, in conditions of sustainable population densities, shifting agriculture is ecologically very efficient, primarily because farmers do not shift to areas of primary forest but return to fallow land because it is easier to clear.

The shifting agricultural landscape is a mosaic of farms (including economic trees), land in various stages of fallow (which may be used for low intensive agriculture such as growing plantains and fruit trees), secondary and primary cultured forest, and current and abandoned house sites containing fruit trees. This land use pattern is ecologically efficient because it maintains a high level of plant biodiversity and because at any given time a large area is covered by dense vegetation; such conditions are conducive to high animal biodiversity and although some of the larger mammals such as elephants may be discouraged (much to the relief of the farmer to whom they are a pest) primate densities may increase due to expanded food supplies, and species of non-forest birds will be attracted. All this is beneficial to the human population because the high level of biomass and bioactivity increases supplies of non-farm products and also accelerates land restoration in the fallow period because land is rapidly re-colonised by forest species (including micro-fauna) from the surrounding secondary and primary forest so that leached nutrients are brought back to the surface by deep rooting trees, to be maintained by rapidly developing humus (the basic chemical building blocks of which are carbon, brought into the system by photosynthesis). Moreover, the very fact that the farms are mere islands in a sea of healthy vegetation checks the tendency of soil exposed and damaged by farming (i.e. because of the decline in humus content) to be eroded by rain, and the worst that can happen is that soil is removed to neighbouring land where healthy vegetation holds it, and it is not lost to the ecosystem.

Thus shifting agriculture in pre-modern times can be honestly described as agroforestry.

Compound and Homestead Farming in Ogoni

Compound farming, around houses in the village of Botam (Tai Local Government) studied by PNI/ERA in 1993/94, benefits from household manure which is often quite deliberate: refuse being piled around yams and plantains. A soil profile through a compound garden showed nearly a metre of black humus-rich soil above a well structured sandy-loam (this was on the edge of the Botem-Tai village square - an area that may have been a compound for 80 to 90 years). Also there are many clumps of plantains in villages that stand high above the general ground level on heaps of humus rich soil.

A feature of Botem-Tai, typical of compound agriculture, is the Loos (pronounced as in hello). A Loo is a homestead built away from the village by someone who is exploiting a resource: he may be a palm-wine tapper, a farmer, a hunter, a fisherman, a canoe builder or a sawyer. Typically Loos are sited beside rivers, isolated from the village and sometimes cut off in the wet season (the original settlements in the district may have started as loos). From an environmental point of view loos are interesting because the occupant is essentially an agro-forester inasmuch as he is farming in an intensive sustainable manner with a mixture of trees and perennial and annual crops, on a very small piece of land. This points to a possible way of increasing agricultural production on small bits of land while at the same time increasing tree cover and improving soil conditions.

Tree crops in compounds include: Oil Palm, Coconut Palm, Raffia Palm, Mango, Breadfruit, Jackfruit, Citrus, African Pear (Dacryodes edulis), Avocado, Cashew, Papaya, Cocoa, Guava, Plantain, Banana, Kola Nut, Bush Mango (Irvingia gabonensis), and Bush Pepper (?). Other crops include: Pineapple, Alligator Pepper (related to the gingers and cardamoms in the Zingiber family), Yams, Cocoyams, Mammy Yams, Cassava, Cow Pea, Pepper (Capsicum), Garden Egg, Bitter leaf, Hibiscus, Lemon Grass, Sweet Potato and Fluted Pumpkin. Livestock include goats, chickens and ducks. A typical compound is less than 1000 m² and may have 10 people living in it.

Mixed Plantations Around Ilesha

Although this is not in the Niger Delta, it is a good example of what is going on throughout the LEM ecozones of Nigeria. Typical of the Ilesha region are the mixed Kola (Cola nitida and C. acuminota) and Cocoa plantations, which give good returns to their owners. Although Kola and Cocoa are the primary trees, many others are found according to soil conditions, some of which are of major importance including Oil Palm, Coconut Palm, Orange, Plantain, Banana, Breadfruit, and Mango. In addition certain forest trees are retained for their timber value, such as Afrara and Iroko. Many shrubs and herbaceous crops are associated with the plantation, of which a variety of Yams seems to be the most important, planted as single tubers where the soil is considered to be especially rich. Also: Cassava, exploiting openings in the canopy, perhaps around an outcrop of rocks or where a Cocoa tree has died; Pineapples which appear to be used as boundaries; Alligator Pepper; Chillies; and remarkably, Piper guinensis, which is a fine substitute for what Europeans call pepper, Piper nigra, one of the most valuable spices in world trade, and the reason why the West African coast between Lome and the Niger Delta was once called the Grain Coast.

Although cashew is widely grown, it is not grown in association with Cocoa. Nonetheless there is a mixed plantation of predominantly Cashew and Mango trees which has been successfully established on the steep and rocky soil of Imo Hill overlooking the school. The farmer has also started to establish 'Bush Mango' trees, Irvingia gabonensis, the fruit of which is of high value and used for making Ogbono Soup.

One might say that agroforestry is a necessity rather than an option if the agricultural and environmental problems faced by farmers in the LEM ecozone are to be solved. Improved varieties of crop species and the liberalisation of fertiliser marketing are essential, but their benefits will only be felt if they are applied to healthy soil. And given the demands that are being and will continue to be made of them, the soils of Southern Nigeria can only be maintained and improved through raising Biomass and by practising sustainable agriculture, which is, in the tropics, agroforestry. The ramifications of agroforestry farming are an improvement in hydrological conditions and a reduction of the pressure on the surviving forests.


There is a lot of talk about agroforestry being the solution to all the problems of tropical agriculture, but it must be accepted that although when rural population densities reach a critical level agroforestry practices often arise as a necessity, there are a number of factors which tend to mitigate against agroforestry, particularly against what might be called formalised or text-book agroforestry techniques (such as alley cropping) recommended by academic proponents of agroforestry.

Alley Cropping: the cultivation of arable crops between hedgerows of soil restorative or maintenance shrubs or trees

The three factors which mitigate against agroforestry are land-tenure, poor access to fertiliser and the limitations of human energy.

Land Tenure

For a start, land tenure appears to affect the adoption or otherwise of agroforestry techniques. The conventional wisdom being that farmers who do not own their own land will not be encouraged to grow perennial crops which do not produce marketable harvest in the short term.

There is indeed some truth in this statement. Nonetheless there is sufficient evidence to suggest that it is not the whole truth so that proponents or otherwise of agroforestry should not jump to conclusions or carry pre-conceptions which are mythical. In this respect, it is also worth quoting work done by Lawry, Steinburger & Jabbar, the results of which were published in 1992. (Land Tenure & the Adoption of Alley Farming in West Africa.) They say that in Nigeria, 66% of farming land is under tenure, not systems that provide long-term security. They go on (also quoting P. Francis, 1987, "Land Tenure Systems and Agricultural Innovation: the case for alley farming in Nigeria") to differentiate between land tenure systems in the Southwest and Southeast.

In the Southwest, most farmers had long-term individual inherited rights to use land. Though they might not always have had individual property, the arrangements were not unfavourable for the adoption of technologies like alley farming.

In South-eastern Nigeria, land could be categorised in three ways: compound land, near fields and distant fields. While compound land is controlled and used by individual households, the use of near and distant fields is to a varying degree controlled by extended families and by community level decisions. Because these lands are reallocated for use after every fallow cycle, the same person or family may not get the same plot every time. Under such conditions there may be little incentive to adopt alley farming. (And even less incentive, one assumes, to plant perennial trees.)

Poor Access to fertiliser

The current system ensures that the small farmer does not have access to cheap fertiliser. Even if the fertiliser market was liberalised, many farmers would not be able to afford it, especially women and where transport is expensive.

Human Energy Limitations

Farmers cannot afford to waste energy on anything which does not show an obvious and fairly immediate return, which is a major reason why exotic agroforestry technologies, which have long term benefits, are not taken up. Even the immediate yield benefits of alley cropping may not be considered worth the extra labour involved, particularly if the hedgerow plant does not yield a useful crop.

For this reason, as has been said, farmers are more likely to spend time working on land near home. This is by no means always the case particularly where tree crops have been planted, but it is most often the case because land far away from home requires an expenditure of energy just to get there.


The most common tree in the LEM ecozone is the Oil Palm, so that palm oil and palm kernel are important products of the agricultural economy of the whole area. There is a ready market for these products, and even on the most degraded soils of the ecozone, oil palms grow well and apparently yield well. They are a good small-farmer cash crop.

Local farmers are well acquainted with the production of palm oil and kernels, from producing a palm seedling to processing oil and cracked kernels. However the local industry is held back by the strenuous effort (by men, women and children) needed to produce the oil. This involves primitive methods whereby fruit is shaken or cut off the bunch, then boiled to soften the fruit, which is subsequently mashed, pounded or pressed in a variety of ways to squeeze out the oil and separate the kernels. Sometimes the oil is boiled again as a refinement and the kernels are sold to cracking mills. Small cooperative palm oil and palm cracking mills, or even just presses (for squeezing the oil out of the boiled fruit) would encourage production to the benefit of local income and to Nigeria which needs to increase production.


Other economic trees which are common include Rubber, Coconut, Mango, Breadfruit, Jackfruit, Citrus, African Pear (Dacryodes edulis), Avocado, Cashew, Papaya, Cocoa, Guava, Plantain, Banana, Kola Nut and Bush Mango (Irvingia gabonensis). Robusta coffee would grow well also. All these trees are suitable for small-farmer production, and we would stress here, that in the interests of income equity, social stability and ecological health, we do not advocate the establishment of commercial mono-crop plantations of tree crops anywhere.


Raffia palm, which is really part of the forest ecosystems described in the next chapter, is included here because the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone has so little forest that it is more appropriately covered under agriculture. The tree is dependent on the cultured riverine forests and not only produces the economically important gin (kai-kai) but also raffia twine and thatching.


Small-farmer paddy-rice, as practised in and around Anyama in the Fresh-Water ecozone, would grow well around the seasonal lakes and narrow flood plains of the rivers in the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone, and in view of the large amounts of rice grown elsewhere in the Niger Delta, it is surprising that so little is seen in the ecozone.


In terms of current land use, agriculture is less important here than in the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone. However it is in this ecozone that the potential exists for increasing the regional and national agricultural product in terms of oil palm products and rice for which the area is, in many ways, ideal.


Currently agriculture is largely based upon the following five activities.

Exploiting natural and semi-natural oil and raffia palms in the forests

See the following chapter.

Levee agriculture

Similar in principle to Lowland Equatorial Monsoon agriculture, and which suffers or is likely to suffer the same problems which can be (and are being) solved in the same ways. However the situation a alleviated here by the proximity to the flood-plain and swamp forests (including the palm forests) which provide resources to which the people of Botem-Tai (for instance) in the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone do not have access.

An interesting example of farmer innovation arising from land pressures on a levee, is Pius Akes' "Protein Resource Centre" at Anyama.

Notes taken during the Ashton-Jones and Douglas survey in 1993/94:

The centre is a 250m² (50 x 500m) fenced compound, most of one side being a long, low, well built, well ventilated mud and thatch building that serves as the farm building and Pius's family home.

Caged rabbits: a male and female which cost N50 each from the Agricultural Development Programme in July. Feeds them on maize (bought), cassava, oilpalm fruit and green leaves. He has had two litters so far giving him 6 off-spring (2 male and 4 female) which he sold for N100 each.

Also goats: 7 adults (tethered, as they get through his temporary fence) and 3 juveniles; snails that are breeding successfully in grass in a cage above the ground; ducks using incubators as half shaded 44 gallon drums.

Indoors free-range poultry has succumbed to Newcastle disease; the manure used to go on the fish farm.

A fish farm of two ponds each 7 x 21m x 4m deep that he dug himself and through which he runs a stream in the wet season. He buys fingerlings from local fishermen and estimates that he has 370 fish in the ponds including catfish. Feeds them on: fish intestines, lizards, rats, cassava, papaya and poultry manure.

Grows: plantain, banana, papaya, cassava, cashew, citrus, "pear" and Guava; also fluted pumpkin on frames, where he uses ash to stop caterpillars.

Flooding in 1995 damaged the farm but repairs were underway in 1996.

Intensive cultivation of the recent alluvial deposits exposed in the dry season

These are described in Chapter 6.4.5. The deposits are farmed for quick annual crops of cassava (which may spend 18 months in the ground elsewhere), sugar-cane and vegetables.

Extensive small-farmer paddy-rice farming.

Rice provides a good and equitable rural income. In most respects paddy-rice farming appears to be sustainable because annual flooding brings in nutrients, but it has all the potential problems of monoculture and rice rust (a fungus similar to wheat rust) on a small farm near Anyama.

A trend towards large-scale agro-industrial oil plan and rice projects

Such as Risonpalm and Niger Delta Basin Authority projects.


There is no doubt that rice and oil palm are the key to the future agricultural productivity of the Niger Delta. Improved strains of rice already yield over 4000 kg of milled rice per hectare in Cameroon, compared with something in the order of less than 500 kg/ha around Anyama. Paddy-Rice culture is described in more detail in the following section on agriculture in the Brackish-Water ecozone.

For oil palm, although long periods of cloud cover ensure yield potentials below those of Southeast Asia, the Niger Delta is the home of the oil-palm and fresh fruit bunch yields (FFB) of 350 kg per palm (say 25 bunches per year) is not unreasonable, given adequate inputs of Potassium and Magnesium that can be produced locally by using the ash from the burnt residues of the bunches.


The agro-industrial rice and oil-palm projects are a tempting solution to the desire to produce more food, not least because they attract state, federal and international funding (the prime reason for the attraction of governments to such projects). But they present a number of problems from a local viewpoint, as follows.

  • By clearing large areas of forest, even depleted or degraded forest, and replacing it with monoculture, a range of ecological problems arise including damage to hydrological and fish breeding systems, loss of species habitat and biodiversity, and crop susceptibility to pests.
  • Local People lose access to forest products including wild oil palm, raffia, timber and a range of NTFPs. Thus they lose income.
  • Employment opportunities are usually realised by non-indigenous people who come into the area, creating local discontent and social friction, which is exacerbated by a new elite of management staff (usually non-indigenous) who appear to be reaping all the financial benefits of the project.
  • Such projects tend to suffer from inefficient and even corrupt management so that returns on capital are low or negative, and yields fail to meet expectations or, at any rate, are not sustainable.

The overall result of such projects is an unfavourable readjustment of equity: many Local People lose income and a few employees and shareholders gain substantial financial benefits.


By contrast, the advantages of encouraging small farmer methods of production are as follows.

  • Income equity is maintained and rural incomes enhanced.
  • Management is better and yields are higher because the farmer has an income incentive to be efficient. Even under the most adverse conditions of civil disorder small farmers continue to produce, whereas large plantations crumble.
  • A mosaic of small farms growing mixed crops, interspersed with forests in various conditions which is the result of well managed small farmer agriculture, does not present the same sort of ecological problems arising from large scale plantation agriculture.

However small-farmers depend on access to improved varieties and on easy access to a market for their produce often in the form of accessible processing plants.


Thus the resource conflict (see Chapter 10) in the Fresh-Water ecozone is not just between agriculture and forest, but between small-farmer and agro-industrial production. But whatever the final answer, the FAM ecozone is and will be the necessary location of future food production, and if this production is to be sustainable then the right social incentives and ecological safe-guards have to be put in place.

Agricultural development is, and will become more of, a political issue in the FreshWater ecozone, because of the large sums of money involved and the limited resources in terms of land. The trends are already set: large developments are being planned without proper Cost Benefit Analysis (which include social and environmental impact costing) to guide decision-makers. The result could be like the oil industry with Local People being marginalised and worse, suffering a loss of effective income as a result of capital intensive agro-industrial projects: the outcome will be social dislocation and social disorder of the kind experienced already in relation to the oil industry.


The Brackish-Water ecozone is not, as indicated already, an important agricultural zone, and for this reason it is the most sparsely populated of the ecozones of the Niger Delta. Generally the people who exploit the ecozone live on the fringes of the Fresh-Water or Barrier Island ecozones. Even Nembe, one of the largest towns associated with the ecozone, is on the edge of the ecozone.

Nonetheless throughout the Brackish-Water ecozone there are the small "islands" that, by the natural processes described in Chapter 7., have become dry-land subject to fresh-water influences. Here coconuts are most commonly seen, and also anything else that will tolerate the high water table and chicoco type soils (oil palms and pineapples appear to do well, but not plantains which are, all the same, persistently planted).


Also the ecozone has substantial potential for growing paddy-rice as in other West African countries with similar conditions. There are a number of methods of growing the rice but they all have in common the need: to maximise fresh-water either as rain-water, flood-water, or tidal fresh-water; and to minimise the natural acidity of the acid-sulphate soils by maintaining reduced conditions - as section 5.5 of Chapter 3. explains, it is the oxidisation of iron pyrites (FeS₂), that produces the damaging free sulphuric acid.

In rain-fed systems, polders are built above the low tide mark to keep out the brackish high tides and to catch rainwater, while the rice is planted on ridges to maximise the affect of the fresh rainwater. At the end of the wet season, the brackish high tides are allowed into the polders to maintain reduced conditions and thus stop the release of sulphuric acid. Properly designed these systems are constructed between a fringe of mangrove forest and dry fresh-water land, often including a fishpond. Fish are also able to feed on the decaying rice stalks so that the role of the BAM ecozone as the basis of the fish food chain need not be unduly compromised.

Another system is known as tidal rice and is suitable for the wide shallow Niger Delta estuaries. Here, in the flood season, tides push the freshwater up-stream to flood the rice field twice a day. In the dry season brackish water takes over and rice cultivation is not possible, but again, properly managed, this system leaves a fringe of mangrove intact, and rice debris acts as the basis of the fish food chain. At the mouth of the Benin River we came across a similar system used for growing rushes (?spp.) for the manufacture of thick matting (e.g. doormats).

However, all these systems require very careful management. For instance if the polders of the rain-fed system are not breached in the dry season the soils rapidly become highly acid and sterile. Not a serious problem on small scattered farms, but a disaster if large 'anti-salt' barriers are built, as in Guinea Bissau, to serve many rice farms, and subsequently mismanaged. Moreover, if large areas of the Niger Delta mangrove forest are converted into rice farms then the whole marine fishing industry of Nigeria will be compromised. Then, once people start to grow rice for themselves and the huge local and regional market, it will be difficult to stop them extending cultivation.


Thus the Brackish-Water ecozone is set to become the battlefield of a classic conflict for resources fed by the need to produce food for a rapidly growing population. The conflict will have four protagonists: the marine fishing industry; the needs of forestry; rice; and fish-farming. With proper planning there is room for all and for the maintenance of the ecological integrity of the ecozone. However ignorance about relationship of the marine fishing industry to the mangroves, and the immediate need for food over the longer term considerations of forestry, mean that in the next century, there is a good chance of rice and fish-farming destroying the mangrove forests of the Niger Delta.


Cultured Forests on the Sand-Barrier Islands of the Niger Delta - Akassa

With the advent of viable society in the Sand-Barrier Islands of the Niger Delta, at least 5000 years ago, the natural ecosystem of Akassa began to be substantially altered: the very accessibility of the Niger Delta estuaries and their abundance of fish would have made them especially attractive to human activity.

Akassa will have been influenced by early groups of people moving through the numerous protected and interlinked creeks and lagoons inland that stretch from the Volta Delta to the Bonny Estuary. Today, Akassa is settled by Ijo people who separated from other Ijo groups about 1000 years ago and moved Westwards from the Brass Estuary. Settlements favoured the East sides of the estuaries because the West sides have mangrove forest.

The Sangana and other Akassa people have always been fishermen as opposed to farmers or even hunters. Moreover they would have been involved in fish and salt trade North and into the interior of Africa. This trade will have been extended by their inevitable contact first with European traders from the 15th and 16th centuries onwards, although the Sangana River is too shallow to have been a major trading centre. The impact of the slave trade was felt throughout the region and although there was a small slave loading point at Kongho on the Nun Estuary, the major slave-trading corridors were to the West (Benin and Warri) and the East (the Bonny River).

The palm oil trade, which grew strongly after the middle of the 19th century, had the greatest long-term influence on Akassa and a large part of the population concentrated on the production of palm oil and palm kernel, at first for local traders, and later for the Royal Niger Company (later the United Africa Company U.A.C.) which established as a major trading centre at Akassa (Bekekiri) towards the end of the century. This lasted until U.A.C. closed in 1960 when production stopped immediately, for lack of a market, and fishing became the primary occupation once more.

The high demand for oil palm products up to 1960 was probably the greatest incentive that the Akassa people had ever had for changing their environment, but this was mitigated by the fact that the palm was growing naturally and because Akassa is not suitable for large-scale plantation agriculture. The present pattern of land-use is less intensive, now that people have returned to fishing, than it was in the 1950s.

As soon as viable society appeared, paths developed and useful canoe and building timber was removed. Settlements of convenience were established on the sand-ridges, and abandoned (and established again) leaving behind them the plants that humans find useful and which they favour.

Contact with European traders would have brought in exotic seeds from South America, Southeast Asia and India, such as the mango and the breadfruit. As trade developed more timber trees would have been removed to sell for planks, and later, when iron (and then steel) saws became available the Akassa people would have produced the planks themselves. Casuarinas probably began to appear in the early part of the 20th century (they are native to the South Pacific).

The growth of the palm-oil trade would have seen oil palms beginning to dominate the forest more and more as they were either planted or, more likely, merely favoured. The removal of the taller trees for timber would have further favoured the natural spread of palm trees that are shaded out in the high forest. (This process continues despite the loss of the palm oil market in 1960, because the taller trees continue to be removed.) A similar process is apparent in the wetter parts of the swamps where raffia palms are protected and encouraged for palm-wine, much of which is distilled into gin ('kai-kai'). This tendency of the palm trees to dominate the forest will have favoured animals that are attracted to palm trees, such as certain tree snakes, palm-nut civets, rats, the palm-nut vulture and harrier hawks.

The exploitation of the ecosystem (which included limited hunting, and collection of periwinkles, oysters and crabs from the mangroves) in the interior will have intensified as the population increased. First with the decline of the slave trade and much later with the introduction of modern health services, although settlement has largely remained confined to the estuaries.

The result of the activities of viable society on Akassa has been to create what can best be described as a cultured forest. That is highly depleted from the forester's point of view but not technically secondary forest since it has never been entirely cleared for farming; reduced somewhat in its biodiversity, but nonetheless remaining a viable ecosystem, able to withstand such shocks as the Texaco oil spill in 1980. Today we see coconut palms in the littoral and strand sub-ecozones, far fewer big trees (and thus more undergrowth, although foot paths would have made the going easier), many more palms, (the palm swamps that would have been more open before 1960 are again hard to get through) and on the sand ridges, a predominance in places of exotic economic trees such as bread-fruit and mango. On the wider sections of the sand ridges (on Brass) we see pass unimpressive cassava farms and sandy scrub where farming has been tried and abandoned. In the mangroves we notice the stilt roots on the creek sides cut back to facilitate canoes and from harvesting oysters; also we see small canals cutting off some of the bends in the rivers.

The predominance of fishing and the very poor, high water-table sandy soils of the barrier islands mean that agriculture is not currently important. However if the marine fishing resources continue to decline then the situation could change.

Large scale arable farming does not seem to be at all practicable, and if the barrier island communities have to depend on the land for a living the answer to survival is twofold:

  • agriculture on the sand ridges as agroforestry techniques based on cultured forests; and
  • agriculture on the swampy troughs as agroforestry techniques based on a combination of cultured forests, loo-type agriculture, paddy-rice (already a little at the East side of Akassa) and fish farming.

But with proper regional planning this should not be necessary and the barrier island people will continue to be fishermen, and women processors.


Three points need to be stressed.

  • Each ecozone has different agricultural potentials and problems.
  • Inevitably the Niger Delta will be, and with proper planning it has the ability to be, a major producer of food, especially fish, rice and palm oil. This is, again with sensitive and proper planning, entirely compatible with the oil extraction industry, ecological sustainability, and social justice and harmony.
  • Proper economic CBA, including social and environmental CBA, is essential to ensure that the conflicts between the various agricultural and fishing needs are resolved, in order to optimise sustainable food production and income equity.