Cocoa farmers in the Odigbo Local Government Area of Ondo State have appealed to the state government to reconsider its moves to evict them from a government forest reserve.
The state government said it had allocated thousands of hectares currently occupied by the farmers in the reserve to a private company for the cultivation of oil palm. However, the farmers, who were accused of “encroachment and poaching,” have sent a petition to Governor Rotimi Akeredolu through their lawyer protesting the forceful eviction from Oluwa Forest Reserve by Amotekun operatives and other local militia.
The farmers, numbering 10,000, had been in the location for over two decades and were duly registered with the government as cocoa farmers. In consequence of their registration, they were directed to pay an annual rent of N10,000 per farmer either individually or camp by camp to the Ondo State Government. However, on 18 April, hundreds of armed men stormed the forest and shot at and scared away the farmers.
The state Commissioner for Information, Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, said that farming and hunting were forbidden in government forest reserves and that the farmers were squatters who had long inhabited the forest and had developed a false sense of ownership.
He further stated that the government had embarked on the registration of farmers in its forest reserves as part of its security strategy to prevent forests from becoming ungoverned spaces where criminals would hide.
The government had identified oil palm as a crop in which it had a competitive advantage and had earmarked 100,000 hectares for cultivation. Two leading companies on the Nigerian Stock Exchange that were players in the oil palm value chain indicated interest as investors, and one of them is SAO Agro-Allied Services Limited.
The government’s drive to open part of the Oluwa forest reserve was strictly a deliberate policy geared towards putting the state on a solid economic footing and less dependence on federal monthly allocation.
The state government had engaged the farmers many times and discussed plans to settle those who farmed on government land on 100 hectares in modern, organised farming. The government warned that no amount of blackmail and misinformation would make it rescind its decision on the use of its land.
Rent was supposed to be paid annually, and the government challenged the farmers to produce evidence of payments to the government since they were registered. The government had ceded 100 hectares to the farmers, and SAO Agro planned its expansion in phases and ways that would cause them to harvest their crops.