By Olamide Tejuoso
Over 10,000 cocoa farmers at the Oluwa Forest Reserve (OA3A) in Odigbo, Ondo State, are protesting the government’s step to evict and destruct their farmlands. The protesters, who trooped out to the streets of Odigbo in large number, had carried placards with various inscriptions such as, “Our land is weeping because its keepers have been displaced”, “Where do we farm, if our land is taken away?” Others include “Respect the farmers, because we give life”, “Farming is our job, we are not criminals”, and “We pay our rent, government leave us alone”, among others.
The farmers lamented that over seven different settlements, with 45 camps, have allegedly been displaced by the action of the state government. The state government was also accused selling the reserve to an investor, who they claimed would be planting palm trees. According to the farmers, the private investor had reportedly hired some agents to storm their farms with earthmoving equipment to uproot their cocoa trees filled with seedlings, without notice. A 29-year-old Adetoro Opeyemi, a graduate and farmer in the settlement, who spoke to newsmen, appealed to the state government to rethink its move as the development may push youths engaged farming into social vices.
Reacting to the protest, a Senior Special Assistant on Agriculture and Agribusiness to the Governor, Mr. Akin Olotu, said the farmlands were graded to pave the way for palm tree plantations that could generate more revenue for the government in the world market. Olotu also said that the forest was being cleared to give way for the planting of oil palm, as advised by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). He said that the nation’s apex bank encouraged states to choose two crops in which they have comparative advantage for investors to come in. Ondo has been the largest cocoa producing state in Nigeria with an output capacity of about 77,000 tonnes annually. Some of parts of the state that produce cocoa in commercial quantities include Owo, Idanre, Akure South, Odigbo, and Ondo West.
According to the data from Pricewaterhouse Coopers ( PwC), one of the Big Four accounting firms globally; cocoa was a major agricultural export commodity in Nigeria, and a top foreign exchange earner in the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to the discovery of crude oil in the 1970s, Nigeria was the world’s second-largest producer of cocoa. Cocoa farmers were said to have been so rich that the Nigerian Cocoa Marketing Board in 1950 donated a huge amount of one million pounds to endow the Department of Agriculture at the University of Ibadan (Nature, November 18 (166), 1950). Nigeria later dropped to the 4th place in the global ranking around 2015/2016 when cocoa productions declined from 420,000 tonnes in the 1990s to about 170,000 tonnes. Currently, Nigeria is still occupying the 4th place as the largest producer of cocoa, according to the World Population Review, yet not without chronic challenges of finance, government policies, transportation, storage, among others factors.