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ENVIRONMENT-NIGER: City Takes Step to Protect Forest

Ousseini Issa

NIAMEY, Aug 2 2006 (IPS) - As fears of its destruction mount, city authorities have taken steps to protect the forest, or the greenbelt, around Niamey and evict squatters living within its confines. The forest protects the city from encroaching desertification and the extremes of Niger’s climate.

Although an ultimatum to vacate the greenbelt was issued Apr. 30, IPS has verified that the forest is still being occupied by the squatters.

Maman Ibrahim, the regional environment director for the Greater Authority of Niamey, estimates the size of the greenbelt, set up in 1965, to be 2,500 hectares.

The most prominent tree in the forest is Neem, which has an ability to grow in hostile environment like desert. For more than a decade, the people living in these sprawling hamlets, which have sprung up in the greenbelt over the years, have cut and burnt down the neems.

”These people chop down trees illegally to build their huts and for firewood. There are also fires which cause considerable damage,” said Illia Yahaya, the head of the reforestation service at the Regional Department for Environment for the Greater Authority of Niamey.

Captain Mohamed Sidi, of the Niamey Fire Department, told IPS: ”We experience at least five fires a week in populated areas of the greenbelt in the dry season. According to our estimates, about 13 hectares of plants have been disappearing each year since the greenbelt was completed in 1993.”

The 6-million-dollar project was implemented in several phases between 1965 and 1993, with support from the United Nations and the World Bank, Ibrahim said.

”Until 1993 there were about 30 guards supported by forest rangers to provide security,” he noted. But security was discontinued due to a lack of resources to pay the guards and provide fuel for the forest rangers’ vehicles, according to Ibrahim.

Niger’s 2004 Forestry Law stipulates that no commercial activities may take place within the greenbelt and imposes fines of 100 to 1,000 dollars or three months in prison on anyone who destroys the forest.

”But since the authorities have become lax, the squatters have nothing to worry about,” Yahaya told IPS. The destruction of the forest continues. To prevent it from totally disappearing, the city authorities have decided to evict those living there, who mostly come from rural areas.

But the residents are not going without a fight. They are demanding that the authorities relocate them to a new site with basic amenities. ”Some of us have been living here for more than 20 years. Our children were born here and go to neighbouring schools,” Harouna Seydou, a 60-year-old head of a hamlet, told IPS.

”We won’t move as long as we don’t have a new place for settlement,” added Tahirou Adamou, a resident of one of the larger settlements.

Mamata Kindo, a 49-year-old widow, explained to IPS, ”We need a well, a school for our children, a market, and a health centre at the new site”. She has been living in the greenbelt with her six children for more than a decade.

Issoufou Garba, a Niamey resident, said the scramble for a space at the greenbelt began in the 1980s as Niamey, the capital, began expanding. This forced livestock breeders living near the city to relocate.

Niger also experienced drought from 1984 to 1985, ”which caused many people from the countryside to flee impending famine and migrate to urban centres”, according to Boureima Alpha Gado, a Niamey-based researcher.

Aboubacar Ganda, the president of the Greater Authority of Niamey, told journalists last month that ”the greenbelt is a hideout for bandits of all types who disturb the peace of the capital’s residents”.

But Abdoulaye Issa, the mayor of the Niamey IV district, has ruled out using force against the residents. ”It won’t be done by force. We are in the process of finding them a viable site to relocate, so we can save the woods which beautify our capital,” he said.

Local authorities could not establish the exact population of the greenbelt. ”The people living in the greenbelt were counted as part of Niamey during the 2001 general population and housing census, which makes it hard to determine how many they are,” Ismael Yahaya, a municipal councillor, told IPS. ”There are probably hundreds of families that today live in these woods, given the huge rents in the city, which are forcing people to leave town and take up residence there”.

Niamey’s population is estimated to be 800,000 – or 5.7 percent of the country’s 14 million people.

”The majority of the residents in the greenbelt are petty traders, carpenters, watchmen, labourers, cobblers, domestics who cannot afford to live in town,” Abdourahamane Noma, a Niamey-based sociologist, told IPS.

Marou Amadou of the Equity and Quality Coalition Against the High Cost of Living, a Niamey-based association of non-governmental organisations, said: ”The authorities should leave these people, who are not bothering anyone, alone. Where do they want them to go?”

But the authorities are committed to evict them. ”The reason their removal was deferred was to allow their children to finish out the school year,” explained the regional environment director, as he announced a plan to fence the greenbelt.

”This year, we were allotted 25 million CFA francs (about 50,000 dollars) in the budget, and they’ve been released. With this cash, we plan to enclose the first section and, as future funds come available, we’ll fence the remainder,” Ibrahim said.

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