Living, dying for food: Addressing precarious lives of forest farmers, communities

Many people living within and around our forest reserves face persecution, eviction and prosecution from a redundant colonial forest policy. This precipitates the urgent need for a national debate on sustainable and equitable alternatives.

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“Our directive is that you pull down every structure you have established in the admitted farm section of the forest reserve. Otherwise, we will demolish the structure and prosecute you in court”, read a warning letter from the forest and wildlife authorities to Kojo and his family.

“This cottage and farming are all I know. My parents lived here. All my children were born here. Where should I go?” Kojo asked. Regrettably, I encounter cases like Kojo’s often. As a political ecologist, I spend substantial time in rural Ghana. Specifically, two of my last five years were in different communities across Bono East, Central, Eastern and Western North where I witnessed various contestations and struggles over land and forest resources.

For example, in Juabeso Nkwanta, state authorities have tagged nearly a third of houses for demolition, arguably for lying within the Krokosua Hills Forest Reserve. On several occasions, I observed forestry officials destroy cocoa and food crop farms, arresting, beating and jailing their owners only to see them return upon their release — Kalabule, they called it.

We need forests, cocoa and food crops for our social and national well-being. Yet, it is important to ask: Who are we developing Mother Ghana for and why? Is it for the ruling class? Is it for urban workers?

Are we developing Ghana for Kojo and his peers whose homes, lives and livelihoods are under relentless siege from forest authorities? Or are we doing so to satisfy the desires of our so-called development partners?

I do not aim to romanticise how people in admitted communities live. Nor do I argue against forest protection. When it serves their interest, our politicians have found creative ways to: permit destructive mining in forest reserves, downgrade ‘globally significant biodiversity areas’ to facilitate logging by their cronies, and even bequeath forest reserves to their heirs — remember Sir John.

Concern

My concern is that we are lacerating the most marginalised in our society. People whose children lack access to basic education. People who drink from muddy, tadpole, insect-infested pools and streams without complaints.

People who live and die searching for food. People like Kojo and his family. Until 1927, traditional rulers controlled all lands and forests on the Gold Coast, Northern Territories and Western Togoland — contemporary Ghana.

This changed when the British Colonial Administration promulgated the Forest Ordinance 1927 (CAP 157). The legislation empowered the state to create and manage forest reserves in coordination and collaboration with traditional authorities to: prevent the advancement of the Sahara, safeguard the climate for cocoa production, and protect hill sanctuaries and water bodies. 

Compensation

When creating forest reserves, the state is obliged to compensate pre-existing land users. Monetary compensation is one option. Another alternative is marking out and guaranteeing land users access to their pre-existing farms or settlements in perpetuity, labelled admitted farms or admitted communities, respectively.

This is how Kojo, the inhabitants of Juabeso Nkwanta and related communities acquired lands within some reserves and national parks. However, with population expansion, boundary enforcement lapses by forestry/wildlife officials and other factors, Kojo and others like him are now at risk of being evicted by authorities from their birthland and denied access to food and their right to self-reproduction on the pretext of encroachment.

Tenet

One basic tenet of our traditional society is not to deprive a diligent man of food. This does not mean we should farm away our forest reserves — although the state is doing far worse by converting several degraded reserves into monoculture plantations to satisfy foreign investors.

Contrarily, we must recognise that admitted communities or farms will invariably expand over time as their inhabitants pursue their right to self-reproduction.

Therefore, beyond the knee-jerk colonial orientation underpinning admitted communities’ formation, I strongly believe it is time for a national debate on sustainable and equitable solutions to the “admitted farms” and “admitted communities” conundrum. 

One entry point may be exploring food security corridors — agroforestry estates, or social food subsidy programmes — to remedy admitted farmers and communities. Kojo deserves our passionate compassion, not an eviction or conviction.

The writer is a Researcher, Land, Society and Governance Group, Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, UK; Partnership for Agriculture, Conservation and Transformation (PACT), Ghana.

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