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Something disastrous is happening in the Niger Delta, one of the world’s largest but fast vanishing rainforests. Trees and animals that once dominated the forests and supported economic, social and cultural activities, are going into extinction, while lamentation, isolation and poverty now grip the natives, who once flourished with the help of the fauna and flora.

Sadly too, the negative trend has triggered a searing climate change condition that breeds high temperatures, poor harvest returns and a general sense of despair for communities, farmers, fishermen and those who love the work of nature.

One man who has been deeply concerned about the vast vanishing Niger Delta forest, where he was born into and grew to become a successful entrepreneur and inventor, Azibaola Robert, has waded into the brewing environmental crisis in the region, embarking on adventures ostensibly to protect the forest and ensure environmental sustainability.

Rather than sit down to lament the deforestation of the Niger Delta forest and instigate litigation against those who are exploiting it, Robert opted to embark on an awareness campaign to raise the consciousness of his people towards environmental protection and sustainability. And, he appears to be making sense and succeeding given the level of enthusiasm, goodwill, support and cooperation, which the programmes he has put in place so far, have generated among his people.

First, he went into the deep rainforests of the Niger Delta for two weeks to understudy the level of devastation and exploitation of both animals and plants. Next, Robert turned his findings into a first class documentary currently being shown on AIT and other broadcast outfits principally to draw attention to the pitiable condition of the Niger Delta forests and the need for all to join hands in salvaging it.

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But in order to imprint the importance of the project on the people of the region, Robert returned to Otakeme village, his birth place, in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State on Sunday evening to drum the message of environmental protection and sustainability to his people in a grand style, and succeeded in securing the buy-in of his people.

Rather than adopt the usual talkshop model of a seminar or town hall meeting, Robert opted for an open-air bonfire setting by the bank of an environmentally-challenged river in Otakeme village square and successfully wowed his audience comprising the leading royal fathers of Otakeme and Ogbia Kingdom, men, women, youths and hordes of his friends and environmental enthusiasts from within and outside the Niger Delta, who thronged the venue in large numbers to show their support to a worthy cause and rave of the moment.

The setting had all the trappings of a farm house party, with three huge bonfire kilns providing unceasing illumination that both lit the night sky and sent a strong message to the nearby communities that something serious and entertaining was taking place in that area. As the huge flames ascended the sky, traditional music kept blaring from the sonorous instruments put to work by active and energetic young men and women, whose dancers thrilled the captured audience with unending acrobatic and stylistic displays to the admiration of the audience.

There was no dull moment at all at the fireside with different enticing and salivating menu on displace    for anyone to choose from: foods, drinks and barbecued meat dominated the night. Those who desired chicken, goat or fish had enough to go with roasted plantain and drinks to go with as the night resonated with traditional music and dances that made nonsense of the showers that attempted to interfere with the event.

Then Robert stepped out to deliver the message of the day, speaking directly to his royal fathers who had come in their large numbers and decked in their best traditional outfits to underscore the importance of the night. The sat in one row and listened with rapt attention as their son began to explain his mission in the community and why the event was imperative.

He began by drawing the attention of his audience to the looming environmental disaster in the Niger Delta and the need for them as royal fathers and natives of the region to be conscious of protecting the rare species of plants and animals that are found in the area by preventing loggers and poachers from continuously exploiting them. He said his effort to protect and promote the Niger Delta environment where he was born into, was not borne out of idleness or joblessness but a profound concern and desire to keep the environment safe for the current and future generations of Nigerians.

Robert said: “I am doing this not because I don’t have a job to do. I don’t intend to see things going bad, going wrong, and not speak up. I schooled here and I’m a bonafide Ogbia man. The reason I came here is to follow up on the 14-day expedition of last year. We are the custodians of one of the richest rainforests in the world, which is scarce across the globe, he explained.

Robert explained that rainforests across the globe are jealously protected by the governments and people where they are found and that the people of Nigeria must wake up and protect their own rainforest in the Niger Delta so as to have any hope of environmental safety and sustainability.

  “We have a rainforest here that is being pilfered. People are logging trees that would take 20 years to grow. Our ancestors left it for us for more than a century, and someone from here goes into the forest to log wood and sell outside the community.

“Everything I knew as a child is gone. One person is going into the forest to cut them down, depleting the oxygen in our environment,” he explained to the admiration of the chiefs, elders and the youth.

  “In Ogbia tradition, as I knew it in those days, places were named after trees. It was used to give directions for medicinal trees and even geographical locations. There is need therefore for action because government has failed us. I’m not campaigning against government but I’m campaigning against people who are depleting our rainforests.

“As a tradition, Ogbia people don’t eat foxes. Now, I go into the forest and there are no foxes there. Our forefathers knew that if you eat them, they would go extinct. That was why they were never eaten then. In our culture, we don’t eat snails.

“When I was a child, I saw pangolins in our forests and, right now, you can’t get them again. It’s contraband in the world right now. We need to do something about it.

“Everything is gone! All the chiefs need to know about what we have to do. If you don’t act now, your children may not have anything to inherit. The fishes are gone.

“We cannot allow that. We, as Ogbia people, were one of the greatest wrestling champions in Nigeria. We can have champions who can use their brains to change the tide now.

“This thing that is happening in Ogbia is not happening here alone. It’s all over the world and the Chinese, Americans and others are taking charge by stemming the impact of climate change and deforestation,” Azibaola, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Zeetin Engineering Limited, said.

Robert, a lawyer by profession but with determination to change the industrial landscape of Nigeria, is also actively trying to assembly Nigeria’s truck and electric car and was recently named Vanguard Newspaper’s “Innovator of the Year”, in recoogniton of his entrepreneurial spirit.

The royal fathers, who listened to Robert, responded in ways that confirmed that they really understood the message of environmental awakening and are determined to key into the new direction in order to salvage the Niger Delta rainforest.

Sounding convinced and elated, High Chief Agbaba A. Agbaba, who is the    Chief Priest of Akipelai community, said: “Today, our brother, son and father has brought news of joy to us the people of Oloibiri Clan, Ogbia Kingdom, Bayelsa State and the Niger Delta. In time past, our fathers and forefathers built and lived in thatch houses but today, even zinc roof of the block houses are being de-roofed, storey buildings are being brought down by the wind as a result of the absence of trees that prevent the wind. We need to change our ways and go back to the things that made our communities better and safer by protecting our environment.

Also adding his voice to the new environmental direction, the Vice Chairman Obhan Oloibiri in Council and Obenema of Ewoi, His Royal Highness,  Andy Inegite, agreed with Robert that most of the rare species of animals and plants that used to make life better for their people have since disappeared and called for collective action to restore the environment and lauded Robert for the re-awakening drive.

  The Obanema of Ologoghe, His Royal Highness Jonny O. Johnny, his Kolo 111 counterpart His Royal Highness Bamekpar Ominigbo and the Chairman of the Otakeme Council of Chiefs, Chief Sunny Paul Omekwe, lauded the initiative of Robert in taking steps to checkmate the pilfering of the rich heritage of the Niger Delta forest and promised to cooperate with him to ensure the success of the campaign to salvage the region.

To demonstrate the seriousness of the Otakeme community where Robert hails from, Chief Omekwe announced that a fine of N50,000 has been imposed as penalty for anyone who cuts economic tree from any of the forests in the area. He announced that anyone caught in the act would also be handed over to the police for immediate prosecution to serve as a deterrent to others.

Robert may not have the power and resources to police the sprawling Niger Delta forests but the message of enlightenment which he succinctly passed to the people using the instrumentality of the bonfire night, is a crucial first step that can help in galvanizing the needed awareness and structures to save the Niger Delta environment from its predators and enemies of environmental peace and justice.

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