The Signing (April 2011)

As I have previously described, my organization has a lease for part of the forest where Rhoko Camp and the “Core Area” are located. Unfortunately the lease was expiring and my organization was involved in the long and arduous process of negotiating a new lease. The negotiation had to be done with the Chiefs council and as I have quickly learned, the can be notoriously rapacious, unrealistic and opportunistic. Their contention with the various points of the lease focused on what they would receive, rather than what the community would receive. Our director handled the heaviest parts of the negotiation but because of my position as the only staff in the village I quickly became part of the negotiation.

When I stepped in to negotiate there were three points I had to resolve. The first was the lump sum of money that we were going to give the community. The Chiefs requested 1,000,000 Naira ($6,666 USD) and we cleverly countered with $750,000 to the Community Conservation Development Committee (CCDC). The CCDC was formed a few years ago as an independent community based organization that would receive assistance from my organization but with the ultimate goal of becoming self-sufficient. The Chiefs did not want to have any accountability when it came to reporting how the million Naira was spent but we obviously wanted them to use the funds for community interests rather than squander it on self interests (which was happened in the past). After we presented our alternative they were still upset but we eventually settled on one million Naira to the CCDC after telling them our donors would not approve of anything that was unable to be accounted for. Also, by allocating funds to the CCDC we put pressure on them to produce results, as the community is made well aware of my organization’s contribution to them.

The second point of contention was the scholarship program we introduced. We proposed that we would pay $30,000 Naira for one student every three years for the next ten years. The Chiefs wanted to have several students every year and we made it very clear that we were a non-profit organization that focused on rainforest conservation and this was simply an extra benefit we were willing to provide. I find this to be quite a typical problem when aid agencies begin to operate in areas that have never had previous assistance. When you begin to provide certain benefits and services, people tend to look at not what they have received but rather what they don’t have and how much more they could have. It can be extremely frustrating as a development worker because sometimes I want to throw up my hands and scream, “If we never came here at all you would still be in the exact same spot you were 15 years ago with NOTHING!”…but I try to be sympathetic. I try to calm myself thinking that because the local government has never provided anything, and the Chiefs council has never provided them anything, it is easy to look at us as the sole providers of services (rainforest conservation and non rain forest conservation alike).

The third point of negotiations is the most interesting. It was a personal fee to the Chiefs council consisting of a laundry list of local indulgences: two crates of Star beer (most expensive kind), five crates of soda, two crates of Guiness, 25L of kai kai (local liquor), 40L of palm wine, one live cow and four kola nuts (traditional to agreements). We had whittled the list down to these items and the cost came out to something like $150,000 Naira ($1,000 US). All of the items were available locally with the exception of the live cow. Here’s where the story gets particularly Nigerian. This cow would require us to travel out to the main highway (1 hour) and about an hour north a town called Ugep. As the signing was occurring on a Friday we made certain to go on Wednesday to negotiate for the cow for pick up on Friday. Our truck at camp was broken down due to the recent practice of diluting diesel with water so we had to also pay for transportation in a rather dodgy truck (see picture). They told us that we must come before 8AM because the cows are taken to graze and if we arrive late we will miss our chance.

Friday arrived and we left at 5AM arriving in Ugep at 7:30. We were then informed that our cow had been sold and naturally there were more expensive cows available. Some very aggressive bargaining, finger pointing and shouting followed. We finally negotiated for a cow at the previously agreed upon price, tied him up and slapped him in the back of a pick up truck. We began our journey back and things were going well. In fact, I actually began to believe we would have the cow to the Chiefs by early afternoon. A few kilometers outside the village disaster struck. The trucks engine died attempting to climb a hill. And then it began to rain. And it wasn’t just April showers sprinkles; it was tropical-rainforest-wet-season-quasi-monsoon rain. We had no other choice but to trek to the village and attempt to find another truck to meet us and transport the cow. We managed to locate a truck and crew and made our way back to the stranded broken down truck. The rain subsided and we began to plan the move. There was a strong group that wanted to move the cow from one truck bed to the other and another group that wanted to attempt to tow the truck with a tiny rusty chain that looked more suitable for a bike lock than a tow line. Personally, I wasn’t happy with either of the options but with a lack of any other options we began to attempt to move the cow from one truck bed to the other. Now, apparently, cows that have been bound in the back of a pick up truck during a rainstorm become quite unruly when they are to be untied. The cows massive horns caused quite a bit of concern and after about 20 minutes of attempting to move him we decided to go with plan b and attempt to tow the truck. The tiny rusty chain proved to be a lot stronger than first appeared but still managed to snap after segments of 400 meters. With each snapping of the chain the tow line became shorter and shorter until it was inevitable that the towed truck was bumping into the back of the working truck, especially on hills and areas of the ‘road’ with particularly deep ruts caused by erosion. I don’t know how, but we eventually made it to the village.

Image

Upon delivering the cow to the Chiefs, the Chiefs council was arranged, the other drinks were delivered and we began our signing agreement ceremony. None of us knew what to expect. Some of us thought it would be a walk in and sign type of deal while some of us thought it might be more of a formal arrangement/party. It ended up being somewhere in the middle with formal introductions of all the Chiefs and prominent community members and all the members of my organization. As is customary, kai kai was passed around and traditional chants and ceremonial protocol were followed. Calling to ancestors and prayer were part of this elaborate and rather exotic feeling meeting that culminated in us all gathering at the table and signing the lease. I was quite excited to be included as one of the signatories and it was obvious that the Chiefs were equally excited to have the lease agreement signed. Afterward we went outside and shared some of the drinks, shook hands and stated our mutual exuberance that my organization and Iko Esai would continue to build our relationship. All I can say is, thank Jah this will not have to be done for another ten years, and certainly I am thankful that I will not have to participate in either the negotiations or the sourcing of “gifts” either!

Our director speaking to the chiefs. Notice the huge vat of palm wine on the ground!

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