By Michael Nnebife and Onyinye Ekoyo
Peasant farmers at Ozzu Village of Ndikwuenu Community in Orumba South Local Government Area, Anambra State, have begun to count their losses following a renewed invasion of their farmlands situated at the Mamu Forest Reserve, by one Mr Onyeka Onwura, a native of the area.
Investigations revealed that around the Ozzu Axis of the Mamu Forest Reserve, heavy excavation work is ongoing with an earthmover which also affected farm crops, palm trees among others, as at press time.
It was gathered that the forest reserve is divided into compartments for tree planting and crop farming. Few years ago when Mr Onwura began the earthwork in the forest reserve, the farmers were instructed to stop farming in Compartment 16, but to shift to Compartment 17.
Our source said that for the whole of last year and this year, the farmers concentrated in Compartment 17 for their farming activities for means of livelihood.
He expressed worry that as the farmers’ crops of last year were getting ready for harvest, and those of this year springing up with hopes of bumper harvest, the land developer, Onwura, intruded into the farms with a caterpillar.
The farmers, comprising mostly widows and elderly women, in tears, narrated their ordeals, alleging that Mr Onwura had mercilessly dealt with their means of livelihood.
One of them, Mrs Eucharia Nebe, said, ‘I was in a forest, collecting wood, when I heard the wailing of children inside the town.
‘I became worried about what was happening and wondered if someone had died. Immediately, I left the wood I was cutting and rushed out to meet the children.
‘They told me that a caterpillar was destroying things in the farms. I rushed to the farm, and, lo and behold, it was true.
‘I then, with tears, asked the caterpillar operator whether he did not know cassava trees or eat same.
‘He said that he was only working for someone that employed him,’Mrs Nebe explained.
Corroborating her, Mrs Agnes Nwajagu, who could not control her emotions, said since the incident occurred, she had being crying as there was nothing she could do other than to cry to God for His intervention.
She said the size of her farmland affected was over hectare of cassava crops worth thousands of Naira.
She alleged that some youths of the area, whom she named as Solomon Onwura, Chibuike Uba, and Chibuzor Maria, colluding with Mr Onwura, later approached her and Mrs Mgboye, her farm neighbour, with one hundred thousand Naira as compensation which they rejected, saying it was worth nothing to compare with the level of damage done on the cassava farmland they depended on for the upkeep of their families.
A widow, Mrs Ukamaka Arinze, who lamented that Mr Onwura had destroyed her source of livelihood, said for two months she had been ill as a result of Onwura’s invasion of the Ozzu farmers’ crops in Mamu Forest Reserve.
She appealed to the government and good spirited individuals to come to the aid of the women by stopping Mr Onwura from further invasion of their farmlands.
Also speaking, the chairman of the village, Mr Sunday Onwubuemeli, said the village was not aware of any release of any portion of the forest reserve belonging to the entire village to anyone.
He said the activities of Onwura in the forest reserve started in 2017 during the time of Governor Willie Obiano’s Administration, when Onwura approached the government to release the land to him without the knowledge and consent of the entire village.
He stated that the village had protested against Onwura’s move to make its position known to the government.
The chairman, who accused Onwura of selling the community land, stressed that Onwura had employed all kinds of threats and intimidation to silence everyone questioning his movement into the land belonging to the entire Ozzu Village.
Mr Onwubuemeli said the village had tried all means to bring Onwura to order and allow peace to reign, but Onwura stood his ground in selling the communal land in connivance with some youths of the area who, he said, did not understand what they were doing against themselves.
‘We’ve gone to the Anambra State Commissioner for Lands; we’ve gone to the Chief of Staff; we’ve gone everywhere,’ Onwura said we’ll go; still he’s doing worse than he had done before.He has sold the land, including the part belonging to the government,’ Onwubuemeli alleged.
He further stated, ‘Any place we go for us to have a dialogue with Onyeka, he won’t come.
‘He has reported us to Father Oragwam; we were called by the Father, but Onyeka didn’t come,’ Onwubuemeli said.
Saying the village had no other means of livelihood other than farming in the allocated space at the Mamu Forest Reserve, he urged the government to cancel any approval, if at all there was any given to Onwura as regards the forest reserve.
When contacted, a Catholic Priest in charge of Holy Trinity Parish, Ndikwuenu, Rev FrDonatusOragwam, who was said to have tried to mediate on the matter, felt concerned and worried, saying, ‘I felt so bad because the issue is affecting my parishioners.
‘As a parish priest, I’m not worried about community issue, but let them stop destroying the farmers’ crops.
‘When I came newly, I called for peace, but one party told me that I could not sit with them again,’ he said.
The Catholic cleric, who expressed optimism that the problem could be solved by dialogue, further pleaded for adequate compensation for the farmers, peace, and inclusion of every native of Ozzu Village, especially the malefolk, supposing the land had been released to the village.
Reacting, the President General of NdikwuenuCommunity, MrEzechukwuOkoli, condemned the action of MrOnwura, describing it as devastating.
He consoled the farmers whose crops were destroyed and gave them hope for justice, assuring them of his readiness to meet the government next week along with them for them to lay their complaint firsthand.
The President General who spoke to our reporters through the telephone, said, ‘The man (Onwura) has caused a serious problem in the community; but we’re reaching out to the government, believing that the government would do something.
‘The governor will understand what we’re saying; will I say, someone lied to the previous government that the community agreed that government should release the land, Mamu Forest Reserve, where the women farm?
‘So, after their farming, an individual goes in there with a bulldozer and pulls everything down; cassava, and other crops, in a situation whereby we’re saying that there’s no food. It’s a very devastating issue and worrisome.
‘The women have been crying and complaining to me. By next week, we (with the women farmers) will go to the Commissioner for Lands to complain about what has being happening to them,’ he said.
Efforts to contact Onwura for his side of the story proved abortive as his two telephone lines were switched off as at the press time.