Government has made its position clear: there are no plans to sell off the Achimota Forest. All well and good. But I am not convinced. First, there is the cock-and-bull story of a certain Nii Owu, the supposed original owner the property, demanding his land back. Then there is the information minister's claim that there is a certain “woodlot” which must be differentiated from the “forest”. In other words, Nii Owu's land – which government is allegedly thinking of giving back to him is a “woodlot” which is not part of the “forest”. Nice try, Mr. Minister. But I don't buy it!
When I first read about plans to convert the Achimota Forest into a “shopping mall” – as the Insight newspaper called it – I hoped it wasn't true. Then a few hours later, I saw a letter from Alhaji H. I. Baryeh, the executive secretary of the Lands Commission to the executive director of the Forestry Commission confirming that “a redevelopment proposal” was being considered.
“This has become necessary”, the letter said “as a result of a directive from the Office of the President requesting the [Lands] Commission to undertake a feasibility analysis aimed at converting the subject site into a high density commercial centre.”
No mention is made of any Nii Owu demanding his land back!
I won't mention names but I know that in the JOY FM newsroom, a few government ministers were called to confirm or deny the reports that the Achimota Forest (or part of it) was going to be converted into a “high density commercial centre” – whatever that means. They all refused to talk. They thought that if they kept quiet the issue will die off. But they were dead wrong.
People were angry that the government – or the Office of the President for that matter – will even contemplate and entertain the idea of turning a forest reserve into a commercial centre. The NDC was the first to speak out. Its spokesman on forestry, Collins Dauda, made it clear that the party will oppose any attempt to cut down part of the Achimota Forest, which has been set aside as a forest reserve for well over 70 years. As expected, the environmentalists also joined in, threatening to take the matter to international corridors of power. Even two leading members of the ruling party – Yaw Osafo-Marfo and Nkrabeah Effah Darteh – publicly declared that the idea of turning the forest into a commercial centre doesn't make sense. “We are lucky to have the Achimota Forest,” Mr. Osafo-Marfo said. “And for heaven's sake nobody should dream of turning it into a commercial centre.”
It was only after this that the government decided to do some damage control.
First came a letter from the Ministry of Lands, Forestry and Mines. It was in this letter that Nii Owu was mentioned as the man who had demanded that his land be returned to him. Later, the public affairs director at the ministry, Charles Wereko, was on radio struggling to explain that the leaked letter which mentions the office of the president and the proposal to build a commercial centre was merely part of a consultative process to help come to a decision on whether or not the land should be returned to Nii Owu. Listening to Mr. Wereko's incoherent rumblings I felt he either didn't know what he was talking about or he didn't know how to lie. He caused more damage than he had sought to repair.
Hours later, the Information Minister, Steve Asamoah Boateng was on air cleaning up the mess. He was emphatic that government has no plans whatsoever to build a commercial centre on the site of the Achimota Forest. But he insisted that there was a “woodlot” next to the “forest” and that the government officials might simply be engaged in series of consultations on whether or not to give this “woodlot” to its owner – Nii Owu.
So how are we to differentiate between the “woodlot” and the “forest”? Asamoah Boateng had no idea. And that's why I think they are trying to pull a fast one on us. Imagine that we wake up one day to the news that a “woodlot” near the Achimota Forest is to be converted into a “high density commercial centre”. How can we tell that it isn't actually a part of the forest which has been given away to a private developer? We may never know.
That's why I think that the campaign to preserve the Achimota Forest should not stop. The environmentalists should keep a close eye on the whole area and continue raising alarm at any attempt even to return the so-called “woodlot” to Nii Owu – whoever he might be.
In an age when the whole world's attention is fixed on climate change and its harmful repercussions the least I expect the government to do is to jealously guard our forests. If the office of the president is so bent on building a mall – or the “high density commercial centre” – they should break down “Hotel de Waawaa” and build the mall on the land the hotel currently occupies.
As for Nii Owu and hisfamily, government should make it clear to him – if he exists at all – that his land (whether it is part of the forest or it's a woodlot) is serving a very useful purpose and he should be proud of it. He will neither get it today nor tomorrow. If it's money he wants, government should find a way to pay him off. Government is unwilling to even broach the subject of returning large tracts of land – some of Accra's most prized real estate – to their original owners even though they are not being used for the purpose for which they were originally acquired by the state. Therefore, it doesn't make sense to me that its officials will even be contemplating – or thinking about – the feasibility of returning this “woodlot” when it is being used as intended.
Credit: Ato Kwamena Dadzie