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Regional News of Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Source: By Gilbert Boyefio and Eva Salinas (Statesman)

Digya National Park, residents lives far from normal

Echoes of Sorrow: One year after evictions in Digya National Park, residents lives far from normal

Around noon on a cloudy day, a group of villagers from Mepekope, one of 49 settlements in Digya National Park, got into a small canoe and cut across the waters of Lake Volta, en route to a neighbouring settlement.

The mix of men and women, including Mepekope’s chief and his brother, sat in silence as the boat cut through the calm, glass-like water, slowly puttering past dozens of partially submerged dead trees.

They were headed to Ahokpedzi to be briefed on the progress of a court battle, one year in the making, between the residents of the park, the forestry commission and the attorney general’s office.

The serenity surrounding the trip, made just last week, was worlds away from the weeks of anxiety and fear around this time last year, when members of the forestry commission’s wildlife division entered the park and forced the eviction of hundreds of people.

The residents are considered “intruders” by the government, who acquired the land with the intention of establishing a protected game reserve for tourism. The evictions – which were accompanied by complaints of physical and sexual abuse, and theft of property and animals -- came to an abrupt halt when, on April 8, a boat packed beyond capacity with evicted residents hit a tree stump, filled with water and sank.

One year ago this week, the lake, normally only a forest’s graveyard, became the death site for dozens of park residents.

Official reports claim at least 10 died, whilst others say the number was closer to 100.

One year later, the settlers of Digya island – there are around 7,000 -- still live in fear and feel seriously insecure from the Game and Wildlife personnel. They do not know what their fate is, whether they will be allowed to stay on the only land that most of them have come to know as home or if government will provide them with a suitable alternative.

“We’re never at peace. We’ve been living here for all our life, this is where we make our livelihood,” said Kodzo Agbenyefia, 49, through a translator. The fisherman and his elder brother Detepe Agbenyefia – the chief of Mepekope -- were both on the boat that fateful day last year. The two men and Kodzo’s 21-year-old daughter were the last three people to join an already-overcrowded commercial boat, around 11 a.m.

“Even though it was fully loaded, we were compelled to join them,” the chief, 52, said, also through a translator. He recalled how park wardens, dressed in their standard khaki uniform, used guns to force people, dogs, goats, cats, fowls, and heaps of belongings onto the boat. “Some were weeping. We couldn’t get a place even to sit in the boat,” he said.

Some people disembarked at a nearby settlement, Mankyere, and the boat continued toward Tapa-Abotoase, a small port village on the Eastern side of Lake Volta.

Some time after 2 p.m., it is reported that the boat struck a tree stump and began to sink.

“I was frightened. People were struggling to survive… It was a scattering, a scene that I can’t even describe,” the chief said. As he managed to hold on to a Frytol can until he was rescued, he watched others around him perish. “Weather was very clear that day, but just after the sinking of the boat, the wind started. Belongings sank. Animals drown.”

He said at a time of the accident, a smaller boat, which was following theirs, rescued Kodzo and his daughter and then rushed to Tapa-Abotoase for help. The brothers were not able to say exactly how many survived or died because “we were only thinking of how to survive,” Kodzo said.

A government inquiry into the boat accident, which the Wildlife Division initially denied its involvement, has been written and forwarded to the Attorney General’s office and the Ministry of Ports, Harbours and Railways. Its conclusions and recommendations have not been released to the public. At the same time, a civil court case, filed on behalf of the residents in protest of the evictions, has been delayed for months. While it continues, an injunction granted by the court protects the residents against the park’s eviction order, but it will not serve as permanent protection.

Emmanuel Ahiabor, the assembly man for the park residents, serves as one of the plaintiffs in the case. At the time of the evictions, he was not yet elected to the local assembly, yet he took an active role in helping his neighbours. When the boat accident occurred, Mr Ahiabor was in Accra, where he had set up one of several meetings with non-governmental organisations to help with the situation.

The news of the accident reached him the following day. “I shivered and shrunk into my skin,” he said. “I was very much disturbed and confused entirely. I didn’t know who was involved, even my wife was traveling at that time.”

Mr Ahiabor feared the worse: “The cause that I was fighting for was going to be defeated, that is what I was thinking,” he said. Following the tragedy, The Ministry of Ports, Harbours and Railways commissioned a committee to determine the cause of the accident and evaluate the allegation that it was a result of the eviction process. Bernadette Esa Chinery-Hesse, of the Ghana Maritime Authority and secretary to the committee, said the report took no longer than six weeks to complete. Around June, the report was forwarded to the office of the Attorney General and also to the ministry, complete with recommendations, she said. Releasing those recommendations is at the discretion of the ministry, she added.

To this day the report has not been released, and Mr Ahiabor admits it was with hope in its results that he waited until July of last year to file the civil suit.

By that time, several NGOs were looking into the case. The Centre for Public Interest Law has been instrumental in helping Mr Ahiabor specifically with the law case.

The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, along with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and People’s Dialogue, conducted an independent investigation on the evictions, gathering dozens of personal testimonies.

In their report released in September 2006, COHRE said from the evidence gathered “it is clear that these amount to forced eviction and violate international human rights and national constitutionally protected rights and laws.”

An initial report submitted April 19, 2006 by COHRE, the CHRI and PD, stated: “No alternate arrangements for shelter, food, water or access to medical facilities were made… The settlers were simply dumped on another island [Mankyere]; the others met their untimely death when they were forced onto a boat which got involved in an accident.”

Sylvia Noagbesenu, a legal officer with COHRE, said “they were being beaten, they were being maltreated… Evicting them like that, we think it was a violation of their human right.”

Amnesty International also condemned the incident, calling for Ghanaian authorities to “ensure that all evictees are provided with basic shelter and housing as well as access to food, safe drinking water and sanitation and medical services.” The organization said the evictions were “in violation of Ghana’s regional and international human rights obligations, including the right to adequate housing, which includes the right not to be forcibly evicted.” In chapter 5, section 20, of Ghana’s constitution, on fundamental human rights and freedoms; it asserts that no property of any description shall be acquired by the State unless there is “the prompt payment of fair and adequate compensation.” It further states that when involving “displacement of any inhabitants, the State shall resettle the displaced inhabitants on suitable alternative land with due regard for their economic well-being and social and cultural values.”

On the subject, The United Nations Commission on Human Rights said that “to be persistently threatened or actually victimized by the act of forced eviction from one's home or land is surely one of the most supreme injustices any individual, family, household or community can face.”

Resolution 1993/77 states: “[The] practice of forced eviction constitutes a gross violation of human rights, in particular the right to adequate housing.” To these charges however, it was reported that the executive director of the Game and Wildlife Division admitted that park wardens “took the opportunity to remind residents to leave,” but denied that they forced residents onto the boat April 8.

Due to the legal case, which is currently delayed indefinitely in the Accra Fast Track Court, the evictions have been postponed. But the history of the area proves that it was not an isolated incident.

Digya National Park is nearly 4,000 square kilometers of land cutting across the Eastern and Brong Ahafo regions of Ghana. It is considered to be the second biggest game reserve in the country, next to Mole National Park, and is home to many species including monkeys, elephants and antelopes.

In 1971, the park was acquired by the government. By that time, many of the 49 settlements were already established. The residents, living almost exclusively on the outskirts of the park and not the interior, are mostly fisherman and farmers. Some claim to have been relocated before the construction of the Akosombo Dam – which, when it was built downstream in 1965, turned the small Volta rivers into Lake Volta, now the largest man-made lake in the world. Years later, in 1989, residents like chief Agbenyefia heard for the first time that they had settled “illegally.”

“They started harassing us in 1989,” he said. “We didn’t even know them. We hadn’t heard of them…They only came telling us to move away and anyone inside [their house] was beaten.”

Mr Agbenyefia’s parents moved the family to Digya in 1964, after receiving permission from the indigenes of the area. Some of the indigenes were asked to leave the area and were the only ones to be compensated for it, he added. By 1989, his small settlement was home to around 400 people. Though several attempts were made several years ago, the park wardens had not evicted anyone again until last year.

In February 2006, a letter, signed by the Park Manager, Bernard Asamoah Boateng, was sent to the chiefs of 10 settlements. It said: “I wish to inform you that the wildlife division is going to embark on an evacuation exercise to rid the park of intruders to enable the division to develop the park to achieve the goal for which the area was acquired.”

News of the letter circulated in the settlements, but few left as a result. It wasn’t until the park wardens arrived in the area by boat on March 11, that people began to flee. Several residents, including the chief and his brother said the wardens tented near the shore. During that time, people were harassed and beaten, animals were stolen or let loose -- destroying farms -- and there has also been at least one reported case of attempted rape.

Many residents packed their belongings and fled to the nearby settlement of Mankyere.

Mr Ahiabor described the scene there as a “horrible sight,” as nearly one thousand evictees camped on the shore over the following weeks. “You see how children were left in the open, some weeping. All the animals were mixed up with the people and beaten by the rains. They made these makeshift shelters but when the wind blew you see that it was not comfortable for them,” he said. On March 20, Mr Ahiabor remembered a strong wind that blew down the park wardens’ tents, forcing them to abandon the exercise. It was reported that they returned on March 31 to continue to force people to pack and leave.

On April 8, in Agordeke, Mensah MacCarthy left his village early for work. The fisherman, who moved to the area in 1969, lived with his wife and three children and had avoided evictions during March. As dusk neared later that day, Mr MacCarthy said he came back to the village to find out his wife and two youngest sons, aged 6 and 1, had been forced onto a large boat destined for Tapa Abotoase.

“Around 5:30, I heard it on the radio,” he said. There had been an accident. The boat, carrying what would be the last of the evictees, had capsized. Mr MacCarthy quickly left on his small boat, though he said he was badly shaken and afraid. “My brother helped me do the machine, I was shocked,” he said. Due to the wind and darkness, they were forced to spend the night at Mankyere and set out at dawn April 9.

At Tapa Abotoase, he discovered the grim reality of the previous day’s event. People stood on the beach wailing, and the body of his infant son lay lifeless on the shore.

“I didn’t see [my other son] at once, I thought he also died,” he said. “When I saw him, he started crying, calling his younger brother… I just held him.” His wife had also survived, but now refuses to go back to their settlement. She lives with the children in the Volta Region. “My life’s not come yet, but by the name of God it will come,” Mr MacCarthy said.

Following the boat accident, many of the evicted residents did come back. They picked up the pieces of their lives – some lost fishing nets, farming animals, loved ones.

Their lives continue, as the evictions have stopped, for now, and the court case drags on.

Some fear a renewal of tensions between residents and the wildlife division after, on February 28, 11 people were injured from shootings in Agavekordzi, one of the Digya settlements. One of the injured, boat operator Jacob Gadoglo, told The Statesman that members of the Wildlife Division had started shooting after an argument in the chief’s house. Also ongoing is the debate over who is to blame for poaching in the area, one of the focal point issues in the eviction. There have been accusations that some of the settlers have been poaching on the reserve.

Nana Gyato II, a Sub-Chief of Kweihu, denies the charge. If anything at all, he said, the settlers should rather be commended for helping the Wildlife people. He cited two instances when the settlers arrested poachers on the reserve and handed the culprits with their guns over to the Wildlife people.

He was insistent that the settlers do not engage in poaching, and rather accused the Wildlife people of double standards, indicating that “those poachers comes from Krachi, Kwamikrom, Abotoase, Jasikan and other parts of the region, with permission from the Wildlife people to hunt,” he said. The chief explained that he met poachers who claimed they had paid an amount of ¢600,000 to the Wildlife people for a permit to hunt on the reserve.

Perepere Hedo, a 68-year-old resident of Bodeave, said the debate between animals and settlers is disheartening. “Our living here, we are all Ghanaians,” he said. “A human being and an animal. Which is important? A human being before an animal.”

Mr Hedo is among those who wish to leave the park, if he had the means. “I’m feeling sad. If I leave, it’s because of the worry. We are not happy to stay here. Before, we were happy but due to [the evictions] we are not happy,” he said. “So we are prepared. Prepared to leave for the animals.”

Not all residents of Digya share his view, however. There are calls from some for government to allocate a certain portion of the land to the current settlers. Others agreed that leaving would be possible if a suitable alternative is arranged and some say they will never leave.

As for Chief Agbenyefia and his brother Kodzo, they said they will fight to stay at Mepekope. “We feel very comfortable here,” said the chief. His brother added: “We have grown to be fisherman here. That’s the only life that we got to know.”