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Not out of the woods: Concerns remain with Nigerian superhighway

  • The six-lane highway was shifted in April to the west so that it no longer cuts through the center of Cross River National Park, a ‘biological jewel’ that is home to 18 primate species.
  • In a new study, scientists report that multiple alternative routes exist that would still provide the intended economic connections and avoid harming the environment in the area.
  • However, Nigerian conservation and community rights group worry that the state government won’t follow through on its promises.

The Cross River superhighway project in Nigeria has taken a sharp turn in recent months, one that conservationists and community rights campaigners hope will steer it clear of wildlife-rich habitat and locally managed forests.

But despite the decision to shift the route, several Nigerian NGOs continue to voice concerns about what the final product will look like.

“Obviously, it’s better than the original route that was going to pass through vast tracks of the national park and community forests,” said Nnimmo Bassey in an interview. “But it’s still going to traverse some community-managed forest, and some people say that part of the [Cross River National Park] buffer zone could be affected.”

Bassey directs the ecological think tank Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) based in Benin City, Nigeria.

The newly proposed route of the superhighway will avoid crossing through the center of Cross River National Park, but it still appears to touch protected areas, based on data from the World Database of Protected Areas accessed through Global Forest Watch.

The embattled six-lane, 260-kilometer (162-mile) highway has been the target of several campaigns arguing for a change in course or its all-out cancellation. Since the Cross River state government first proposed linking the cities of Katsina Ala and Ikom with the port of Calabar on the Gulf of Guinea in 2015, international groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and Nigerian organizations such as Bassey’s HOMEF and the Rainforest Resource and Development Center (RRDC) have voiced concerns that the road would imperil the teeming endangered wildlife in Cross River National Park. RRDC and others also said the road’s construction would displace hundreds of thousands of people from local communities.

But in February, the Cross River state government agreed to shrink the amount of clearing from a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) band on either side of the highway – also called a “buffer” – to just 70 meters (230 feet), which Bassey called “a big win for the communities.” Then, in April, the announcement came that the route had been shifted westward, skirting the national park that it was originally slated to go through and avoiding many of the area’s community-managed forests.

Viable alternatives

“It’s extremely encouraging to see that the Cross River state government has elected to go with a more environmentally benign route,” said Bill Laurance, a tropical ecologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, in an interview. “It’s so much better than the previous one that there’s really no comparison.”

Laurance and his colleagues, including representatives of international and Nigerian NGOs, study the impacts of infrastructure development in the tropics and actively work with governments and civil society to find the most beneficial sites and placement. Their research into the Cross River Highway, published May 11 by the journal Tropical Conservation Science, concluded that the government had several route options beyond the original proposal that would avoid the park and the community forests.

“Roads as we know profoundly change everything – environmentally, economically, socially,” Laurance said, “so a major highway so close to crucial forest and wildlife areas is always going to raise some concerns.”

Laurance’s prior research in the Amazon found that 95 percent of deforestation occurred within 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of roads or 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of rivers.

Scene of one of the construction sites for the superhighway. The project has now been rerouted away from fragile rainforests. Photo and caption courtesy of WCS

In the current study, the team proposed two new possibilities that would not only satisfy environmental concerns but would also be considerably less expensive. The original route would have cost roughly $2.5 billion, Laurance and his colleagues reported, and the price tags on each of the two routes that they offered would have been each been less than $1 billion.

The alternatives would have included the use of existing roads and the paving established dirt roads in spots. Those strategies would have led to cost savings over the original route, which would have involved carving a new highway out of predominantly forest landscapes.

Ben Ayade, Cross River’s governor, has argued that the highway would be a critical to the economic viability of the state, as it would drastically cut the travel time from inland cities to the bustling commerce of a port city.

Ayade did not respond to requests by email and Twitter for an interview.

Laurance agrees that roads can serve as vital links between towns and cities.

“The new superhighway is needed in Nigeria,” he said. However, he cautioned that the proximity of the national park to the newly proposed route, which differs from the two that he and his colleagues illustrate in their paper, is cause for concern.

“It’s coming so close to the biological jewel at the heart of the nation, so it really is crucial that Nigerian and international conservationists keep a close eye on activities.”

Forest elephants, pictured here in Central African Republic. Photo ©Cristián Samper/WCS

Watchful eyes

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” said Odey Oyama, executive director of RRDC, in an email to Mongabay. “It is too early to proclaim victory and begin to celebrate.”

He also highlighted the concern that the road will cross through the park’s buffer zone. While this zone isn’t safeguarded by the same protections, it’s critical to maintaining the integrity of the habitat found within the park, he said.

Cross River National Park hosts 18 species of primates, including the IUCN-listed Critically Endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) found nowhere else on earth and the Endangered drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus), as well as forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and leopards (Panthera pardus).

“Care must therefore be taken to ensure that the new alignment does not place the superhighway within the support zone,” Oyama.

Similarly, reserves adjacent to the park, such as Cross River South Forest Reserve and Okpon River Forest Reserve, support the livelihoods of local communities.  They “are prime forest areas which belong to the indigenous communities but are held in trust by government for the singular purpose of sustenance of the ecological integrity of the forest estates,” he said.

As a result, if the government wants to build the road through these areas, it must get the permission of local communities. The lack of consultation with members of the Ekuri community, who say that they would have effectively been the victims of a land grab by the government for the original route, led to strong criticism of the government’s handling of the run-up to highway construction.

The proposed and now rerouted superhighway of Nigeria’s Cross River State would have put the region’s biodiverse rainforests and many threatened animal and plant species at risk, according to conservation groups. Photo and caption courtesy of WCS

What’s more, the legally required environmental impact assessment – or EIA – for the superhighway was handled “in a most incompetent manner,” Oyama said.

In March 2017, RRDC issued a report highlighting some of the inconsistencies of the EIA. For example, it lists species such as the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis) and the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) as residents of Cross River state, but neither animal is found in Nigeria, let alone the state or the national park. The EIA also refers to the need to build passes for fish to get over the project’s dams and to install bat boxes. RRDC said that these measures are irrelevant in the Cross River area, leading the group to conclude that “the EIA report is based on extraneous and fictitious elements which makes it incompetent and unacceptable as a scientific report.”

Just changing the path of the highway doesn’t eliminate the need to understand how it might affect communities and the environment.

“A new version of the project requires a completely new EIA,” Oyama said. “[R]ealigning the [route] cannot exempt the government of Cross River State from conducting an EIA for the superhighway project.”

So while some opponents of the original plans have breathed a sigh of relief over the developments in the project in the last few months, the government’s scant release of details about the future of the project has others holding their breath.

“It really makes us wonder what the situation is,” HOMEF’s Nnimmo Bassey said. “There’s been no definitive statement.”

A camera trap photo of a Cross River gorilla. Photo courtesy of WCS

Further complicating the situation is a recent statement by Ayade, published in The Guardian Nigeria newspaper, indicating that he would revoke Cross River National Park’s protection, which some think indicate he is eyeing development of the forest as a way to stimulate the economy, if the road doesn’t move forward soon.

Oyama and Bassey separately confirmed that the national park is under the control of the federal government, so Ayade’s comments aren’t grounded in the law of the land. Still, such a statement sends a chilling signal to the people of Cross River, Bassey said.

“That would be tragic for the communities, it would be tragic for the state,” he added, “and it would be a big slap in the face for the whole world.”

Editor’s note: William Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.


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Banner image of a drill by John C. Cannon.