Threatened ecosystems

Much of what remains of Nigeria’s tropical rainforest ecosystem lies in Cross River’s protected areas. Cross River National Park, which is under the jurisdiction of the federal government, holds the largest share of the country’s remaining rainforests. Adjacent areas such as the Ekuri Forest, the Iko Esai Forest and the Mbe Mountains maintain similar levels of biodiversity. Though these latter forests lack formal protected area status under the law, they are managed by communities who deploy a set of customary rules to regulate hunting and agricultural encroachment to promote sustainable use of forest resources and guarantee protection for plants and animals there.

The rugged hills of Cross River National Park — elevations range from 150 to 1,700 meters (490 to 5,580 feet) above sea level — are draped in a dense canopy of tropical rainforest and mangrove swamps. It has two non-contiguous sections: Oban and Okwangwo, drained by several rivers including the Calabar, the Kwa and the Korup, as well as the Cross River and its tributaries.

Inaoyom Imong, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Cross River Landscape, says Nigeria is already struggling to curtail a thriving illicit wildlife trade in ivory and pangolins. He maintains that building a highway through or near protected areas will threaten vital habitat for the Cross River gorilla and other species.

He points to weaknesses in monitoring, forest management and law enforcement mechanisms in Cross River National Park. “Even law enforcement patrols that should happen on a daily basis inside the national park are not done for different reasons: funding is low, motivation among rangers is very low because sometimes they are not provided adequate equipment and support, supervision is poor, almost non-existent.”

Imong’s fears are borne out by the experience with the construction of bridges at Bashu and Ekonganaku along the southern margins of the Okwangwo and Oban divisions of the park. Completion of the bridges was swiftly followed by an uptick in illegal logging inside the park.

A majority of residents in this part of the state depend on these forests for their livelihoods, with villagers farming, hunting and collecting forest products like afang vines, bush mango, bitter kola, and medicinal plants for personal use and to sell. They also harvest snails, and fish the forests’ many rivers and streams. They collect water from streams and rivers protected by these forests, which sometimes hold cultural and spiritual significance for them and serve as sites for their sacred shrines, totem animals and materials for traditional festivals.

Already, threats from hunting, habitat loss and fragmentation have made life more difficult for the Cross River gorilla, a subspecies of the western gorilla that now occurs only in small, isolated populations along the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. Fragmentation further reduces critical wildlife corridors that promote connectivity for the apes, reducing genetic diversity and increasing isolation.

Much of what lies outside the protected areas is rapidly being destroyed due to bush burning, agricultural expansion, logging and hunting.


Cross River state already has two existing highways linking it to its northern neighbour, Benue state. These highways connect the states’ economic centers — towns such as Odukpani, Akampa, Ikom and Boki — far better than the superhighway would. The federal government is currently repairing dilapidated sections of the existing Calabar-Ikom-Ogoja-Benue highway.

According to a 2017 study by the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers (ALERT), the original route would have run through 115 kilometers (71 miles) of intact forest, including 53 kilometers (33 miles) in the Oban division of the national park, and a further 52 kilometers (32 miles) in the Ekuri community forest, which comprises 33,600 hectares (83,000 acres) of intact forest nearby.

ALERT proposed two alternative routes. One would completely avoid protected and other ecologically sensitive areas, instead building new road near agricultural settlements and existing roads; the other alternative would route new road development along existing paved or unpaved roads as much as possible.

These alternatives would both be longer than the superhighway, by 30  and 63 kilometers (19 and 39 miles) respectively, but would cost between $365 million to $922 million to build — significantly less than Governor Ayade’s $1.8 billion proposal.

“The Cross River state government did not adopt alternative routes proposed for the superhighway which would be far less damaging to the environment and local people,” says Mahmoud I. Mahmoud, senior environmental scientist with the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) and one of the lead authors of the 2017 study.

Odey Oyama, executive director of the Rainforest Resources and Development Center, is concerned that construction has resumed despite the lack of public information about changes necessary to comply with the federal ministry’s directives.

“A new acquisition has not been done to show the diversion, there are no maps to show the rerouting, there are no coordinates to show and no gazette yet,” Oyama told Mongabay.

He has written to several government ministries asking for a map of the revised route, without receiving substantial feedback.

This proposed rerouting still skirts the fringes of key protected areas and forest zones, notably Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, Afi River Forest Reserve, Ukpon River Forest Reserve and Cross River South Forest Reserve, and Cross River National Park.

“Immediately you open up this important forest zone, you will be inviting loggers, poachers will come in, community settlements will start emerging along the superhighway,” Oyama told Mongabay.

Impact on communities

The impacts do not end with wildlife and habitat. There is a deep sense of anger and frustration among the hundreds of thousands of people living around the park who have not been properly consulted.

In January 2016, the state government published a notice revoking title to all land for 20 kilometers on either side of the highway’s route, and began construction the following month, before a federal order put it on hold pending environmental impact studies. The corridor runs through or near some 185 communities, home to at least 600,000 people who depend on the rainforests for survival and livelihood.

Most of these communities lack access to government services like clinics and schools, and provide their own water and sanitation services; they are resilient and self-reliant, extracting a living from their farms and the surrounding forests.

Two lanes of tarred road run west from the boisterous commercial town of Ikom, near the Cameroon border, toward the north flank of the park, passing through numerous farming villages. It’s quiet for long periods during the day, the stillness periodically disturbed by the noise of passing cars. But it comes alive at sunset, as farmers and their families return from their farms in the forests on either side, machetes, worn sacks and plastic water containers dangling from their hands.

The village of Okuni itself appears as a sudden cluster of roadside shops selling garri, a local staple made from cassava flour, as well as mangoes and petrol; the calm here is a sharp contrast to Ikom.

“That road has destroyed forests, banana and rubber plantations, and farmlands,” says Mpama Ndifom, an Okuni farmer, pointing to a freshly cleared swath of the forest.

Farmers like Ndifom typically grow crops such as cassava, bush mango and plantain on small plots of land scattered through the forest; these crops are grown principally to feed their families, while small cocoa, rubber and oil palm plantations provide some cash income.

Along the construction route, tree species like Berlinia confusa, Coula edulis, iroko (Milicia excelsa), afara (Terminalia ivorensis) and various African mahogany species abound. Many of the trees are valuable timber, in high demand for construction, furniture and other purposes, and construction workers saw them into planks and cart them away.

“It is almost like they are after timber without mercy,” says Ndifom.

When construction resumed in October 2018, residents were outraged. The following month, they staged massive protests, halting construction. The state government agreed to pay the village 40 million naira ($111,000) before sending the earthmovers in again in January. Ndifom says he got 25,000 naira ($69) — scant compensation for the permanent loss of 5 hectares (12 acres) of farmland. He has since taken to dredging sand and gravel to sell to construction sites to scrape by.

In contrast, people in Ekuri, an hour’s drive away over a badly maintained road, are resolutely focused on protecting the forests. Working together with other conservation NGOs, the Ekuri Initiative, a community-based organization that manages the Ekuri Forest, gathered 253,000 signatures on a petition to protect their forest and route the highway elsewhere.

“Of what good is a superhighway when people’s livelihoods are taken away without compensation? Without any resettlement plan? Or other sources of income?” asks Martins Egot, chairman of the Ekuri Initiative.

For the people of Ekuri, the forest is a huge source of pride, as well as income and food. They want to be properly consulted about the highway and its impacts, and are unlikely to be persuaded to trade their communal treasure for any amount of compensation.

“Why is the government neglecting the alternatives? What’s their intention? As a government you are meant to serve the people, but does this project really serve the people? From all our analysis we think this project is not for the people. We think people don’t stand to benefit from the project and we would resist any attempt to enter our forest,” Egot told Mongabay.

Funding destruction

As work continues on the project site, Governor Ayade’s about-face on the funding model has raised suspicion and questions from environmentalists and NGOs. The only visible financing for the project currently is a request to the state legislature to approve an ISPO, an irrevocable standing payment order, for 300 million naira ($830,000) to be deducted directly from the state’s monthly transfer from the federal government to pay off the superhighway’s contractors.

This would weigh heavily on its finances – and would only pay off the $1.8 billion cost of the road over a period of 180 years.

As of December 2018, Cross River had an external debt of $189 million, the fourth-largest among Nigeria’s 36 states. Its domestic debt of $466 million is the fifth-biggest figure nationwide.

Initially, the state said it was going to use a public-private partnership model to finance the highway, with investors recouping construction costs from toll fees that would be paid by vehicles and cargo trucks.

But BudgIT, a local civil society group which promotes transparency in public finances, reported that even if 700 trucks (that’s about 20 percent of all cargo trucks in Nigeria) and 4,000 smaller vehicles (as forecasted by the state) used the highway on a daily basis, it would still take more than 100 years to recover the cost of the road. BudgIT’s calculations assumed cars would pay toll fees of $3 and trucks $14, and factored in 10 percent of container traffic from ports in Cameroon and Benin, which supply landlocked Chad and Niger.

“It is evident that the governor has exhausted his search for a credible loan,” says Oyama.

The Cross River state authorities continue to ignore the concerns of environmentalists, conservation NGOs and aggrieved communities, while the bulldozers cut ever deeper into the state’s forests.

The drill is an endangered short-tailed monkey found in Cross River National Park
Drills are among the endangered species whose habitat is threatened by construction of new roads in Cross River state’s forests. Photo John Cannon/Mongabay

“This poorly conceived superhighway would open up a Pandora’s box of environmental and social problems such as illegal deforestation, poaching, land grab, micro-climate change, erosion, biodiversity loss and encroachment into the Cross River National Park,” says ALERT’s Mahmoud.

But he stresses that he’s not anti-development; he just wants smart, fair, sustainable infrastructure on the continent.

“This implies that I look at big development projects more critically and differentiate my reviews from scientists who rubber-stamp projects after a superficial assessment,” he told Mongabay. “I encourage the Cross River state government to consider alternative routes for the proposed superhighway project with limited environmental damage and maximum socioeconomic benefits for the people of Cross River state.”

If Ayade wants to develop the state, environmental activists and conservation NGOs tell Mongabay, he could look at other alternatives, including fixing existing rural roads, building renewable energy-powered agriculture processing hubs, establishing an information technology hub, supporting small businesses with credit, and investing heavily in ecotourism.

Banner image: Bulldozers resumed work on Cross River’s superhighway in January 2019. Photo: Linus Unah/Mongabay

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that $1.76 million of Cross River State’s monthly federal allocation of 7.7 million dollars. In fact, both the amount of the allocation and  deductions from it vary from month to month.

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