Cross River: Forest Preservation or Super Highway Construction: A National Concern

The need for physical development is as precious as it is contentious. Thus to ensure a responsible balance, global best practice mandates the conduct of environmental and social impact assessment of developmental projects which usually take years to complete. In Nigeria, the 1992 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act (though usually implemented on the surface) serves as guide. The Act mandates private enterprises and government at all levels to conduct detailed EIA for environmentally threating projects and in cases where up to 50 hectares of forest is to be cleared, obtain a federal permit.

While an EIA has been conducted and submitted to the Federal Ministry of Environment by Cross Rivers state government for a 6-lanes, 260km ‘precious’ super highway with 20km right of way connecting Benue state to the yet to be constructed Bakassi deep-sea port via Calabar, it is inadequate and lacks merit. A highway designed to cut through the entire 33,600ha Ekuri pristine rainforest among other forest and properties.

Considering current climate change – potentially the sixth wave of extinction – impact only, no government need suggest the destruction of entire forest(s) – the first line of defense against this huge threat.

Cross rivers state is home to the largest remaining pristine rainforest in Nigeria. Beyond regulating our climate which has made scientists call rainforests the ‘lungs of the Earth’, it has been found that more than half of the plants and animals found on earth live in rainforests. And the Cross River rainforest is no exception. The Cross River rainforest is home to one of the most bio-diverse ecosystem in the world with over 1500 plant species (over 70 endangered). These rainforests also serve as a source of livelihood for over 600.000 indigenous people in addition to maintaining the water cycle by producing large amounts of rainfall yearly.

Thus the plan to clear hundreds of thousands of trees in Ekuri forest (which traps over 7000 metric tonnes on carbon yearly) is of national concern as well as international. An original custodian of the United Nation 2004 Equator award for Earth conservation, the watersheds in Ekuri forest supply water to over 200,000 people. Once destroyed, this tropical rainforest can’t be regenerated to its natural state. Research has shown that tropical forest as we know today has taken 60 to 100 million years to evolve.

On the surface, the proposed highway appears like an infrastructural development all 35 governors should embark on in the different states but below lays flirt unimaginable.

First the EIA failed to address the 20km wide corridor for which Certificate of Occupancy have been revoked. By Federal laws, highways require a 100m right of way (50m on both sides). So, what is the Cross rivers state government doing? What is the need for 20km right of way? What is the economic, environmental and social benefit for using 25% of the entire Cross River state land for a single road? Is there a political undertone? Is this a case of land grab; especially considering rumoured plans for a sugar cane plantation along the corridor for ethanol production and export? If not, why revoke hundreds of genuinely acquired certificate of occupancy (C of O), clear hundreds of hectares of farmland (farming being the major source of livelihood for indigenous people), and destroy thousands of hectares of pristine wildlife habitat? How is it that a state government struggling to pay staff salaries suddenly has money to pay for revoked C of O and farmlands? Any answers?

Secondly the EIA failed to address alternative routes. There are two existing federal highway connecting Calabar to Benue state constructed over 40 years ago needing repairs. So, why is the state government not considering the less expensive option of redesigning, expanding and in some cases minor re-routing of these old roads? As they are, these roads connect many towns and communities within the state, providing a road network for local people to market their agricultural products. It is understood that the proposed highway will reduce travel time by an hour, but is that all to consider?

Thirdly the EIA failed to outline detailed alternative provision for the over 600,000 indigenous people that will be affected by the new road. Ordinarily, the conflict s in the state is land resource induced, thus with the eminent massive displacement and attendant migration of people, it can only mean increased frequency and magnitude of land resource conflicts.

Thus, Nigeria being a signatory to a number of international biodiversity and climate change conventions, we must begin to separate natural resources exploitation and making sustainable use of nature to secure human rights, ecosystem integrity and decent livelihood. Deforestation of this magnitude will be a major setback and a sign of non-commitment to the federal government ascendance of 20% reduction in greenhouse gases in her intended nationally determined contribution (INDC)

In conclusion, the huge secrecy involved in the entire process only suggests that the proposed highway is just another flimsy justification for the continued grab of last (land) resources by for personal gain. It is a clear case of resource exploitation; sacrificing essential ecosystem integrity and basic human rights on the altar of ‘infrastructural development’ that neither benefits majority of the people nor the planet. This is especially troubling at this time in human history (the Anthropocene) when sustainable strategic solutions form the basis of land resource management to ensure the survival current and future generations.

With the 2016 World Earth Day (22nd April) and World Environment Day (5th June) already behind us, I call on the Presidency, Federal Legislators, civil society groups and all well-meaning Nigerians to stand and speak out against this and any such unconnected development with local and national consequences.

It benefits nothing.

Emmanuel Unaegbu

Environmental Protection and Renewable Energy Expert at CLIMATTERS writes from Abuja

+234 8037502850

Twitter: @emmalysis