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Among the unfortunate headlines about Boko Haram and email scams, it is easy to overlook that Nigeria boasts seven national parks and some of the richest biodiversity in West Africa. Nearly all of that flora and fauna is concentrated in Cross River State in the country’s southeast corner, abutting Cameroon. There, the Nigerian government hopes to have the magnificent Cross River National Park listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
To spend time in this landscape is to understand why it deserves such a distinguished designation. Jagged mountains, made soft by knee-high grass, rise out of jungle thick with fog and bird songs. From one of the bare, craggy peaks, you can see clear across the green hills of Cross River State. Not only is this region one of Nigeria’s most spectacular natural assets, but it’s also home to the world’s rarest great ape: the Cross River gorilla. Only 300 of these primates are believed to exist in this small region of rain forest shared with Cameroon.
While a glimpse of these gorillas is exceedingly rare now, some officials and conservationists hope that Cross River State can one day host a gorilla tourism program as successful and lucrative as the famous one in Rwanda. Thanks in large part to its popular gorilla treks, Volcanoes National Park brought in roughly $15 million in 2014, money that helped to subsidize the rest of Rwanda’s parks and boosted the national economy.
Gorilla tourism in Nigeria is years away. But that hope could be dashed by an imminent threat from development.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, with 185 million people — a total that, by 2050, could swell to more than 440 million, according to United Nations projections. But the country is also free-falling into recession with recent crashes in oil, currency and employment.
The governor of Cross River, Benedict Ayade, thinks he has an answer to this crisis: build a new deep seaport near the state capital, Calabar, to rival the one in the country’s largest city, Lagos; then connect it to all points north via a six-lane, 160-mile highway. The idea is to open up a new corridor for trade, create jobs and attract investors.
But last year, it became clear that the proposed route of the so-called superhighway was drawn right through Cross River National Park. In addition to creating a standard 330-foot clearing alongside the pavement, the design of Governor Ayade’s plan would denude a staggering six miles of rain forest on either side of the highway.
What’s more, contrary to federal regulations, planners had filed no environmental impact assessment by the time of the project’s scheduled groundbreaking ceremony in September 2015. Not even the barest cost-benefit analysis to justify the probable long-term damage to rain forests, watersheds, communities and endangered species was available.
As a result, a coalition of national and international conservation groups fired off a letter to Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, calling for an immediate halt to the project. The coalition offered to help develop alternatives, including securing funding to rehabilitate the state’s two existing highways.
When, soon after, the governor submitted plans that showed a slight rerouting, the president flew down from the capital, Abuja, to attend a rescheduled groundbreaking. Even so, an official environmental impact assessment emerged only months later, in March this year, after Nigeria’s environment minister issued a stop-work order. Because of gaping oversights and errors, the assessment received a “D” rating and was sent back for revision. (Even now, the latest version fails to account for the 12-mile-wide corridor, avoids mention of the national park, and refers to species not even found on the African continent.)
The state government provoked further outrage when it published a notice revoking all occupancy rights within the highway corridor. That move would effectively uproot at least 180 indigenous communities from their ancestral homes and livelihoods.
One such community, the Ekuri, has received international praise for its forest stewardship through a program called the Ekuri Initiative, created in the 1980s as a response to the threat of logging. Many observers have speculated that the planned superhighway’s broad corridor is intended to maximize its value for logging. Once again concerned about prevent the destruction of their forests, the Ekuri people have taken their campaign all the way to Abuja with a petition of some quarter of a million signatures.
Opponents argue that these rural minorities and their international supporters are selfishly standing in the way of Nigeria’s growth. Governments everywhere do, of course, use eminent domain to push ahead with major developments, but such projects usually require thorough public consultation and justification, as well as compensation for affected individuals. Neither has been forthcoming in the Cross River case.
Governor Ayade claims the highway and seaport will open up the region for iron ore exports and create thousands of jobs. But the acclaimed long-term benefits of the scheme seem even more dubious when you see, as I have, the way the state’s existing highways are allowed to crumble once built. And despite a recent report that a Chinese manufacturer of heavy-duty machinery has joined the project as an investor, it is unclear how the full $3.5 billion project would be funded or maintained. Nigerian taxpayers have been kept largely in the dark.
What is certain is that the Cross River superhighway would cause irreparable harm to Nigeria’s last remaining rain forests, some of Africa’s oldest.
Even if it were rerouted around the national park, the road would open up a number of protected areas to increased logging, farming and hunting. This would threaten already endangered populations of chimpanzees, red colobus monkeys, forest elephants, slender-snouted crocodiles and pangolins, as well as the Cross River gorillas. And the development would inevitably cause damage to important watersheds and carbon sinks.
If the promised trade and investment do not materialize, however, there will be little for Cross River to fall back on. It is hard to imagine that the prospect for eco-tourism will be enhanced if a quarter of the state has been clear-cut for the construction of one road.
Instead of building up a wildlife tourism industry that can provide sustainable economic growth, the state may end up with barren lands and nothing to show for it. Nigeria’s federal government still intends to submit its World Heritage application — but with bulldozers at the ready, will Cross River still have a national park worthy of the honor?
Natalie Ingle is a program manager for the Africa Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society.