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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Super-high-risk posed by a Superhighway

Observations by a stakeholder of defining differences during the environmental impact assessment review and hearing on the proposed Superhighway project in Calabar, Cross River State

Bulldozers at work clearing the Super Highway's route passing through parts of Boki
Bulldozers at work clearing the Super Highway’s route passing through parts of Boki

So much has been said and heard in the last six months over the road that the Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade proposes to cut from the Calabar and Bakassi ports to Katsina Ala in Benue State. The governor calls it a modern, digital superhighway, among other superlatives used to describe the controversial infrastructure project. Ben Ayade, a professor of environmental science, actually made a living working on environmental impact assessments and audits from a private laboratory, donated by Shell before assuming office as state governor. To emphasise his resolve, Ayade had invited the nation’s president and his predecessors in Cross River, Lyel Imoke and Donald Duke, to a ground-breaking ceremony for his dream.

There are not a few who believe that President Buhari appears to have been impressed by the rhetoric of Ben Ayade into giving his blessing to the Superhighway, having earlier wisely declined invitations after initial protests from environmental groups and communities along the route of the proposed Superhighway. The governor had promised that the proposed route would link the North with a dredged and enhanced Atlantic seaport at Calabar, and thus act as a rapid “evacuation corridor” (according to Ben Ayade) to interface land and water transportation for economic activities in Nigeria, and bilateral trade with Cameroun.

So, President Buhari went to Calabar to launch the superhighway project, but must be regretting his decision by now. The Federal Ministry of Environment under a new minister and permanent secretary has ordered a stop to the Superhighway construction, pending the submission by the state government of a standard and statutory environmental and social impact assessment. Such an impact assessment was submitted and reviewed in the first week of June, 2016.

What emerged before that, in recent months, can only be qualified as the widest international protest against environmental damage in Nigeria since the Ogoni-Shell imbroglio. The Cross River environment is one of the best studied in Nigeria, on account of its magnificent forests. The area is listed as one of the world’s 200 biodiversity hotspots, as a result of which Cross River State has been Nigeria’s greatest beneficiary from international funding for projects ranging from land tenure, to community forestry, agriculture, ecotourism and biodiversity conservation, gender equality, and adult education.

Being an environmentalist himself, the governor should know that nowhere in the world of the 21st century can anyone destroy massive swathes of pristine forests for a highway, and get away with it.  Ben Ayade perhaps means well for his people, but has possibly not done the Superhighway cost-benefit analysis accurately. He had also not reckoned with the power of civil society to obstruct foreign finance of the project, on grounds of a disregard for human rights and biodiversity conservation, at a time Nigeria had acceded to a series of related multilateral environmental and climate change agreements.

Plagued by youth unemployment, urban drift, rising crime and prostitution, communal fighting, weak agricultural yields, the drop in revenues from its annual carnival, and little or no money from a much trumpeted ecotourism, the Cross River State Government started to cut trees and move communities for the Calabar-Ikom-Katsina Ala Superhighway of 260 km.  The road would be fitted with security lighting and furnished with internet access throughout its length, in addition to interchange and clover tongues at intersections with other roads.

The protests of the environment lobby and communities on the Superhighway path notwithstanding, Governor Ayade has his supporters for a project his government clearly views as a development catalyst. The two combatants, environmentalists and economists, met in a showdown hearing at the Channel View Hotel in Calabar in a presentation of the EIA by the proponents. A review panel appointed by the Ministry of Environment was on the high table as the arbiters of the contest. Initially, in the presentation of the lead EIA consultant, Bassey Chukwuma, emotion was more persuasive than technical analysis and expertise; we heard more fiction than fact.

There was pure conjecture of the benefits of the project than its impacts. In his concluding remarks, the consultant fired threats at the panel, warning them not to jeopardise the future of Cross River State in their review. What part of the audience wondered was why the consultants had in their report not interacted with the Cross River State Forestry Commission, the Nigerian National Parks Service which manages over 40% of the forested habitats in the state as a combination of protected areas and inviolate sanctuaries.

Additionally, the UNDP has based its REDD+ project in Calabar in an attempt to address the problems of poverty and forest conservation. REDD+ is a deliberate land use system that aims at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of participating countries, thereby increasing global carbon stocks, thereby offering financial incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and to invest in low carbon paths to sustainable development. According to this scheme, nations would receive payments for emissions-reduction credits determined on the basis of actual reductions in forest emissions measured against agreed-upon baselines.

The promise of this programme is that it offers opportunities to make progress on two goals at once: (1) reducing forest degradation and (2) reducing emissions that contribute to climate change. The challenges, which are far from trivial, are to establish baselines that are both fair and effective, and to assure that monitoring and verification procedures are sufficiently rigorous as to provide reliable, accurate measures of actual emissions reductions.

World-renowned conservation groups, such as the Drill Ranch and the World Conservation Society, are embedded in research and wildlife protection in Cross River State. The activities of these organisations in the forests of Cross River are most prominent on colourful posters, flyers and brochures of the achievements of the state but were not consulted and mentioned in the impact assessment. How would the donor community that had thrown so much money into these forests for over half a century, react to seeing valuable vegetation and biodiversity decimated in a few weeks in the name of infrastructure development?

A conspiracy theory has it that the date and venue of this EIA public hearing had been hidden from the protesting faction. The main actors, the Ekuri community members, were nowhere to be seen at the EIA review. The Ekuri Initiative and the Ekuri community have instituted three cases in court ranging from protection of their fundamental human rights, to the illegality of the revocation and restraining the government of Cross River State from constructing the super highway through the Ekuri community forest pending the determination of the substantive suit.

Reminiscent of a kangaroo court, unrestricted hecklers inside the hall attempted to shout down the few opponents of the Superhighway as praise singing in its favour dominated. That was up to a point, when someone raised the question as to how much the other states, those in the North, and if possibly the Republic of Cameroun, benefitting from the Superhighway were willing to contribute to its costs. And if Cross River State was going to foot the bill alone, where was Governor Ben Ayade going to raise the money? Why had the existing federal road been left in such an abysmal state, to be used as a propaganda excuse for the superhighway?

By the year 2005, the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) listed Nigeria as the country with the highest deforestation rate in the world, and the following year the country responded with a National Forest Policy. A small group argued that the people of Cross River State and Nigeria at large could not be conformed to one normative standard approach that embarks on transforming every natural environment into infrastructure projects that could be as wasteful and dormant as the Tinapa Shopping Centre and Model City in the Akampa Local Government Area. That white elephant was touted by a former governor of Cross River State, the saxophone-playing Donald Duke as the rival of Dubai, yet is yielding no revenue, rusting away and decaying before the eyes of the state citizens.

During the EIA review, the most crucial subject was actually the least debated – the fate of communities and the biodiversity in the forests that would be destroyed and disturbed, and what could be done in remediation and or mitigation? The consultants pasted a series of confusing images depicting the proposed route of the Superhighway. In many cases, these were not aligned to the density of settlements and forests. A re-settlement programme for communities to be dragged out of the way during construction, and compensation for their homes and farms was not quantified in monetary value, and therefore left to empty promises.

Moreover, the impacts of a highway proximate to a protected area, the consequences of noise and commerce encircling the Cross River National Park, and how this would open the way for illegal logging and poaching of endangered species, was not in the analytics of the consultants. Questions asked by some in the audience as to how much damage to the forest had already been done by bulldozers before the EIA was produced remained unanswered in the hall. The international outcry over the destruction of these forests, had been dismissed by some staff of the Cross River State Government as an international conspiracy. Why and how, and who exactly the conspirators were, they and the consultants failed to explain.

Would the Superhighway if and when started ever be completed? This was a point that was not discussed loudly, but in hushed voices. The EIA had no to time frame, no projected start and completion dates. The danger is that tractors and bulldozers will sit and decay in the forests on an uncompleted Superhighway for decades that will signal the extinction of biological and communal life in and around the forests of Cross River State.

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