Population studies estimate that there are only 150,000 to 200,000 of westland lowland gorillas left in the wild, with the species in rapid decline. That has earned them a Critically Endangered ranking from the IUCN, the organization that monitors the world’s endangered animal. Most western lowland gorillas live in equatorial Africa, the geographic area that includes countries like Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Nigeria. In Nigeria’s Cross River State, one subspecies of lowland gorilla is even more imperiled—an isolated group of gorillas located about 200 miles north of the main population, which number less than 300. A new superhighway project slated for the area threatens to put them in even more precarious situation.
Mark Amaza at Quartz reports that transportation infrastructure in Nigeria, and in particular rural areas, is in rough shape. As Africa’s most vibrant economy, the nation is looking to do what it can to improve its road system, and one of those proposals is a 162-mile, Wi-Fi enabled, six-lane superhighway through Cross River State. The proposal would connect a new deep seaport at Bakassi to Nigeria's Benue state, located in its mid-belt region. The state government argues that it will spur much needed economic development along the route and boost tourism to the area’s natural resources.
But not everyone is supportive. In a press release, the Wildlife Conservation Society says the highway will displace 180 indigenous communities. It could also have severe impacts on Nigeria’s last remaining rainforests, more than half of which are located in Cross River State.
WCS points out that the highway project would cut through or disrupt several protected forest areas including Cross River National Park, Ukpon River Forest Reserve, Cross River South Forest Reserve, Afi River Forest Reserve and the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. The environmental group Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers (ALERT) tells Chidimma C. Okeke at AllAfrica that the highway will open up much of that land to illegal logging, poaching and development.
WCS argues that the highway will not only disrupt habitat for the Cross River gorilla, but also forest elephants, Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees, drills, Preuss’s red colobus monkeys, pangolins, slender-snouted crocodiles, African gray parrots and other threatened species. “We implore the Cross River State government to reconsider the proposed highway and explore other ways of improving the state’s infrastructure,” Andrew Dunn, Director for WCS’s Nigeria Country Program says in the press release. “The project as it stands will displace more than 180 local communities and greatly diminish the country’s natural heritage.”
WCS is working with a community-based program called the Ekuri Initiative to gather signatures and organize protests against the project, which many locals see as a government overreach, Amaza reports.
The plan originated with Benedict Ayade, who was elected governor of Cross River in May 2015, reports Emmanuel Mayah at Premium Times. Shortly after election, he presented the plan for the superhighway. In that original plan, the highway cut directly through Cross River National Park, though it was eventually re-routed. Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari originally gave his blessing and was scheduled to attend a ground breaking ceremony in September 2015. But he stepped back when he realized an Environmental Impact Assessment had not been conducted for the project in violation of Nigeria’s constitution. Even so, a month later he participated in the ceremony.
In January 2016, the state took more than 12 miles of land on either side of the corridor via eminent domain, and in February 2016 bulldozers began clearing forest for the project.
In March, Amaza reports, the environmental minister Amina Mohammed issued a stop work order until the EIA could be finished. The first draft of the EIA was submitted and received a “D” grade from the environment ministry and was sent back for heavy revision.
The final draft of EIA was submitted yesterday, setting off a new rounds of protest from local people and environmental groups. Senior Technical Adviser to Governor Ayude, Eric Williams, tells Anietie Akpan at The Guardian that the new EIA addresses the concerns of locals and environmental groups, and he expects it to be accepted. Conservation groups, on the other hand, say the EIA is a farce and does not include solid information.
The press secretary for governer Ayade, Christian Ita, says that the controversy has been blown out of proportion. “The truth of the matter is that some NGOs have been paid to ridicule and kill this project. Let’s not play politics with development please. Is it that we don’t need infrastructure?” he says. “The forest you are protecting, who owns the forest? The forest is ours. But we are not insensitive. For every tree destroyed, two more will be planted. And for people living in those areas, government is conducting enumeration to know who is affected.”
President Buhari has not yet weighed in on whether his support for the project has changed.
Editor's Note, November 7, 2016: This story has been corrected to show that the proposed highway is projected to have six not 12 lanes.