Nigeria’s plan to construct a six-lane "superhighway" through a rainforest in the southeast of the country has triggered a row between the government and conservation groups who claim that it will displace up to a million people.
The superhighway will be 260km long, and will link a seaport earmarked for Bakassi, on the border with Cameroon, and run north to the border with Chad. The corridor, which will also have fibre link, will involve clearing a swath of jungle 20km wide.
Nigeria can’t continue to dramatise everything and convert everything to politics– Ben Ayade, governor Cross River State
The project has been condemned by local activists and 15 NGOs, including the World Wildlife Fund, the World Conservation Society and Birdlife International. In September, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari was presented with petition containing 230,000 signatures from Cross River communities and elsewhere.
The protesters claim that the road will deprive 180 communities of their land, and wipe out a large area of Nigeria’s few remaining rainforests, the habitat of gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants and pangolins.
Governor Ben Ayade, a strong advocate of development (Cross River State)
Martins Egot runs the Ekuri Initiative, a Cross River group that promotes sustainable infrastructure, such as roads linking villages and market centres, and advocates common ownership of forest assets. He told the Quartz website: "Taken all together, this project will take a quarter of the land in the state. It is a pure land grab – why ask for 20km as right-of-way when the right-of-way for federal expressways in Nigeria is 50m?"
Government officials respond that the superhighway will open an economic corridor and create thousands of jobs and allow a tourist industry to develop in a state with a primitive road network.
Ben Ayade, the governor of Cross River State, said it was time that Nigeria took control of its natural resources, including forest reserves, and used them to promote national development. He also challenged reports that the highway would require a 20km cleared zone.
The proposed route of the highway (Wildlife Conservation Society)
Speaking at a climate change meeting in Marrakesh in November, Mr Ayade said: "We can’t continue to be poor in the midst of plenty. Nigeria can’t continue to dramatise everything and convert everything to politics.
"The superhighway only takes 85m with 35m and somebody goes to the press and says we are de-bushing 20km. It is most ungodly. It calls for celebration not condemnation. It calls for appreciation and not cheap blackmail."
Image: Cleared land along the 260km corridor (Heinrich Boll Foundation)