The southern Nigeria state of Cross River used to be known as an area with some of the oldest tropical rain-forests in the West African region, with mangrove swamps on the coastal zones and some of the rarest species of organisms to boot. However, that reserve along with the famous Cross River National park, Ukpong and Ekuri forests are currently under threat from a superhighway.
The proposal is to construct a high tech super highway from Calabar, the state capital to the neighboring Benue State, through the biodiversity rich forest. Complete with anti-slip features, speed cameras and Internet connectivity, the thoroughfare would cost the Cross River state a whooping sum of $3.5 billion.
The construction brings far reaching implications for thousands of families and their livelihoods.
Alice Bassey, 50, sat on the trunk of a felled tree on the outskirts of Calabar, Ikot-Opkoene Akpabuyo community, her eyes fixed on her visibly cracked building, originally owned by her parents and passed down to her immediate family. Flanked by her kids, Bassey described how the wall cracked the same night men acting on the instructions of the state Governor, Ben Ayade, invaded her community with bulldozers.
“I was sleeping when we heard the trucks clearing all the economic trees, my only means of survival”, she said. “I don’t have where to move to, they want to take my land, without notice, this house as you can see the demolition marks, has been revoked.”
On 22 January 2016, the government published a notice in the Weekend Chronicle, a local newspaper, announcing the revocation of all land occupancy titles within a 20-kilometer wide corridor of land along the highway route. The government had essentially acquired all farmlands, forests and homes owned by the communities.
Bassey and her kids are helpless, their livelihood destroyed by a government elected to make life better for the citizens.
"At no time were we issued a notice. The actions by the authority remains shocking”, she sobbed, pointing to the debris of trees she said had been in existence for over 150 years. Since the destruction of her cocoa, palm, guava, mango, and orange trees, Bassey and her six kids are forced to rely on friends and families to eat.
The invasion of his community has left Elder Okon James Ukpong, 76, stranded. Authorities had placed a demolition sign on his home. I met Ukpong in downtown Ikot Ndareke.
“I am not leaving,” he said. “They’ve destroyed my means of survival, and I am waiting for them to come for my house so I can die with the bulldozer that day."
During the interview, Ukpong wondered aloud why the government was insensitive to the plight of the people – repeatedly questioning why over 50,000 people will be displaced, and most of them without prior notice.
Umo Isua-Ikoh, an environmental activist for Peace Point Action (PPA), condemned the demolitions, saying there was no due process followed by the government. In a clear contravention of the act, the government has however, started clearing forests in Bakassi, Boki, Apkabuyo, Obubran, Akampka and elsewhere.
“Over 185 communities were affected", Isua-Ikoh said. "The Envionmental Impact Assessment act of 1992 states that no land clearing should take place without an EIA permit from the federal government.”
The government seems to be dismissing all the concerns, though.
According Governor Ayade, widely quoted as saying Cross River has “over one million hectares of pristine forest and that forest which is an asset that has remained unexploited and this forest has been conserved over time without exploitation. That is not the way we are going to go forward, we are going to move from forest conservation to forest management which means we are going to be needing 2000-3000 young men who will be responsible for regeneration of forest. As we are deforesting for development by processing it into ply wood and vinyl for export, we are also correspondingly investing hugely for regeneration.”
In the fact sheet made available by environmentalists and scientists to the press, the state has much less than one million hectares of forest - perhaps only 600,000 are standing.
As the fact sheet states:
“The existing highways, if refurbished, could fulfill development needs without loss of any forests, and at a much lower cost. The existing highways have an established system of feeder roads, linking communities to the trade route. The proposed super highway would likely cause the construction of its own network of feeder roads, and thus cut a grid of smaller roads into what is left of the rainforest. This slicing up of intact ecosystems would severely affect animal migration, and the gross loss of habitat would further threaten their survival. Sustainable human use of non-timber forest products in many areas would be eliminated. Nigeria would lose its REDD+ status.”
From the interactions in the affected seven communities visited, it is clear that notice of revocation of land rights was not widely publicize and many individuals affected never knew about it.
Compensation and Demands
Ekpo Abasi, 37, tells me he has no problem with a government that seeks to construct roads for the people but questioned why his land ownership had to be revoked overnight without due diligence.
“We need roads but not this level of expansion,” Abasi told me. “I can’t just be asked to leave – leave to where?”
The GREENCODE movement, another NGO liaising with the people and the state government over the superhighway project, is demanding the government stops the revocation of land rights within 10km.
“We want a stop to all activities directed at the destruction of the means of livelihoods, homes, heritage, artifacts and religious spots, wetlands/forest of the indigenous people of Akpabuyo/Bakassi communities until the following studies,” GREENCODE leader, Comrade Edem Edem said.
Edem also wants a “transparent and participatory environmental and social impact study - Transparent and participatory compilation of schedules of compensations of valued items (already and yet to be destroyed) would have been accomplished in compliance with the subsisting laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as well as related International treaties and conventions that Nigeria is a signatory.”
Nku Enu, 38, a subsistent farmer in Boki Local Government of Cross River State, questions why the said superhighway project is shrouded in secrecy.
“They’ve been moving the woods to where? Who is buying the woods? These are some of the questions we need answered,” Enu said. He said he had heard rumors that the government has reached a deal with a Chinese firm to buy in the woods in exchange for money, “a deal only the governor and his foreign collaborators know about”.
Donald Ikenna Ofoegbu of Heinrich Boll, an environmental foundation that supports environmentally and politically green initiatives argues that the justification presented by the state government is insufficient.
“Nobody is answering where the money is coming from,” Ofoegbu said. “Where are the compensation plans? Were the people involved in arriving at this project or are we just feeding a man's dream? Why is no one asking what the people need?”
And Ofoegbu has more questions on what has been labelled a white elephant project: “How long will it take to make profit from the proposed toll gate? Where is the business sense? Are there any cost-benefit analysis?
“If we fail to answer these questions and follow due process in the choice of developmental projects, we would end up having lots of community forest destroyed, their timbers logged and sold by people we do not know,” Ofoegbu said. “We would end up not having a road and the forest disappear.”
Mercy Abang is a Freelance Journalist – Media Fixer with Sunday Times of London, BBC, Aljazeera and a former Stringer with the Associated Press – She tweets at @abangmercy.