Communities, NGOs tackle Cross River government over superhighway project
In his inaugural speech on May 29, 2015, Governor Benedict Bengioushuye Ayade of Cross River State announced the construction of two signature projects, the superhighway and Bakassi Deep Sea Port.
This aspect of his speech was hand-written in just a sentence.
Maybe, such a flash of idea deserved to be thoroughly thought out and if it had been, the furore over what has come to be known as superhighway may have been avoided.
President Mohammadu Buhari had performed the ground-breaking ceremony on October 20, 2015, in Obung community, Akamkpa Local despite criticisms from local and international communities over environmental issues.
“That I am here in person underscores the importance the Federal Government attaches to this” the president had said, probably unaware that whether the road is built or not was also a matter of life and death to some communities in the state.
Earlier Ayade had said an Israeli-British firm is investing 500 million Euro alongside a Public Private Partnership(PPP) arrangement on the super highway conceived following the loss of Bakassi and its oil wells.
“The road will serve as an evacuation corridor for the new deep seaport. The seaport will have a draft of 14 metres and a key wall of 680 meters that will allow for all sizes of vessels to berth.”
But the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Environment, Mrs. Nana Mede had in a statement dated April 15, said, “the Federal Ministry of Environment received complaints from several national and international stakeholders including the host communities, British High Commission, non-governmental organizations(NGOs) such as Nigeria Conservation Foundation (NCF) World Wildlife Fund (WWF) among others raising objections to the project.
Consequently, the ministry had advised the Cross River State Government to conclude the Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA).
“However, at the instance of the Cross River State Government, an Interim EIA approval was granted by the Federal Ministry of Environment just to allow for the official ground-breaking ceremony by Mr. President, which took place in October, 2015.
The EIA interim approval does not convey project execution of any sort. This was stated clearly in the letter to the State Government.
“The purpose of EIA is to evaluate through public involvement and participation, the environmental and related social implications. Such an evaluation can then be set alongside economic objective of the proposal in order to make balanced decisions. This means that the environmentally acceptable can be identified at an early stage and project can then be designed to avoid or minimize negative environmental and social impacts.”
She further stated that: “Cross River State is enclosed with biodiversity of flora and fauna, including various rare species of animals and plants that are endemic to the area. And if proper EIA is not carried out before the commencement of this project, a serious and irreparable damage may be done to the environment and its resources. The Ministry is still awaiting the submission of the project’s draft EIA Report which shall be subjected to 21 working days public display for public review of the Report and comments. Thereafter, there will be a final technical review of the report before the issuance of EIA, after which the execution of the project can commence.”
But the Cross River State government seems to have glossed over Mrs. Mede’s recommendations as Ayade , in the publication of Weekend Chronicle of January 22, 2016, issued a public notice that “all rights of occupancy existing or deemed to exist on all that piece of land or parcel of land lying and situate along the super highway from Esighi, Bakassi Local Government Area to Bekwarra Local Government Area of the Cross River State of Nigeria covering a distance of 260km approximately and having an offset of 200 metres on either side of the centre line of the road and further 10kilometres after the span of the Super Highway, excluding Government Forest Reserves and public institutions are hereby revoked for overriding public purpose absolutely”.
Few months later, he announced that, “preliminary work has started on the 260km superhighway and a deep seaport which is going to be the deepest in Africa at 16 meters draft while the 260km Digital Superhighway to be fitted with speed cameras and Wi-Fi, will serve as the evacuation corridor for the Bakassi Deep Seaport.
“Work so far done on the project include: Soil studies and route survey completed, EIA ongoing and Speed cameras and Wi-Fi connectivity.”
Fine and marvelous idea, thought thousands that celebrated the new leadership but few months later the reality of the pronouncement started manifesting.
That pronouncement has today left so many questions unanswered.
For instance many are wondering who is funding the estimated $3.5 billion digital super highway project and its twin sister, Bakassi Deep Sea Port projected at about $800 million and how much counterpart funding is coming from the from the state.
Questions are also asked on who are the contractors; why did the president do the ground breaking when proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was not done; what was the community involvement; why must the project tear through the forest that constitutes 60 percent of the country’s remaining virgin rain threatening over 250, 000 trees and its biodiversity of different species of younger trees that abound the Oban, Old and New Ekuri, Okokori, Edondon, Etara, and others in the 180 communities that will be impacted the highway; why did the project commence with the bulldozing of trees without EIA?
These and many more questions are being asked by over 100 communities and various conservationists who have risen against the super highway project even as timbers and other economic trees are being bulldozed under the supervision of security agents to repel any reaction from affected communities.
Protests from impacted communities
Already the people of Ekuri, Okokori and others have sent letters of protest to the presidency, the Cross River state governor, Ayade and various international organizations to stop the super highway project.
Carrying placards, banners and fresh palm fronds, hundreds of men, women boys and girl from the communities have taken to the dusty streets of Ekuri in protest.
Some of the placards read: ‘Even chimpanzees cry out’;
‘Ayade don’t take our forest’; ‘Our forest is our Garden of Eden, Ayade don’t destroy it’; ‘Governor Ayade’s superhighway is land grab in disguise’, .
Addressing the protesting community members, the Village Heads of Old and New Ekuri, Chiefs Steven Oji and Abel Egbe said the construction of the super highway is a welcome development but “if the project will bring destruction to the people and the environment we don’t need it”
They said they need roads that will help them evacuate their farm products, school, water, electricity and not “the kind of road that will come and take our forest away. The superhighway will rip through the heart of the Ekuri rainforest opening it up to farming logging and hunting on a massive scale”.
The Ekuri Initiative in a statement signed by its. Chairman, Martins Egot said: “This super highway will obliterate the entire 33, 600 hectares of Ekuri forests, destroying the way of life of these forest communities forever and leaving them homeless.
“On February 7, 2016, the Ekuri people wrote to the Governor of Cross River State, copying President Buhari, the Federal Minister for Environment the UN, British Government, Norwegian Government, and many national and international non-governmental organisations. demanding that the construction of the superhighway be stopped until a new route could be found.”
The letter called on the Federal Government to suspend immediately all forest logging and clearance already commenced without an EIA permit from the Federal Ministry of Environment of Nigeria and rescind the related revocation of community land along the superhighway Right of Way.
It also demands examination of alternative routes for the so-called “super-highway” that avoids destruction of the Ekuri community forests and other forested parts of Cross River State and also carry out a thoroughly participatory and transparent review of the ecological, socio-cultural, economic, financial and reputational impacts of the so-called ‘super-highway’ before it precipitates a man-made disaster for Cross River State and Nigeria.
Unique Ekuri people and the precious Cross River Rainforests
The people of Ekuri live in Cross River State, deep in the heart of one of Nigeria’s last surviving rainforests.
Their forest is sandwiched by the Ukpon Forest reserve to the north and Cross River National Park to the east and south and to the west by the Iko Esai community forest.
Their rainforests are spectacular and are home to a number of rare and endangered wildlife species including Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, some of the last forest elephants in West Africa and forest buffalo. However, all of this is about to disappear forever due to the construction of the Cross River State Superhighway which will destroy the ancestral lands and forests of the Ekuri people and thousands of others along the proposed 260 km route.
The villages of Old Ekuri and New Ekuri are located in Akamkpa Local Council, in the buffer zone of Cross River National Park. These are two of only five villages in the whole world that speak the Lokoli language and jointly own 33,600 hectares , probably the largest community-owned forest in all of West Africa.
For hundreds of years, the Ekuri people have relied completely on their ancestral lands and forests for everything. The forest provides the people with fruits, vegetables and a wide range of other valuable forest products.
It also provides fertile farmland, their medicines and shapes their unique culture, language, and identity.
These forests are so important to the Ekuri people that in the early 1990s when they were approached by two logging companies offering to build them a road in exchange for their forest, they said “No”.
Instead they asked the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature and the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development (DFID)), to help them set up a forest management organisation called the Ekuri Initiative.
This community-run body has been instrumental in managing the Ekuri forests and has also successfully brought development benefits to their villages including the construction of a 30kilometre road to the villages and the establishment of a health centre.
This was so successful that in 2004, the Ekuri Community received the highly prestigious Equator Initiative Award from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for their outstanding contribution to biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction.
The forests of Cross River State are globally recognised for their international importance as one of the richest sites for biodiversity in Africa.
The World Wide Fund for Nature and other NGOs have documented the fact that they harbour an enormous diversity of plant and animal species almost unmatched anywhere else in the world.
In recognition of this, the UK government and WWF have invested millions of pounds in the Cross River State Forestry Department and the establishment of Cross River National Park over a period of seven years.
More recently, the UN established the UN-REDD programme in Nigeria with Cross River State as the first pilot state in which to establish structures to channel carbon credit funds from the world to reward the state for actions to protect these globally important forests.
But this forest and the entire Ekuri way of life, according to native communities and NGOs are under threat of destruction.
The Ekuri people note that the EIA Act of 1992 specifies that any construction project that is likely to have a significant impact on the environment or on people must have an EIA carried out and must receive an environmental permit from the Federal Ministry of Environment before forest clearance works of any sort takes place.
Such an EIA must involve documented consultation meetings with a wide range of affected stakeholders before the final project design is concluded and approved.
So, given the huge impact this project will have on one of Nigeria’s last surviving rainforests and the impact on the lives of thousands of people, how can such a scheme go ahead without an EIA which is made publicly available? If an EIA has been carried out who was consulted? Certainly none of the many communities or environmental NGOs have been consulted about the route.
Reports from the villages say the superhighway construction has been awarded to several local contractors who are able to hire bulldozers at 10 kilometres each.
How can clearance of the forests for the route commence without an EIA permit from the Federal Government?”
They suggested that “the existing Federal Highway from Calabar through Ikom to Obudu already serves all the purposes the government wants the super highway to achieve. Communities and trade routes already exist around this road, whilst the super highway would necessitate new feeder roads, which would cut more into the rain forest.
Furthermore this would be much less costly and will do far less damage to the state’s forests and communities”.
On its own part, the Okokori Traditional Rulers Council on February 13, 2016 wrote to Ayade a letter titled, “Notice of revocation of rights of Occupancy for Public Purpose Land Use Act 1978: Our Collective Position”.
The letter which was signed by Chief James Oyi, Village head Okokori; Chief Slyvanus Ekuri Village Head Sepchang; Mr. Brendan Iferi, Community Secretary and 11 others state: “In our community meetings, we have taken pains to read and digest the public notice, though not served on us and arrived at these conclusions: the 20.4km width of the revoked lands includes our farms, community forest and our settlements.
“ Our customary use of our lands for centuries where our ancestors have been buried is about to be desecrated. The rich biodiversity of our community forest contiguous with the Ekuri community forest and the Cross River State National Park contributes to the forests in Cross River state being named one of the 25 biological hotspots in the world will be lost forever and this legacy about to be buried.
“The acclaimed recognition of the state as harbouring 50 percent of the remaining forests in Nigeria will crash awfully. The REDD+ programme in the state is already a failure as all the forests in Ekuri/Iko pilot site will be lost because of the super highway.”
Accordingly, the community submitte: “We do not support your plan to evict us from our ancestral lands we have occupied since 1848 as we have no another Okokori community apart from this.
“We also reject the revocation of our community forest so that this forest will continue to provide ecosystem services for our well being and for the benefit of humanity in general.
“The revocation of all our lands including settlement, farmlands and community forest is a calculated attempt to extinguish us as a people though you seem to have forgotten that we did not vote for you to take away our inheritance and rights to our ancestral domains.
“Since the revocation of all our lands for a super highway will have a damming consequences on us and on the environment, we are compelled not to welcome this project.
The ulterior motive of your government is to grab our lands and make us worthless, ignoring the fact that we voted overwhelmingly for you to better our lots but not to punish us unjustifiably.”
Already the communities have dragged the state government to court over the construction of the super highway.
Mr. Joseph Oworoyama and two others on behalf of New Ekuri Village of Akamkpa Local Government Area of Cross River State in Suit No: HC/191/2016 and Chief Stephen Oji (Village Head — Old Ekuri) and four others on behalf of Old and New Ekuri villages sued the state government and two others seeking, among other reliefs, a declaration that “the purported revocation by the 1st Defendant of the rights of occupancy of the Claimants to their ancestral lands without issuing and serving revocation notices on all land holders and occupiers is contrary to the provisions of Sections 28 (6) and 44 of the Land Use Act. 1978 and is therefore arbitrary, illegal, null and void and of no effect whatsoever”.
What international and local NGOs say
Worried by the impact of the super highway, a group of 16 national and international NGOs, including John Robinson, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, USA; Hazell Thompson, Birdlife International, Cambridge, UK ; Tasso Leventis, Leventis Foundation, London, Adeniyi Karunwi, Executive Director, Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF); Godwin Ojo, Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FoEN); petitioned President Buhari through Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Environment.
They wrote: “We are approaching you now in reference to recent articles in the Nigerian press regarding the construction of a super-highway from Calabar to Obudu via Ikom, connecting to a new seaport in Calabar.
“Cross River National Park is a proposed UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve and a tentative World Heritage Site, the richest site in Nigeria for biodiversity and indeed one of the richest sites in Africa. It is recognised as a Centre of Plant Diversity by WWF and IUCN and as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International.
Indeed the biological importance of the Oban Hills was recognised as early as 1912 when a large part of the area was declared a forest reserve. In 1991, the Oban forest reserve was upgraded to create the Oban Division of Cross River National Park through which the super-highway is now expected to pass. The Oban Division covers an area of around 3,000km² of lowland rainforest. It is the largest area of closed-canopy rainforest in Nigeria and contiguous with Korup National Park, Cameroon.
“The Oban Hills formed part of one of the lowland rainforest refugia in Africa during the last glacial period. As a result the area is now a centre of species richness and endemism particularly for primates, amphibians, butterflies, fish and small mammals. Oban is an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot and contains a number of rare and endangered species such as the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti), the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus), Preuss’s red colobus monkey (Procolobus preussi), leopard (Panthera pardus), forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas) as well as 75 plant species endemic to Nigeria.
“We admire Governor Ben Ayade’s bold vision for the development of Cross River State, but feel strongly that economic growth must be reconciled with the protection of the region’s immense biological heritage which, if properly managed, can generate sustainable revenues for Nigeria, the state and its forest communities for generations to come.
“We respectfully request your support to ensure that: Route of the Super-Highway: the route of the new super-highway should be re-drawn so that it goes around Cross River National Park and its Support Zone. Protection of the Support Zone is vitally important for the long-term integrity of the National Park. Without wishing to pre-empt the findings of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) our suggested route is shown (dotted blue line) in the map below. The current proposed route (dotted orange line) is too close to the park boundary and slices through the middle of the Ekuri community forests which are the largest community owned forests in Nigeria and a proposed REDD+ pilot site. Deforestation that would be caused by a super-highway situated too close to the park boundary would soon affect the park itself.
“An ESIA of the proposed super-highway is urgently required and we are encouraged to hear that one has been started already. To ensure that the ESIA meets both national and international standards we would recommend that a Peer Review Panel be set up constituted of national and international environmental experts to peer review the ESIA and the process it follows. We offer our technical support for the production of this ESIA, which should be developed with participation from all stakeholders including affected communities, national and international NGOs.”
Another NGO, an International Association under Swiss law uniting Federations and Organizations of Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities (the ICCA Consortium) concerned with the appropriate recognition of the territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities throughout the world equally expressed its concern on the super highway and its impact.
The President, ICCA Consortium Dr M. Taghi Farvar and the Global Coordinator, Dr. Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend in their letter to President Buhari, said: “We are writing at this time to express our serious concerns regarding a seemingly impending so called ‘super-highway’ expected to be built across the Ekuri community forest in Cross River State— one of Nigeria’s last and most precious surviving rainforests.
They said they were joining their voice to that of the Ekuri and Okokori communities who have already written to the Governor of Cross River State to oppose the ‘super-highway’ project on the basis of a number of concerns, including that “the ‘super highway’ would have irremediably negative consequences for the Ekuri forest, destroying irreplaceable biodiversity.
Also, the super-highway would have irremediably negative consequences for the Ekuri communities’ livelihoods and well-being as the would be displaced, disrupted and victimized by undesired social change and man-made disasters”.
On its economic, financial and reputational impact for Cross River State and Nigeria as a whole, the ICCA Consortium said, “the ‘super-highway’ runs the high risk of being a colossal economic failure— as its public economic purpose is highly dubious and its allocated budget opaque. In this sense, the “super-highway” would bring about a reputational and financial set-back for all partners interested in REDD + initiatives in Cross River state and Nigeria in general.
“ Alarmingly, it would raise justified suspicions about the motives of an initiative that “requires” the harvesting of precious timber for hundreds of square kilometres in one of the hilliest terrain in the country, while viable, less expensive and less ecologically and socio-culturally damaging alternatives for the highway route is well known to exist”.
Groups such as the NGO coalition for the Environment (NGOCE) led by Dr Odigha Odigha are raising awareness of the effect of the project while Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has produced a map for the southern section of the highway showing how it will affect Ekuri and the Oban section of the Cross river National Park as well as the northern section including the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary that harbours the Cross River gorilla.
Odigha said: “The super highway, generally is a good thing but it should be premised on due process. The economic dimension should be properly handled and projections made upward of several decades ahead of us to outlive even those who are conceiving it. “What are the environmental and social implications?
If you look at the economic survey, options like expanding the existing highway should be thoroughly looked into.”
On the super highway, Odigha said: “I want development ,sustainable development. The super highway must not pass through the tropical thick forest and that is the only heritage we have of note.
“What kind of highway is this? This is the first time anywhere in the world that they are doing a highway that takes 20 kilometres as offset. It is strange, the road is only 75 metres and standard highway says 50 metres on either side but he has acquired 200 metres from the left and right of the road and then a further 10 kilometre on the left and the right.
“I think a government that has integrity should explain and engage stakeholders appropriately. It should promote the rule of law and transparency and accountability.”
Director of another NGO, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Rev. Nnimmo Bassey, said: “Some of the best-preserved rain forests in Nigeria are the Cross River National Park and the Ekuri Community Forest all in Cross River State.
These forests are under serious threat of being destroyed to make way for a Super Highway that can easily be re-routed to preserve our communities as well as enormous biodiversity including rare and endangered species.
“We find it unacceptable that a project of this magnitude is pursued without regard to the law and in defiance of the rights of communities.
Although the President conducted a ceremonial ground breaking exercise on October 20, 2015, that cannot be construed to mean an approval for the project to proceed without meeting the requirements of the law, particularly that of Environmental Impact Assessment. Moreover, as required by law, an EIA cannot be claimed to have been conducted if there are no consultations with citizens that would be impacted by the project.”
What government officials are saying.
Reacting, the Commissioner for Environment, Mr. Mike Eraye dismissed all issues raised by the communities and the NGOs saying: “A lot of care was taken, deploying sophisticated technology to avoid negative impact on the environment. There was an EIA. This shows that the Federal Ministry of Environment is involved. You will recall that before the groundbreaking ceremony there was a delay, to take care of all of those which were technically done with the Federal Ministry of Environment to avoid negative impact on the environment.”
Also recently the Special Adviser to the Governor on Technical Matters, Mr. Eric Akpo specifically said the governor had earlier promised the people of Cross River state that these projects are not going to take any money from the state account, but will be 100 percent PPP project. The state will only be exposed to the level of providing land for the sea port, corridor for the super highway. That is the cost for the state.
“For now, we have expression of interest from about 10 companies for the seaport and 12 companies for the superhighway.”
On compensation, he said, “Yes, compensation will surely be paid to people who reside within the corridor of the super highway or within the proposed site of the deep seaport . The state Ministry of Lands has done about 70 percent enumeration after which, according to the Land Use Act, they can now go into negotiation and then compensation.”
On allegation that the super highway will affect 250,000 trees, Akpo said, “the numbers of trees that will be affected in the course of the super highway project are not 250,000 but less than 25,000 trees that will be affected. Of course, logging is not the intention of the project stumps are still there. So the state government is not interested in the logs but the state government is only clearing a corridor.
“Of course about 25,000 trees will be affected but as an environmentalist, in his wisdom, the governor has decided that if he is going to take out 25,000 trees from the eco system then he should be able to build in five million trees into the eco system. The five million trees are to be planted to extend the rainforest from the Central Senatorial District where it terminates further into the Northern Senatorial district. So you will see plenty of these trees planted within Local Council areas of Obubra, Ikom, Boki down to Ogoja, Bekwara and Obudu.”
As to the large number of trees that will be felled and the general degradation the forest will suffer Bassey, said: “The forest is not just a tree but a complex eco system that supports culture, life and gives us the oxygen we breath.We will suffocate ourselves by cutting it down.
“The governor is knowledgeable in Environmental Science so the talk about cutting one tree and planting two is theory. When you cut down a tree that has been there for more than a 100 years and you plant two, how long does it take the two to grow to the size of what you cut?
“When you cut a tree you are cutting an eco system. There are so many other species that are dependent on one tree, so cutting a tree you are cutting one million other species down. That is why we have to be very careful on what is being cut. Cross River is known as one of the greenest states in this country and cutting down the forest for a super highway is contributing to global warming.”
Akpo , an architect by profession explained that the team as set up by the Federal Ministry of Transport “is not to hinder the project but to steer the project to conclusion. So they are not looking at what will not make the project not to work. They are here to look for what will make the project work and I think from all indications, they are satisfied that all is well.”
Public presentation of the draft EIA
The Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the construction of the super highway submitted to the Federal Ministry of Environment has failed to meet international standards.
Speaking at the public presentation on June 2, 2016 at the 13-man panel review meeting of the EIA report, the Minister of Environment Hajia Amina Mohammed scored the EIA low saying what was presented cannot meet international standard but only for local consumption.
The minister who was represented by a senior official of the Ministry, Mr. J. A. Alonge said, the issue of EIA is not the business of sentiments but that of transparency and a quality degree of honesty so as to attract international participation and the panel as constituted will take decision on whether to approve the EIA or not as “the Ministry was not partnering with the Cross River State Government to do what they like.”
The Minister noted that Nigeria shares lots of issues with UNESCO and other international organizations on biodiversity and conservation.
According to Mohammed, “The Ministry said the project must undergo EIA and this will inform final decision on the project”.
She also expressed concern on the issue of funding and the Public Private Partnership , saying, “Are the resources available and can this draft EIA attract financial assistance from participating financial institutions? There is no where that the state government can go without the international institutions. The critical eco system like the National Park and endemic issues are important and should be looked at.
On his part, the chairman of the panel, Professor Abubarkar Sambo expressed happiness with the kind of excitement the EIA presentation generated from those for and against saying, “but sentiments apart, we must look at the issue of funding from the international community seriously, the super highway is a very good thing and decision of the panel will be for the overall interest of all and the environment which the Ministry of Environment as a regulator is working very hard to see all issues are adhered to and once we hit the balance of the two we will reach a decision”
The Commissioner for Lands, Mr. John Inyang defending the position of the state government said, “some of the comments raised are critical and we will take them into consideration when we come back.”
But on the issue of land acquisition of 10 km on each side of the road, he said: “I did the publication on behalf of government and if you go through the publication our coordinates did not go beyond the road. The purpose of the 10 km is not to send the settlers away but it is for administrative purpose and development control. How can we displace the people and where will we get such compensation to pay?”
The Federal Government had earlier issued a stop work order on the super highway and from all indications, The Guardian gathered that the State government was recently ordered to redo the EIA so as to meet both national and international standard.