A planned six-lane "superhighway" that would carve its way through hundreds of kilometres of remote rainforest is putting Nigeria on a collision course with its local communities and endangered wildlife.

As Africa's second largest economy, Nigeria has the potential to grow and expand, despite entering a recession earlier this year. But growth and development hinge on upgrades to the country's long-neglected infrastructure. Enter the "superhighway".

The proposed road would begin at the southern border of the central state of Benue and run south through the state of Cross River. Its terminus would rest at a planned Atlantic deep-sea port in the contested territory of Bakassi. The project, approved by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari over a year ago, would create a 12-mile-wide highway running a total of 260 kilometres (162 miles). Plans also include modern features such as Wi-Fi internet connectivity along the route.

On paper, it appears to be exactly the sort of infrastructure modernisation that Nigeria needs – but its ecological impact could be grave.

A critically endangered Cross River gorilla, one of the species at risk if the highway project goes forward. Image: WCS-Nigeria

The road as currently planned would run through several protected areas, including the Cross River National Park, the Cross River South Forest Reserve, the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, the Cross River South Forest Reserve and the Ukpon River Forest Reserve.

Each of these areas shelters an array of threatened species, including forest elephants, vulnerable birds like African grey parrots, and pangolins, the world's most-trafficked mammals. The region is also home to several rare and little-studied primates, from drills and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees, to Sclater's monkeys and the Cross River gorilla, the world's least-known gorilla subspecies, which is classified as "critically endangered" by the IUCN.

According to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) executive vice president of public affairs, John Calvelli, the road poses a very real threat to the protected status of these areas.

"It is very troubling and worrisome for us that the great work that Nigeria has done to create these areas and protect them could be undermined by this [highway] development," Calvelli warned in a Los Angeles Times article.

For WCS and other conservation groups, a big concern is the excessively large buffer zone of cleared land on either side of the highway. Under the current proposal, this would extend out approximately 9.7 kilometres (6 miles) on both sides of the road. According to many local activists, this buffer is a matter of political ambition, rather than a necessity. Martins Egot, the leader of the local non-profit Ekuri Initiative conservation group, is one of them.

"The project seeks to acquire 20.4km of land all along the superhighway as right-of-way without consultation from the communities," Egot said in an interview with Quartz. "Taken altogether, this project will take a quarter of the land in the state. It is a pure land grab – why ask for 20 kilometres as right-of-way when the right-of-way for federal expressways in Nigeria is 50 metres?"

A map of the proposed route of the highway. Image: Wildlife Conservation Society

The vast swath that would be carved through Cross River wouldn't just endanger the wildlife in the area through habitat destruction. It would also force 180 communities and up to a million people living within the buffer zone to relocate, their land seized by the state for the construction project. According to Quartz, there is no known federal plan for relocating such a large number of people.

The WCS also argues that such displacement of local communities would do more than just harm humans – it would also have serious repercussions for wildlife.

"Without those communities, we are not going to have good stewards of our natural world," Calvelli told the Los Angeles Times, adding that the eviction of people who care about the land would be only one part of the problem. The other would be an increase in illegal hunting and wildlife trafficking.

"Building a highway of that size through a natural park will only bring poachers closer to the wildlife," Calvelli said.

One of the highway construction sites. Image: Wildlife Conservation Society

Despite receiving presidential approval, the highway is currently on hold. A required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted on the project both failed to consider the impact of the buffer zone and received a "D" rating from the Federal Ministry of Environment. The rating means that parts of the assessment must be resubmitted before construction can move forward.

In the meantime, local communities and conservation groups are submitting petitions calling for the project to be halted until less damaging construction methods and routes can be proposed. A petition with over 253,000 signatures was delivered to President Buhari in September, and a petition launched by the WCS with over 100,000 signatures was delivered to the Nigerian embassy in Washington, D.C. (the WCS petition remains open).

Even though the WCS has been active in attempting to block the highway, Calvelli stressed that the group isn't unsympathetic to the economic needs of Nigeria. "We are not anti-development," he told the Los Angeles Times. "We firmly believe that development done effectively with nature in mind is in the best interest of the long-term growth of the nation."


Top header image: Joachim S. Müller, Flickr