During the just concluded 71st session of the United Nation General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, the Nigeria delegation led by President Muhammadu Buhari hosted a side event tagged ‘climate action for sustainable development.’ At this event, the Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria signed the Paris Agreement.

This agreement is in line with Nigeria’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted in November 2015 for a 20% unconditional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a conditional 45% reduction by 2030. With that signing, the Paris agreement is a case of ‘pacta sunt servanda’ – the agreement is so and sacrosanct.

One of the key measures highlighted in Nigeria’s INDC for emission reduction is reforestation. In addition, the 2011 National Adaptation Strategy and Plan of Action for Climate Change Nigeria (NASPA-CCN) forest strategies 1 stipulates ‘strengthen the implementation of the national Community-Based Forest Resources Management Programme.’ Thus, there is an understanding that ending tropical deforestation and expanding sustainable management and protection of forest are essential for Sustainable Development and meeting the Paris Agreement.

In fact, many scientists have called for a minimum 25 percent forest cover for all countries. Twenty five percent forest cover means a reforestation of 17.3% of Nigeria’s land area. World Development Indicators (WDI) data shows that Nigeria’s forest area in 2015 is 7.7% of total land area (and decreasing) as against the 18.9% in 1990.

From timber logging in Bwall and Pandam game reserve in Plateau state to the planned destruction of entire forest for a ‘supposed’ highway project in Cross River state, there is evidence of a shocking nature that takes an unfair and unsustainable economic, social and environmental models.

The proposed Cross river ‘super highway’ is a 6 lanes, 260km road connecting Benue state to the yet to be constructed Bakassi deep-sea port. It transverses Calabar, Akamkpa and Ikom towns with a 20km corridor along the entire road length as against 100m right of way required by Federal laws.

Amidst environmental consequences of this project are numerous troubling crosscutting questions such as; what is the real need for this road? What is the economic value to indigenous people considering that they will lose their farmlands and medicines (herbal trees) which is there source of livelihood? When this road get to Benue what happens? Are there plans by the governments of Benue and Nasarawa states to link the road to Abuja? What materials or goods are to be transported that cannot be transported on existing roads?

These existing roads make for perfect alternatives. Why it the government not considering this option amidst current economic difficulties. Independent analysis indicates that if these existing roads are upgraded, there will be infinitesimal destruction of forests, properties and farmlands, with an overall lower construction cost.

Established, the Land Use Act affirms that all lands belong to the government. But government can only (re)possess lands after detailed evaluation and compensation for assets – properties and economic trees – on such lands. Though Governor Benjamin Ayade has promised compensation for all assets, the question that begs for answer is how he plans to achieve this considering that economic trees have already been cut down and the timber whisked away without prior evaluation.

Without answers, these questions points to one thing – land grab for unsustainable forest resource exploitation. Such reckless and selfish act by the Cross River state government is in direct contradiction to and a violation of the agreement the Federal Government in her magnanimity and sincerity signed at the UNGA.

According to Prof Ayade, Cross River forests are assets that have to be exploited. In his words “the forest has been conserved over time without exploitation and that is not the way we are going to go forward, we are going to move from forest conservation to forest management…, …we are deforesting for development by processing it into plywood and vinyl for export…” With this, it is clear that the story of a super highway construction is only a diversion from the truth.

Along this highway corridor sits the last remaining untouched rainforest in Nigeria – Ekuri forest. This forest is a major carbon sink and water cycle regulator. Sadly, the state government looks at nature (the forest) from a narrow neoclassical economic lens which only makes it finite resource. In the words of Pavan Sukhdev, the lead author of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study (TEEB), ‘we use nature because it’s valuable, but we lose it because it’s free.’ Nature is not only the chunk of trees but the many invisible and visible organisms that live within it.

Nature provides ‘ecosystem services’ that cannot be quantified economically. With this knowledge, it is myopic to think that exploiting more natural resources will lead to economic growth and/or poverty eradication amidst current planetary boundaries tipping points.

Mr. President, deforestation is an issue with global, national and local consequences. Nationwide, forests are been degraded with impunity but the Cross River scenario defies all reasoning. It has the potential of setting off a chain of reaction with unimaginable impacts for Nigeria’s climate action plan, sustainable development, and livelihood and lifestyle of indigenous people.

My President, now that you have signed the Paris agreements, I use the opportunity to appeal that you direct the Federal Ministry of Environment to immediately bar the government of Cross River state from pursuing this fraud of a highway. No good can come out of it.

Emmanuel Unaegbu

Environmental Protection and Renewable Energy Consultant at CLIMATTERS writes from Abuja

Email: emmaunaegbu@gmail.com

Mobile: +234 8037502850 | Twitter: @emmalysis