Chief Edwin Onga
Against all environmental odds and the dangers of opening up prestine forest of Ekuri, through the construction of a 260km Super Highway, running from the coastal part of Cross River State to Katsina-Ala in Benue State, the Ben Ayade administration is facing oppositions on the scheme.
After a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA], at least 15 International Organisations has spoken against the project. According to the organizations, over a million people will be displaced. Cross River State is an environment with prestine flora and fauna which attracts over 4million dollars yearly in tourism.
A representative of the community and environmental activist, Chief Edwin Onga is strongly opposed to the project. According to him, ‘’ What they are going to do will put the bio-diversity of the region in danger. Species will be endangered. That is why that part of Cross River is important. It provides fresh water for domestic use, for fishing, it is one of the richest forests in the world’’ .
Not much has been done to kick-start the project since it was launched early last year. This is ostensibly due to the objection and caveat on the part of the Federal government, propelled by the NGOs.
Chief Onga, who spoke via telephone on Green Hour , a Nigeria Info 99.3fm programme, said ‘’Because of the outcry, the project has been stalled for now. This was after the environmental impact assessment was conducted, which shows that the people will be negatively affected. When the Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] was presented, it indicates an adverse effect on the people and the species. They now presented another, which also revealed similar effects. All these were measures to safeguard the environment’’.
The argument from the Cross River state government is that the 260km Super Highway will bring forth a lot of economic value to the region in terms of accessibility and infrastructure. Chief Onga reacts thus; ‘’ In all fairness to the Governor,it is beneficial in a way. However, the reality is that there is an existing road on ground which can be rehabilitated. The basic facilities are already on the old road. You do not transport cargo on the road, too much cargo, oil tankers and heavy duty vehicles, when we should be using the railways’’.
‘’Experience has shown that once you open such a forest, people will use that opportunity to explore the innermost parts and destroy the bio-diversity. Nigeria’s prestine forests have been reduced to 5 per cent. This is why there are hues and cries on the depletion of the high forest region. You don’t need to construct any other road, just expand the existing one. You are dealing with life. This part of the country has been recorgnised all over the world as an area with rich bio-diversity. There are Gorillas, Chimpanzees and other species in the forest’’.
According to the Cross River state governor, Ben Ayade, the construction of the Super Highway will encourage other states to take a cue. This will facilitate smooth movement from the coast of Cross River to the far North. But what happens to the 180 communities that will be displaced?
In the words of Chief Onga, there are no government plans to relocate the Ekuri communities. ‘’How can you relocate 180 communities? These people have been living there for centuries. If you do that, you will be indirectly causing inter communal crisis. And these are people that have been living peacefully for centuries’’.
Since mid-last year, when a court injunction was instituted, no major work has been done on the project. According to Chief Onga, ‘’Nothing must be done in the forest until the EIA is concluded. We drove them [surveyors] away. Their work was illegal and so we drove them away. We told them that this is prestine forest that supports our life and until the federal government gives approval to the project’’.
‘’We see the forest as the totality of our existence. If you cut down the forest, you cut down our entire existence. We are not Europeans or Americans that can preserve their forest. There is an existing road that government can improve on instead of a Super Highway. We are a small group and the forest is small. That is why we are saying, leave the forest out of the road. The forest is there, not just for the benefit of Ekuri communities, but for the entire world. Its benefits are immense. The water flows through out the year. It is beneficial for downstream communities for domestic and other uses’’ He concluded.
Chief Onga, however eulogized the administration of Liyel Imoke for preserving the infrastructure and landscape of the state. ‘’We salute the courage of the immediate past governor of the state, Liyel Imoke who toed the step to ensure that existing roads are maintained. He took Senator Ayade round the state projects when he [Imoke] was about to leave’’.
Chief Onga is not persuaded by the job opportunities that the road project will bring forth. ‘’ How many people are literate enough to get job in the Ministries? Most of the people here are into farming and wildlife. They depend on forest resources for survival. So the Super Highway is not the solution’’.
He also stated that the government promise of planting 5million trees in place of the ones brought down due to road construction is a ruse. ‘’It is unrealistic. He [Ayade] has not been able to say this is where I am going to plant the trees, when he has not even raised a tree. It is a way to deceive us. Several millions of original trees will be brought down. Cross River is going to lose 20million trees as opposed to the 5million he promised to plant. Its just unrealistic’’.
The state government has given an ultimatum, saying it will go ahead with the project by the end of march. Chief Onga countered that the state can not do anything in defiance of the Federal government. ‘’I don’t see that happening. I don’t see how the Cross River state government would want to break the law. They are part of Nigeria, except they say they are not part of Nigeria’’.
In the same vein, frontline environmentalist, Desmond Majekodunmi, criticized the Cross River Super Highway on the ground that the 260km road will destroy the ecosystem.’’60-70 per cent of the eco-system in Cross River state is the watershed of bio-diversity of that region. A lot of conservationists are opposed to it. Once you have such a high way, it just giveS people access to go into the prestine forest to exploit. Just expand and improve the existing road. To develop tourism,you don’t need a Super Highway’’.
The Cross River National Park is home to primate species in Nigeria. The Park also contains over 900 species and several other birds.