Africa: Destructive development 'corridors' being built through some of world’s most precious wildlife areas

'Africa is changing now probably faster than any continent in human history'

Steve Connor
Science Editor
Wednesday 25 November 2015 18:19
Elephants troop to a water hole at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. 'Africa is changing now
probably faster than any continent in human history,' says Professor Bill Laurance
Elephants troop to a water hole at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. 'Africa is changing now probably faster than any continent in human history,' says Professor Bill Laurance

Many of the major development projects in Africa will result in destructive “corridors” being built through some of the world’s most precious wildlife areas with little or no overall benefit for the local population, a study has found.

A detailed assessment of 33 developmental corridors involving the construction of immensely long roads, railways, pipelines and power cables has found that most of them are of questionable benefit and at least six are so toxic for the environment that they should be cancelled immediately.

Scientists believe that just a handful of the huge projects financed by developments banks, African governments and large commercial mining or agricultural interests pass the scientific test of both environmental sustainability and social benefit.

Parts of the Sime Darby plantation in Liberia have disappeared to make way for a palm-oil production (Getty)

Some of the developmental corridors, especially those that slice through pristine tropical rainforests, could permanently degrade the natural environment without any meaningful contribution to helping the population of the country involved, the scientists said.

“Africa is changing now probably faster than any continent in human history and the main reason for this is that we are seeing a tsunami of new kinds of development pressures mainly as a result of about 53,000 km of new development corridors – road, railroads and power-lines – that are going to be criss-crossing the African continent,” said Professor Bill Laurance of James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.

“We evaluated the impact of these developmental corridors, 33 of them in total, to try to ask what would be the costs and the benefits. We found huge variation. Some look as if they would provide a lot of food production for rapidly growing countries….but some of the other corridors especially those penetrating rainforests looks as if they will cause an environmental crisis,” Professor Laurance said.

“Our analysis was rigorous and our message is clear. Some of the corridors are a good idea, but others could cause great environmental harm and have surprisingly small benefits,” he said.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, assessed the impact of each road or railway on a 50-km wide corridor through the region in which they run. They looked at impacts on endangered wildlife and natural “services” such as carbon storage in the vegetation, as well as the agricultural and developmental benefits for a country’s population.

“We did a cost-benefit analysis and the corridors that should be cancelled will produce only meagre improvements in agriculture but have very large and serious environmental costs. There will be impacts on wildlife, native ecosystems, protected areas, carbon storage, endangered species, critical habitats, and the climate-regulating services of the native vegetation,” Professor Laurance said.

“We certainly are not suggesting that all of the corridors be halted. A half-dozen look like a really good idea, with large benefits and limited environmental costs. However, another half-dozen look like a really bad idea, in that they’d damage critical environments that are still largely wild and natural, especially in equatorial rainforests and savannah regions,” he said.

The scientists argue that each project needs to be carefully evaluated in detail on a case-by-case basis before they are allowed to proceed. If they do go ahead, they must be undertaken under the most stringent conditions involving environmental assessments and specific measures to offset any impacts on the natural environment, Professor Laurance said.

“There’s no arguing with the fact that Africa direly needs social and economic development and better food security. But it’s vital to focus future development in areas where we’ll get most bang for the buck – maximising agricultural production while not decimating the continent’s incredible wildlife and environmental values,” he said.

“We’re hopeful African governments and the investors, mining interests and financial institutions driving these projects will take a close look at our finding,” he added.

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