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Global Ideas

Africa's road to environmental destruction

Africa's raw materials are attracting investors and African states are hoping to capitalize by building roads connecting the continent. But activists warn developments could come at the expense of people and nature.

Elephant family in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro (Photo: dmussman #34914448)

New infrastructural development in Africa could damage the environment and communities

When ecologist Jeff Sayer started his career as a field researcher in Zambia in 1969, rhinos dotted the country's plateaus and he regularly witnessed herds of elephants trundling across the Luangwa Valley. Today, just a handful of elephants straggle around near the tourist lodges. Rhinos have disappeared completely.

"I never dreamed of how much would be lost in such a short time," says Sayer, blaming environmental mismanagement and political chaos for the destruction.

Now the ecologist sees a new unpredictable threat on the horizon for the continent. That's because - in spite of the recent commodities slump - Africa still has a lot to offer. Around 30 percent of global mineral deposits remain in the continent's ground, say Sayer and his colleagues at the Centre for Tropical Environment and Sustainability Science at Australia's James Cook University.

That wealth of resources remains largely untapped. Australian, Canadian, US and particularly Chinese firms are all vying for a piece of this promising market, wanting to invest in diamond, gold or manganese mining, say the researchers. Between 2000 and 2009, investment by Chinese firms alone quadrupled to more than $100 billion (90 billion euros).

For businesses, the financial returns are potentially huge, particularly as hunger for consumer products like mobile phones, tablets and jewellery grows. But so too is the threat to the environment.

Arteries for Africa's economy

Photo: Two rhinos in a meadow

Rhinos and elephants are disappearing in Zambia

The program that aims to push Africa toward prosperity is #link:http://pages.au.int/infosoc/pages/program-infrastructure-development-africa-pida:called PIDA# (Program Infrastructure Development for Africa) and was adopted in January 2012 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. According to program participants, which include the African Development Bank, the African Union, the United Nations and various countries, pipelines and streets will make it easier for people, water and energy to get around, making the continent more attractive and competitive. To this end, around 30 million square kilometers of land have been surveyed and plans for the #link:http://www.au-pida.org/:entire continent drawn up#.

And the plans are ambitious. They foresee the expansion of a road network known as the Trans-African Highway. Running to an overall length of 56,683 kilometers - and stretching from Cape Town in the south to Cairo in the north, Dakar in the west to Djibouti in the east - it will serve as an artery for the economy. Times are changing.

"The new oil and gas discoveries across Africa have added further impetus for the need to modernize Africa’s infrastructure," says Shem Simuyemba, Chief Infrastructure Economist with the African Development Bank.

As such, new roads connecting African states and arming the continent for competition with the rest of the world aren't the only things on the agenda. Ports in Benin, Lagos, Ghana and the Ivory Coast are planned, as well as river dredging, new cables for telecommunications and energy, and hydroelectric dams.

Chinese construction worker supervises the building of a road (Source: ddp images/AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)

Firms from around the world but particularly from China are racing to get a piece of the African market

It's a costly undertaking. The projects planned as far as 2040 come with a price tag of $400 billion (350 billion euros). The African Development Bank is looking to private investors at home and abroad to raise the cash, including through the China-backed multilateral Africa Growing Together Fund (AGTF) and the #link:http://www.afdb.org/en/topics-and-sectors/initiatives-partnerships/africa50-infrastructure-fund/background/:infrastructure fund Africa50#, says Simuyemba. Development banks can't carry these sums alone - a "new global partnership" is necessary to find financing quickly.

PIDA's modernisation drive harbors other costs too, say Sayer and his colleagues. Diggers don't stop at world heritage sites or nature reserves. Recently, UNESCO agreed to redraw the borders of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo so firms could #link:http://alert-conservation.org/s/op_CA-apr-18-topLE.pdf:search for oil and gas reserves#. The park is home to the rare mountain gorilla, and if but if the ecosystem collapses it will also be catastropic for the tens of thousands of people who live there, Sayer continues. Others say the plan for infrastructural development will mainly benefit the firms.

"It's merely about getting access to raw materials and products," says Robert Kappel from Hamburg's GIGA Institute of African Affairs.

Environmental concerns

A port in Lagos (Source: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

New roads aren't the only projects in the pipelines, there are plans to expand ports too, like this one in Lagos, Nigeria

To assuage environmental concerns, the African Development Bank has promised that all planned projects will be assessed for their impact on nature according to international standards, and to grant local communities their say.

"As far as possible, such projects avoid protected conservation areas," says economist Simuyemba. Where this is not the case, "measures are built within the project to mitigate any adverse effects which may arise." He adds that African countries are now focusing more on development and cooperation, with conflicts becoming a thing of the past.

But Sayer believes thorough oversight is only possible in relatively stable countries such as Ghana. Environmental protection in less stable regions requires the help of the international community, which transform particularly biodiverse areas into untouchable nature reserves.

"If you could imagine Africa getting more prosperous," says Sayer, "you could imagine conditions where you expect to move to cities, to expect agriculture to be more modern, and be concentrated in a few years." It's a scenario he says could save a lot of forests across the continent.

Politics is the problem, says the ecologist. Many of the infrastructure projects will be built in places with broken political structures and no place for environmental protection.

So far, little of the mammoth project has been implemented. There are a few roads, but many are still without asphalt, and what has been completed is partly neglected because no money is available for maintenance. If and when more road-building begins in earnest, people should be the top priority, says Africa analyst Kappel. Roads should connect people in remote villages to marketplaces or bridge economic centers.

But, he concludes, "exactly this kind of road-building has been neglected for decades."

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