Is Africa About to Face Its Greatest Environmental Threat?

A new study finds that 33,000 miles of planned road and rail projects are the continent's biggest environmental challenge.
(Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
Dec 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The next few years could bring unprecedented levels of deforestation, poaching, illegal mining, land speculation, and habitat fragmentation to Africa, according to a paper published this week in the journal Current Biology.

The impetus for all of this change: A massive network of 33 new “corridors”—roads, pipelines, and railways projects that would collectively stretch nearly 33,000 miles around the continent. The largest few of these developments would each run more than 2,500 miles, making them among the world’s largest roadways.

“I think it’s the biggest thing to hit Africa ever in its history in terms of its potential environmental impact,” said William Laurance, distinguished research professor at Australia’s James Cook University and the lead author of the paper.

To assess the potential risk, the researchers mapped out the 33 planned projects as well as a 30-mile-wide band of habitat around each of them. They found that these corridors would bisect more than 400 protected areas and cause serious degradation in about 1,800 other important habitats.

All of these projects have important stated goals: They’re expected to improve food production and food security and provide economic benefits for Africa’s booming population, which is expected to quadruple by the end of the century. The paper, however, finds that many of these projects would bring environmental devastation in their wake, either directly through their construction or by providing access to hard-to-reach areas.

“Nobody’s suggesting for a moment that Africa doesn’t need economic and social development and greater food security,” Laurance said. “That’s all really important.” The paper, however, argues that African nations and their international supporters should focus on the projects with the most potential benefits and the lowest costs to the environment.

RELATED: Half of Africa’s Lions Will Likely Be Gone in 20 Years

The roadways, railways, and pipelines would have serious effects on what Laurance called the “natural values” of these sites, including biodiversity, endangered species, wildlife migration corridors, critical habitats, and carbon storage.

The projects aren’t all bad. The researchers said about half a dozen of them would be extremely beneficial, both socially and economically, and have limited environmental costs. The same number, however, would cause irreparable damage to biodiversity-rich habitats such as the Congo Basin and the equatorial savannas.

The other 20 corridors, the researchers argued, could have value but need to be evaluated in much greater detail before they are proceed.

The paper is the first follow-up to a study the same team published last year that called for a “global strategy for road building.” Laurance described this as “a global analysis of where roads should go and shouldn’t go, and where there were likely to be conflicts between road and infrastructure building and the environment.”

Laurance said the analysis of Africa’s proposed projects is important because of the way they are being positioned. “They’re being proposed as sort of helping the little guys in Africa, but in fact most of the proponents are much more powerful commercial interests like mining interests and industrial agriculture interests,” he said. “There’s a lot of momentum building up on these projects.”

Moving forward on many of these projects would be dangerous, Laurance said, noting that the next decade could decide the fate of many of Africa’s most important wildlife habitats at a time when species such as elephants and rhinos are in steep decline. “It’s going to be such a game changer,” he said.