Massive road and rail projects could be Africa’s greatest environmental challenge


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Africa’s natural environments and spectacular wildlife are about to face their biggest challenge ever. In a paper published today in Current Biology, my colleagues and I assess the dramatic environmental changes that will be driven by an infrastructure-expansion scheme so sweeping in scope, it is dwarfing anything the Earth’s biggest continent has ever been forced to endure.

People, food and mining

Africa’s population is exploding – expected nearly to quadruple this century, according to the United Nations. With that, comes an escalating need to improve food production and food security.

In addition, Africa today is experiencing a frenzy of mining activity, with most of the investment coming from overseas. China, for instance, is investing over US$100 billion annually, with India, Brazil, Canada and Australia also being big foreign investors.

To feed its growing population and move its minerals to shipping ports for export, Africa needs better roads and railroads. When located in the right places, improved transportation can do a lot of good. It makes it easier for farmers to get access to fertiliser and new farming technologies, and cheaper to get crops to urban markets with less spoilage. It can also encourage rural investment while improving livelihoods, access to health services, and education for local residents.

Improved transportation is especially important for Africa’s agriculture, which is badly under-performing. In many areas, large “yield gaps” exist between what could be produced under ideal conditions and what is actually being produced. With better farming, Africa’s yields could be doubled or even tripled without clearing one more hectare of land.

Using rudimentary methods, small-scale farmers eke out a living in Gabon.
William Laurance

Pandora’s box

However, there is another side to new transportation projects — a dark side, especially for the environment. When located in areas with high environmental values, new roads or railroads can open a Pandora’s box of problems.

Roads slicing into remote areas can lead to range of legal and illegal human land uses. For instance, in the Amazon, 95% of all deforestation occurs within five kilometres of a road; and for every kilometre of legal road there are three kilometres of illegal roads. In the Congo Basin, forest elephants decline sharply, and signs of hunters and poachers increase, up to 50 kilometres from roads.

A forest elephant shot by poachers.
Ralph Buij

In the wrong places, roads can facilitate invasions of natural areas by illegal miners, colonists, loggers and land speculators. In my view, the explosive expansion of roads today is probably the greatest single peril to the world’s natural environments and wildlife.

Africa’s ‘development corridors’

Earlier studies that my colleagues and I conducted, including a major study published in Nature last year, suggest Africa is likely to be a global epicentre of environmental conflict. A key reason: an unprecedented scheme to dramatically expand African roads, railroads and energy infrastructure.

In total, we have identified 33 massive “development corridors” that are being proposed or are underway. At the heart of each corridor is a road or railroad, sometimes accompanied by a pipeline or power line.

The 33 development corridors that are being proposed or constructed in sub-Saharan Afirca.
William F. Laurance et al. (2015) Current Biology.

The projects have a variety of proponents, including the African Development Bank, national governments, international donors and lenders, and commercial agricultural and mining interests. They’re intended to promote large-scale development and their scope is breathtaking.

If completed in their entirety, the corridors will total over 53,000 kilometres in length, crisscrossing the African continent. Some individual corridors are over 4,000 kilometres long.

Will these corridors generate key social and economic benefits, or will they cause great environmental harm? To address this question, we looked at three factors, focusing on a 50-kilometre-wide band laid over the top of each corridor.

First, we assessed the “natural values” of each corridor, by combining data on its biodiversity, endangered species, critical habitats for wildlife, and the carbon storage and climate-regulating benefits of its native vegetation.

Second, we mapped human populations near each corridor, using satellite data to detect nightlights from human settlements (to avoid lands that were simply being burned, we included only places with “persistent” nightlights). We then combined the natural-value and population data to generate a conservation-value score for each corridor, reasoning that sparsely populated areas with high natural values have the greatest overall conservation value.

Finally, we estimated the potential for new roads or railroads to increase food production. Areas that scored highly had soils and climates suitable for farming but large yield gaps, were within several hours’ drive of a city or port, and were projected to see large future increases in food demand.

Costs versus benefits

When we compared the conservation value of each corridor with its potential agricultural benefits, we found huge variation among the corridors.

A two-minute video summary of our study’s main findings

A half dozen of the corridors look like a really good idea, with large benefits and limited environmental costs. However, another half dozen seem like a really bad idea, in that they’d damage critical environments, especially rainforests of the Congo Basin and West Africa and biologically rich equatorial savanna regions.

In the middle, there are 20 or so corridors that appear “marginal”. These tend to have high environmental values and high potential agricultural benefits, or vice versa.

We argue that these marginal projects should be evaluated in detail, on a case-by-case basis. If they do proceed, it should only happen under the most stringent conditions, with careful environmental assessment and land-use planning, and with specific measures in place (such as new protected areas) to limit or mitigate their impacts.

Dangers for Africa

There’s no such thing as a free ride. For Africa, the dangers of the development corridors are profound. Even if well executed, we estimate that the current avalanche of corridors would slice through over 400 protected areas and could easily degrade another 2,000 or so. This bodes poorly for Africa’s wildlife and biodiversity generally.

Wild zebras in the Serengeti.
William Laurance

Beyond this, the corridors will encourage human migration into many sparsely populated areas with high environmental values. The wild card in all this is the hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investments pouring into Africa each year for mining. Even if a corridor is likely to yield only modest benefits for food production, it may be very difficult for governments and decision makers to say no to big mining investors.

The bottom line: it could be a fraught battle to stop even ill-advised development corridors, though not impossible. If we shine a bright light on the corridors and argue strongly that those with limited benefits and large costs are a bad idea, we may succeed in stopping or at least delaying some of the worst of them.

This is unquestionably a vital endeavour. Africa is changing faster than any continent has ever changed in human history, and it is facing unprecedented socioeconomic and environmental challenges.

The next few decades will be crucial. We could promote relatively sustainable and equitable development — or end up with an impoverished continent whose iconic natural values and wildlife have been irretrievably lost.

The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Road closures Barrington Tops & Thunderbolts Way – 13 July 2015


Stroud Community Web

Thunderbolts Way remains closed, there is no access to the New England Highway via Gloucester. There are barrier boards and road closed signs at Giro turn allowing enough room for vehicles to turn around.

Also, due to heavy snowfalls, the gates are closed at Honeysuckle, Dilgry Circle and the Dingo Gate. 4WD access only from Cobark Park picnic area to Honeysuckle picnic area and there is a Ranger at Cobark Park advising visitors and turning away 2WD vehicles.

National Parks have also advised that there is snow impacting Gloucester Tops Road and they are getting a ranger to assess it and provide us with additional details. Please advise anyone you talk to to drive carefully and to the conditions.

Scone Visitor Information Centre has advised that western access to Barrington Tops is now closed to all vehicles from Moonan Flat due to vehicle accidents.

Updates are regularly issued at

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New Zealand: Milford Sound Tunnel Axed


The links below are to articles reporting on the axing of a plan to build a road tunnel to Milford Sound in New Zealand.

For more visit:
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/8930108/Government-axes-Milford-Tunnel
http://www.scene.co.nz/minister-blocks-tunnel-plan-for-milford-sound/310712a1.page

Media Release: Annual Trail Closures at Barrington Tops National Park


The link below is to a media release concerning annual trail closures at Barrington Tops National Park.

For more visit:
http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/media/OEHmedia13053003.htm

Gap Creek Falls


Kevin's Daily Photo, Video, Quote or Link

I thought I would go to Gap Creek Falls today, which is about 1.5 hours drive from where I live, in the Watagan Mountains. So you can imagine my disappointment when about 5 km from the falls at most I came across this.

Road Closed

I couldn’t believe it. So, I had to do other things which I’ll post about over the next day or so.

So what had I intended to visit and walk to? The picture below is Gap Creek Falls. My favourite place in the region and one of my favourite places in New South Wales.

Gap Creek Falls

ABOVE: Gap Creek Falls Barely Flowing BELOW: Palms at Gap Creek

Palms at Gap Creek Falls

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Bulahdelah


Kevin's Daily Photo, Video, Quote or Link

So I was right about my day when I spoke of it yesterday. Not a lot going on today, so today’s post will be more about yesterday. I hope that makes perfect sense to everyone – it sounded even worse with the original way I was going to write it (I was trying to be clever, so went for simplicity in the end).

Bombah Point Ferry

The Punt at Bombah Point On the Punt

On the Punt

To get to Bulahdelah from Hole in the Wall, you need to go via Bombah Point and the ferry service there. I guess you could also call it a punt. Many people still call it that. Anyhow, as the pictures show, it doesn’t cover a great distance. How much is the charge for this journey – at the moment it’s $5.00 AU. Seems a little excessive for something that’s over in less than 5 minutes. Still, there is a…

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Myall Lakes National Park


Kevin's Daily Photo, Video, Quote or Link

It was my first official day of annual leave from work today and of course it had to start with a good sleep-in, which I might add I’m going to try and avoid doing for the entire period of my annual leave – just the first couple of days. I have been extremely tired, so a few sleep-ins will be helpful – for my health and well being you know. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about and agree with me entirely. I take your silence as tacit agreement. Thank you for that.

Myall Lakes National Park

Once I was up I thought I should do something – so the day wouldn’t be viewed as an entire waste. So a drive to Bulahdelah was on the cards via the Myall Lakes National Park and the Bombah Point Ferry. So that’s what I decided to do, after I thought through a few more possible options for…

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