Another Controversial African Highway
You’ve probably heard of the Tanzanian government‘s recent decision to cancel plans for the construction of a new highway that would have bisected the Serengeti National Park, threatening the integrity of the site of one of the world’s largest, most famous and most important annual wildlife migrations. That was great news.
You’re less likely to have heard of another, perhaps less significant, but equally controversial plan to build a new highway on South Africa’s Wild Coast. The bad news: this one looks like it’s going ahead.
Last week, South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, gave the go-ahead for the new N2 Wild Coast toll road project which will involve the upgrading of existing smaller roads and building of some 90 kilometers of new road through the Pondoland area. Government believes that the road will help create job opportunities, increase tourism and accelerate investment and development in this rural and largely impoverished region. Significantly, it will also provide for easier access to potential mining prospects along the spectacularly beautiful and relatively untouched coastline.
The fight over this road, which in 2007 was estimated to cost R6.4 billion (about $950 million), has been going on for more than a decade. Support has come largely from the national government level and the South African National Roads Agency. Very vocal opposition has been provided by local communities on the Wild Coast, environmentalists, concerned citizens and even the provincial government of KwaZulu Natal.
The project was shelved in 2004 after it was discovered that the supposedly independent environmental consultants tasked with conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) had financial links with the companies hoping to build the new road. Molewa’s recent announcement comes after another EIA gave the green light for the project.
The new EIA acknowledges that there will be a “loss of sensitive habitats” and “faunal impacts with loss of faunal diversity and loss of species of special concern.” Opponents charge that the road will endanger sensitive forests and waterways and threaten the traditional way of life of local communities.
Of particular concern is the new section of road which is slated to cut through and destroy some 16% of a fragile region known as the Pondoland Centre of Endemism which is of special value because of its great biodiversity and the presence of many plant species that are found nowhere else on the planet. It also represents the cultural homeland of the AmaPondo people. This new section of road would include construction of no fewer than nine new high-level bridges across river gorges.
Adversaries of the new road argue that a truly sustainable development path for the region would help to uplift the local population while protecting the unique environment at the same time. They have vowed to fight government’s intention to go ahead with construction in the country’s courts.
Visitors to the Wild Coast have long appreciated it as one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa and one that has remained largely undisturbed by human development and environmental degradation. It would be unforgivable if it was devastated by something as mundane as a road. In the words of one local commentator, Fred Orban, “the surest and quickest way to destroy a world renowned wilderness area is to cut a highway through its heart.”