Ever been in a jungle, a real rainforest in Central Africa? I was and nearly stayed in it forever.
This is the story of the Fourth Parallel Road. A monster of an environmentally wrong decision by France to build a broad earth road from nowhere to nowhere in the middle of pristine jungle in the Central African Republic. It happened in the late eighties-early nineties and I had to inspect it in the context of a multi-donor transport project that I led for the World Bank. The habitat of pygmies was exposed to modern age, game put in danger of extinction, mighty tropical trees fell, and the ecosystem got disrupted by bulldozers, scrapers and crude humans. A French engineer said, “This is the most beautiful project in my life, building a road from fresh straight through a jungle.”
The road went from close to the Cameroonian border to mid-point in the Central African Republic (CAR), an area closed to the modern world, inhabited by zillions of the most beautiful butterflies I have ever seen. It was supposed to be connected to Bangui, the capital of CAR, on the one end and the Atlantic coast of Cameroon on the other, an old colonial dream that originally aimed at building a railway. The futuristic dream featured prominently on a 5000 franc note, with the train crossing over a bridge to be built over the river the “Bangui” or, further down, the Congo River. Thank God, this never materialized. Railways in Africa proved an unmitigated disaster.
The one side of the Note with the beautiful lady is the more realistic picture.
I stood in the center of a world where few people had set foot, looking in horror at huge tropical trees falling to make room for “the road” in the name of economic development. I’m sure that today such a project would never be approved. The World Bank battled it, but in the end France went ahead, tossing our objections aside.
To make a final pitch to stop the project, we took a small airplane to fly over the jungle and get a better view of how the road would affect the environment. Leaving from a small strip close to the Cameroon border, the pilot skimmed through low-lying clouds of fog to show the panoply of tropical trees in varying colors of green. It’s an immensely thick area of trees, looking like dense fields of green cauliflower from the air, and admittedly, the road would only affect a limited portion. But once you cut in, damage grows because its facilitates people moving in, cutting wood and hunting wild animals. and the damage grows like a cancer.
While we were flying, the pilot lost his way, as his plane was not equipped with a GPS. Besides, it appeared he had not prepared a flight plan. And this over an area larger than Texas. Below us, nothing but trees. One by one the fuel tanks ticked empty and the last one got dangerously low. My 4 or so Central African collaborators got scared and just went to “sleep” in their seats, having given up on life, waiting for the crash to happen. Once we would be down, the trees would fold over the plane and nobody would ever find us in this extensive jungle. I said a few prayers, looking at the maps with the pilot. Then I spotted a small strip: the beginning of the Fourth Parallel Road we had visited the day before. God had saved us, so had the road. The pilot could re-coordinate and with the last fuel tank down to less than a quarter full we landed at Bangui airport. As a result, we had little objection left to let the road construction continue. Life is precious.
Next time some stories about Cameroon, Lebanon and Jordan.