Readers are by now familiar with the controversy over the Tanzanian governments proposed new highway through the Serengeti National Park, which is a World Heritage Site . It’s been something of an ‘on-again, off-again’ saga as the pros and cons have been highlighted by the various parties involved.
More recently, government plans for other infrastructural development have come to light, and these give strong indications that the authorities will now press ahead with the proposed highway plan despite viable alternatives. One report refers to Kenya’s imminent decision to pull out of a bilateral agreement with Uganda to build a new railway line between Mombasa and Kampala. Apparently, this comes about due to pressure from the Chinese government who are seeking to have their own plans for a railway system accepted by the Kenyan government. Compliance by Kenya will no doubt come with further aid and soft funding packages.
But, more importantly, this decision will have crucial implications for the Serengeti. The decision means Uganda is likely to seek alternative transport links to a port elsewhere along the Indian Ocean. And the likely routing is via a railway line linking Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern DRC to the new proposed road through the Serengeti and on to the major port city of Dar es Salaam.
In another development, President Jakaya Kikwete is reputed to have personally intervened to have the proposed Lake Natron soda ash extraction plant fast tracked into production, a project that was rejected in 2007 because of the potential negative impacts. Reviving the Natron project would be a double blow for the environment. It will promote the Serengeti highway, which will be used to transport the reported 300million tons of soda ash that lies beneath the lake, and mining will potentially destroy a recognized Ramsar Wetland Site and Important Birding Area which is the only remaining breeding site in East Africa for lesser flamingos.
Both the Serengeti and Lake Natron projects have received widespread global opposition from conservationists, ecologists and tourism agencies. And this may have something to do with a curious decision taken by the government involving another of their wilderness areas, this time in the Eastern Arc Mountain range. In January 2011, the Tanzanian government submitted a nomination dossier to the World Heritage Centre to have the Eastern Arc Mountain Forest declared a natural heritage site. But, a short while ago, this nomination was swiftly withdrawn. While they have not stated their reasons for doing so, there is a strong possibility that it is in response to the global attention the Serengeti highway has received. Has Tanzania decided that being able to forge ahead with development projects in wilderness areas on their your own terms is better than the marketing benefits and conservation attention World Heritage Status brings? And if so, what type of development plans are possibly due in the Eastern Arc Mountains?
And for the Serengeti, the next important moment comes in June when the 35th session of the World Heritage Committee will be meeting in Paris. The proposed highway is high on the agenda and the committee will be reiterating to the Tanzanian government that “the proposed North Road will seriously affect the site and alternative roads should be considered”. The committee did the same at the 34th session in Brazil when they concluded that the road “would result in irreversible damage to the property’s outstanding universal value”.
For those interested in the EIA for the proposed highway, this is available on the www.savetheserengeti.org link. It is concerning though that this report has as yet not been officially submitted to the World Heritage Committee for comment.