By Jules Knocker
Economic livelihood or conservation - which should win out or can both co-exist in relative harmony? Right now, the impassioned debate is focussed around a new, proposed road that crosses the north of the Serengeti National Park and which has received the go-ahead from the government, despite strong protests from environmentalists and reported opposition from TANAPA
First, what is at stake?
The initial moves to establishing a quick commercial connection between Arusha and Lake Victoria were included in the election manifesto but the issue only really came to public notice two or three years ago. The plan is a road which will run from Mto wa Mbu, via Natron, up to Wasso and along to Klein’s Gate on the park border. From there, it will cross the narrowest part of the Serengeti to Tabora B and onto Mugumu and the Lake region. The road would increase trade and services to an area of North Tanzania that has seen minimal benefits from the general development and infrastructure improvements happening in other areas of Tanzania. It will provide a quick link between Lake Victoria and Arusha, enabling both regions to benefit. The road would bring improved access to hospitals and schools; enable small business to set up, and current ones to flourish, by reducing the cost of operating and transporting goods; offer employment opportunities where there were few before. It will, no doubt, eventually bring the advantages of the national grid and access to reliable and cheap internet down the line. The quality of the daily life of many of the inhabitants of the region would improve. Regions of Tanzania that have been somewhat isolated, in one way or another, from the more prosperous eastern side of the country will be more accessible. The appeal of the project is clear, especially in an election year.
The current access to the Lake is a murram road, caught in a continual degrading cycle of erosion and repair, that goes between Karatu, around the Ngorongoro Crater rim, down to Naabi at the boundary of the Serengeti, Seronera, Ikoma and off to the Lake. The route is longer, crosses two major wildlife sanctuaries and is more expensive for the transit traveller than the proposed route.
On the conservation side, either road is a devastating and nett loss to the ecosystems and the effective husbanding of world- renowned natural resources. I suspect the extent of the impact of the new road is not easily predictable in advance and many of the changes or losses may not become apparent for several years, when the damage is done and it is too late to reverse. Let us not also forget the threat to tourism revenues, which play such a crucial role in government income and the health of the economy as a whole. A degrading of the tourism experience will lead to a drop in visitor numbers, as they look for other still-pristine environments.
On the current road, tourists, game, rickety buses and overloaded Fuso lorries fight it out along the dusty, bumpy length to the detriment of all. Accidents are quite common, as are road kills and the visitors’ experience of driving along such a busy highway is seriously poor. The road is not designed to cope with such heavy traffic and its very existence is anathema to a quality tourism product
The new route goes through the fragile eco-system of the volcanic plains west of Mtu wa Mbu, the green season pastures of the Tarangire/Manyara migration route and Lake Natron, a crucial nesting place for flamingos and subject of a recent battle over a proposed soda factory by TATA, supported by the government, which was opposed successfully by environmentalists. It then comes up onto the Loliondo plains, currently a Game Controlled Area and hunting block and into the Serengeti. Here, it crosses one of the lesser developed but very rich areas of the National Park: an area which is host to the spectacular draw of the wildebeest migration driving across the Mara River in the dry season and sustains the herds when the rich grass of the southern Serengeti plains have been exhausted with the end of the rains. The lyrical scenery hosts a multitude of wildlife all year round, not least rhino and oribi. It is a quiet and relatively undisturbed paradise, both for animals and for tourists. The new road will put all this at risk.
The concerns are numerous: the increased human development that will come along the length of the road in the areas outside the National Park, which are currently lightly populated, allowing a large number of game to live relatively freely will slowly push out the game; the disturbance to the wildlife patterns which many fear will have a negative impact on wildlife numbers in genreal throughout the eco-systems. (The Tarangire/Manyara/Gelai Migration route is already under serious threat from agricultural development and the restriction of wildlife corridors around the Tarangire and Manyara National Parks). How will the flamingos react at their nesting sites? Will the Migration be placed under damaging stress and will it reduce their numbers and reduce their ability to find adequate pasture and water that takes them thousands of kilometers each year? The increased pollution; the increasingly easy access for poachers; the degrading of the tourism experience, which will put the current attraction of the Serengeti as a must-see destination ubder question; the road kills (as everyone appreciates it is unrealistic to either build effective wildlife tunnels or put the road on raised pylons). And perhaps something that is often overlooked – it is unlikely that all transit, commercial traffic will be forcibly diverted to the new road as for some, the trip will be much longer. We will then end up with not one, but two, busy, commercial and destructive highways crossing the Serengeti at different points.
The government has deemed the negative impact on the environment to be outweighed by the economic benefits but there is a concern that the decision makers have a greater understanding of, and interest in, the commercial sector than they do in the environment. Perhaps they believe that the tourism revenue will continue to flow, regardless of the quality of the experience and the impact of the road. Perhaps they are less interested in the potential knock-on effects of putting several ecosystems at risk as these cannot be quantified learly in advance. TANAPA have stated that the decision is no longer in their hands. Frankfurt Zoological Society opposes the plan, as does AWF. Environmentalists are up in arms and have taken their fight global. Articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Sunday Times, The East African as well as the local papers.
So, people or wildlife? Who gets to make the choice and who gets to live with the consequences?
Or is there another alternative?
For many years, the proposed route for a commercial link to The Lake was very different from the current one.
Skirting Ngorongoro and Maswa Game Reserve to the south of the Serengeti, through Shinyanga and joining up to the lake. It is longer, and therefore more expensive to build, but it does not cross protected areas, it does not put eco-systems at risk, it does not threaten unique wildlife events and it does cross miles and miles of deprived areas where the local populations have long missed out on the benefits given to others. Same economic arguments but just a different group of people and greater numbers of people that would benefit. They are in the same situation as those in the north but perhaps they have even fewer opportunities available to them. At least there are noticeable rewards to be had from tourism already operating in the northern Serengeti and Natron area for some of the local residents. Looks like a win-win situation to me.
Why has this alternative been ignored? Why are the voices so insistent on a compromised and compromising plan that puts much at risk?