Those who believe that we’ve stopped the Serengeti highway and achieved a great victory need to step back and look again.
Unfortunately, some in the media have claimed a great victory for conservation, believing that plans for a road across the Serengeti have been stopped. Some conservation organizations have diplomatically praised President Kikwete for his wisdom.
But we do not share this view, knowing that those who have pushed for a commercial route through the Serengeti can claim their victory as well.
If their plans continue,
- They will get their road across the Serengeti.
- They get improved connecting roads on either side of the park.
- They get a bonus southern route around the Serengeti.
- The way will be paved for more development.
The current Tanzanian government has been refused funds for the Serengeti highway by every major donor, government, and lending institution in the world.
Those who want a true commercial highway clearly cannot achieve it now. But they can make inroads and later connect the dots.
A New Road Across the Serengeti is Likely
In its recent letter to the World Heritage Committee, the government of Tanzania stated that the road through the Serengeti will not be paved, but will “remain gravel road.”
The truth, however, is more complicated. No gravel road exists across this 53 km stretch. Much of this area is designated as a Wilderness Zone, with no public access.
The 10-year Serengeti management plan, painstakingly developed in 2005 by scientists, Park officials, and conservation organizations clearly indicates that the area in the northwestern part of the Park is particularly sensitive.
As shown on the map below, from the 10-year management plan, the area of the proposed road cuts through areas designated as “Low Use” and “Wilderness” zones.
The Low Use Zone “will have a lower number and density of visitors” and “more limited road network and lower bed capacity.” The Wilderness Zone in green “is subject to minimal disturbance. As a result, visitor access will be restricted to walking safaris, with game viewing by vehicle prohibited. The only infrastructure permitted will be a limited number of access roads that can be used by Park management and support vehicles for walking safari operations.”
These areas were not designated lightly. They are critical to the migration of two million animals as they make their way between Kenya and Tanzania. Of special concern to scientists is the fragmentation of this ecosystem.
Fool Me Once…
The media has been fooled before. Over the past year, the government spin publicly “gives in” and downgrades the road to gravel, saying it won’t be paved with tarmac after all.
In reality, the road was initially announced as gravel.
In November, 2009, the Tanzanian delegation to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre announced the road through the northern Serengeti. Representing their government, they stated a “53 km stretch within the Serengeti would be a gravel and not a tarmac road.”
Yet in September of 2010, appearing to give into pressure, President Kikwete said that, okay they’ve decided not to pave the road. Again on February 9, speaking to the World Bank, he repeated, “we will not build a tarmac road.” And at this year’s World Heritage Committee meeting in Paris, the mantra was repeated: no tarmac road.
In fact, the initial road surface has never been the real issue. Tanzania’s original statement of a gravel road prompted the WHC to warn of dire consequences to the ecosystem.
“The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that, if built, the North Road could critically impact the property’s Outstanding Universal Value and justify its inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger.”
What is different now? The government curiously says that the current road across the same 53 km stretch across wilderness zone will “remain” gravel, though no such road exists. They do not exclude commercial use, stating that it will be “mainly for tourism and administrative purposes as it is currently.” And clearly, it will be the only connection between upgraded roads being planned on either side of the Serengeti. Whatever route is now there, which is not much, will have to be upgraded to make this connection happen.
One good piece of news – the road will remain under the management of the Park. This will mean gates and restrictions. But for how long?
Just the Beginning
When the road was announced, conservation organizations and scientists immediately sounded the alarm. Though initially announced as gravel, no one, in fact, ever believed that the road would remain unpaved.
Tony Sinclair, one of the world’s leading experts on the Serengeti, wrote:
“The soils are largely of silt and cannot take heavy vehicle traffic. Although the road may be initially of murrum (a clay soil) or gravel, the increasing flow of vehicles will inevitably lead to a tarmac road. This will result in road kills when as many as one million wildebeest will be settled, not just crossing, along this road… Essentially the Serengeti as we know it will no longer exist. History has shown that once we start this process of road development, there is no turning back on the sequence.”
Last year, Serengeti Watch conducted a survey of 302 world scientists. 71% of them believed that if the road was built, the collapse of the migration would be very or extremely likely, or inevitable. See the petition and survey
Even the government’s own Environmental Impact Statement assumed that the road would not be paved, yet predicted it would carry hundreds of thousands of vehicles a year. Those estimates will certainly be reduced, as yet another impact study is prepared. The expected volume of traffic should go down, and this is good.
But after the government’s latest announcement, a leading infrastructure expert wrote us saying, the road from Mugumu to Loliondo (those sections on the margins of the park) not being paved is “clearly progress against the previous statement that only the road through Serengeti section will not be tarmac.” But he adds,
“That is however only 20% (of the entire route) and likely not a great deterrent against large scale through traffic. The fundamental question remains: what would be the purpose of this road?””
Recently, information has come to light about other motives behind the highway. In fact, if some have their way, the highway will actually be a railway.
In 2010, the Uganda and Tanzanian governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the development of a new transportation route between Uganda and the Indian Ocean port of Tanga in Tanzania. The route would extend from Lake Victoria through the Serengeti, on to Arusha, and then to the Indian Ocean.
Tanzania’s Transport Minister, Omar Nundu, spoke earlier this year about the plans for this new route. He stated the project would involve the construction of a new port at Mwambani harbor, near Tanga. It would also include a Tanga-Arusha-Musoma Railway. (Musoma is on Lake Victoria.)
This would give Uganda an alternate means of exporting oil and minerals, in addition to the railway through Kenya. It would also provide the Chinese with another route for minerals from the African interior, particularly coltan, a mineral used in cell phones. Along this route lies Lake Natron, virtually the only breeding ground for East Africa’s lesser flamingos. President Kikwete has recently vowed to mine Lake Natron for soda ash, regardless of what any environmental impact study says.
And the terminus of this route, Mwambani Harbor, where the Coelocanth Marine Reserve would be sacrificed. Read more about these development plans
So with the recent statement on the Serengeti road, have these big plans now changed? One June 23, one day after the letter to the World Heritage Centre was released, The Guardian newspaper interviewed Deputy Minister for Transport, Athuman Mfutakamba. The article says
“that apart from improving Tanga port, they would also construct a new port in Mwambani area. He noted that the new port would mainly serve as a gateway for consignments transported to the northern part of the country, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Southern Sudan after completing the Arusha-Musoma railway.” (underline added) http://www.ippmedia.com/frontend/index.php?l=30451
The Serengeti highway has been proposed three times in the past. Inevitably, as population and trade grows, the Uganda-Tanga commercial route will be more and more compelling. Road traffic will grow, settlements will expand, and with it, what experts have feared (and predicted) all along, demands that the road be paved and fenced.
There is always hope. Not hope that traffic will be kept to a minimum, but that the Serengeti road won’t be build at all, that the area will be kept intact for the migration.
Hope that the world will see through what one world authority on wildebeests has termed “smoke and mirrors” and understand the struggle is far from over. Hope that authorities will understand the economic asset that the Serengeti represents.
And hope that people living around the park, and throughout Tanzania, will see real benefits and protect the Serengeti for future generations.
With a growing population and expanding human needs, increased pressure is inevitable. This is a critical time. To make the Serengeti ecosystem viable, we must make sure that the Serengeti provides for the needs of the people whose heritage it is.
We cannot afford to lose the Serengeti, because once gone, it will be gone forever.