The double edged sword called development
Admiring the rolling hills of the northern Serengeti National Park and seeing the wildebeest migration crossing the Mara River are some of those moments I will never forget. It was a joy to work in a with poachers infested area, to do border patrols and anti-poaching activities. The Serengeti is a very special place.
But today I came across a very disturbing article. The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania will in 2012 receive a new highway that will link the north-western side of the country with the tourism hub of Arusha and beyond, thus making human migration a lot easier.
Great news for Tanzanians living in the district of Serengeti who are almost completely blocked off . They have the Serengeti National Park with its heavy entrance fees on the east, the Kenyan border on the north and Lake Victoria on the west. They can only leave their district in the south, via a small corridor close to Lake Victoria and they have to make a big detour to get anywhere in the country.
But for conservation and wildlife the highway plans are a downright disaster. Especially since an alternative road south of the Serengeti is an option.
The Serengeti and Grumeti
Serengeti National Park and the protected areas on the outside are some of the most famous and most portrayed protected areas on the African continent. Apart from their rich wildlife and stunning landscapes, they are best known for the thundering noise of wildebeest hooves during the wildebeest migration.
The Great Migration, one of the last and biggest animal migrations of the entire planet, is the annual trek of gnus (wildebeests) and zebras in their search for greener pastures and rain, thereby crossing from Tanzania into Kenya and returning a few months later. This migration is ancient and the planned highway is directly in its path.
For many decades the inhabitants of the Serengeti district of Tanzania’s Mara region had a tough life. The government basically ignored the area while the people became more and more frustrated about being cut off from the rest of the country.
They were not only far from the economical capital Dar es Salaam but also difficult to reach. Living in the this blocked off section of Tanzania had increased poverty and decreased development. Therefore the western side of the Serengeti was rife with poachers and occasionally a tourist camp would get raided. And many were involved, something I could tell from villagers fleeing into their homes when they saw my car and always mistook it for a vehicle from the Wildlife Department.
The situation for those living in the Serengeti district led to an investigative research in 1999, to see if something about their situation could be done.
Two years ago I visited the area again and I stayed in Sabora Tented Camp in the Grumeti Reserve, an area adjoining the Serengeti park in the western corridor and being leased by an American corporation called Grumeti Reserves Ltd. The camp is great as one can call for free anybody in the world (satellite) and the migration can be watched from your bathtub.
The arrival of this company several years back was very important as it pumped huge amounts of money into tourism development and anti-poaching efforts. The company built schools, encouraged small business development and the quality of life for the community improved.
Everybody in the tourism industry, from Kenya to Namibia, spoke about the owner of the company: Paul Tudor Jones, the 369th richest man on the planet in 2007.
He was the man who changed things, who got things moving and who had the well-being of his staff, their families and the communities at heart. He basically started to change this area of Tanzania. He was almost seen as a God and he proved that community involvement is essential and working.
And the Grumeti reserve is en route of the wildebeest migration.
But like with everything that is almost too good to be true, also now the (wildebeest)shit starts hitting the fan.
The American company came in 2006 up with plans to build an international airport in the region. Besides that it planned to construct a highway that would not only run straight through the Serengeti National Park but would also go through the Loliondo Conservancy on the east, another protected area.
But the plan came under attack in 2007. More research needed to be done and it was clear from day one that the wildlife and especially the wildebeest migration would face negative consequences of these developments.
Amongst those against the proposals were the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments, the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) and national and international organizations.
Three weeks ago it was announced that the highway will get under construction in 2012 anyway, despite the overwhelming evidence that the migration routes will get disturbed and that many wildebeest and other animals will die on the road.
What happened? Why did, after all these years, all parties agree to the construction? Why is Tudor Jones so keen on constructing a highway that cuts through the world’s most famous National Park and why is he so keen on that international airport? Is he the big conservationist (or not) that everybody thought he was?
Charity only goes a certain length, after that it starts to smell. After all a highway would make the extremely expensive lodges of the company more accessible and an international airport would only benefit one company: the one building it and exploiting tourism activities in the area.
The overwhelming majority of the people living in the Serengeti district will never have a chance to even see the inside of a plane, but for Jones to be able to fly in with his private jet would be extremely convenient.
So here we are in limbo again.
Should the highway get constructed with wildlife losses being seen as an unavoidable sacrifice to economic development or should we say sorry to the development of the people in the Serengeti district and give the wildebeest migration right of way?
For the time being it seems that the highway will get under construction as declared by President Kikwete himself. He chooses economic development over one of the most important assets of his country: the wildebeest migration.
Is he also ‘shooting’ at what is left?
In case you want to vote against the highway and let your voice be heard, you can sign the petition here.
After I have seen reports that Mr. Jones is not involved in the construction of the highway, I have contacted his PR and Marketing man of the Singita Group of Lodges on 17-07-2010.
Below I have copied-pasted the statement I received from the company:
Thank you for your mail.
I’ve included below Singita’s position on the Serengeti road issue. –
1) Singita Grumeti Reserves wishes to make it clear that whilst we consider ourselves to be an interested and affected party in this matter, we do not play a role in the Tanzanian national infrastructure policy planning process. This planned road is a Tanzanian Government initiative.
2) It appears that the southern route, avoiding the Serengeti altogether, is preferable in the interests of the preservation of the wildebeest migration and (provided this is proved to be the case by way of a full EIA study) we agree with the proposal of the FZS which recommends this route.
3) We reserve making a final position statement until we have seen the details of the environmental impact assessment which evaluates all options.
4) Paul Tudor Jones and/or Singita Grumeti Reserves has never suggested that he will fund or assist with funding this road .
5) We support the fact that proper road infrastructure is vital to the improvement in living conditions for the people living in Northern Tanzania and it is a selfish and unproductive view that suggests that the development of the area is undesirable in the interest of conservation alone. The development of the area as a tourist destination is the only long term justification for its continued preservation. The best solution, serving all interests must be the goal.
I’ve also passed your mail on to Mr Tudor Jones’ office for any comment.
All the best James
Today I received another email from James regarding the response from Mr. Jones' office in the USA.
Good morning Johan,
I’ve been in touch with Mr Jones’ office, he fully endorses the statement I passed to you last week and adds that Mr. Jones is in favor of ecologically sensitive upliftment programs for both the Tanzanian people and its wildlife.
All the best to you and thank you for your integrity,
I am disappointed. Especially the last statement from Mr. Jones' office is a declaration that says that 'we go with the flow and will stick to the outcome of the EIA (Environmental Impact Assesment). I had hoped that Mr. Jones would have said: We are not in favour of this road! He does make a feeble attempt by declaring that the company does agree with the (Southern Route) proposal of the FZS. BUT....that the company will only make a final statement after the results of the EIA are known. To me it doesn't look as if Mr. Jones is really against the highway.
But then again, Mr. Jones is a wealthy man with powerful (Tanzanian) friends. It is never a good idea to upset those....