Tanzania conservation breaking news – The corridor of destruction from the coast to the lake


A fuller picture is starting to emerge about the extent of the Tanzanian government’s plans to ‘modernize’ the country on the fast track, after looking at seemingly unrelated but upon closer review very directly related and interlinked projects.


When breaking the news a year ago about the plans to build a highway across the most sensitive part of the Serengeti, only sketchy information was available at the time about the powerful interests behind the revival of this highway project. Previously considered at least twice, it has in the past had been equally often thrown out over environmental concerns and the likely impact on the migration, feeding and reproduction patterns of the great herds of wildebeest and zebras, which in their hundreds of thousands follow an annual trek from the low grass plains between the Serengeti and Ngorongoro to the Masai Mara in Kenya and back.


From Mto Wa Mbu, and the foot of the escarpment near the Lake Manyara National Park, the proposed new route soon leaves fertile agricultural areas as the shadows of active volcano Ol Donyo Lengai loom ahead. The volcano, following a more recent outbreak, has been spewing ash across the grazing grounds of cattle and goat herds tended to by Masai herdsmen, who subsequently had to seek new grazing grounds to escape toxic fumes and the layers of ash which had covered the sparse vegetation. The proposed route conveniently links the planned, and going by a recent directive of president Kikwete, urgently needed and therefore ‘must have’ soda ash plant’s location at Lake Natron, and the expected impact on the sole breeding grounds of the East African Lesser Flamingo has been described here only recently.


Beyond the Serengeti, between the national park boundaries and Lake Victoria, a look into Tanzania’s mineral survey maps and mineral concessions either already granted or else still available for future allocation gives yet more answers. Global mining giants have put there markers down, ready to exploit the buried riches, as a gold rush seems imminent – Tanzania already is Africa’s third largest producer of the precious metal – were it not for the absence of a highway, supporting heavy vehicles and the constant movement of workers and machinery.


Gold production and processing, as is the case with other mineral extraction and refinement for export, requires road links and water, and while some of the locals who were clearly hoodwinked, and probably paid for, into ‘spontaneous enthusiasm’ have high hopes for jobs, few of them understand, probably not even their local political leaders, about the toxic fall out of such operations, and what it means to their neighbourhood environment and their already sparse water resources. Water in these often drought stricken areas is – for those living there at least – as precious as gold considering their very life depends on it as does that of their livestock. That however, going by the current political hymn sheet in use amongst Tanzania’s political leadership, does not seem of great concern and uprooting a few or even several thousand inhabitants from such areas earmarked for mining will be a small price to pay for them, to give the international mining giants a clear run without having to deal with potentially troublesome ‘locals’. Notably, a source in Arusha, attempting to establish the degree of understanding local residents and their leaders have of the potential contamination stemming from gold processing and other mining operations fallout, is also painting a grim picture, as these area residents know little about what jobs such conglomerates will bring and less about the environmental impact of such operations, leaving them with a hole in the ground and toxic waste and their lifestyle destroyed when the last ounce of something precious has been squeezed out from their underneath their native soil.


How, however, will the output and products generated from mining, the harvests of tropical tree hardwood from the extensive Eastern Arc forests – now very likely never to be accorded the recognition of UNESCO World Heritage Status after president Kikwete’s veto – be shipped to the global markets of China, India, Russia, of Europe and beyond. And the search for this answer opens an insight in to the full dimension of how planners with little if any regard to the environment, biodiversity hotspots and protected areas are riding roughshod over conservation concerns. It is here that the greater picture of the insensitive approach of the current Tanzanian leadership becomes apparent, when one links the dots of the mining and mineral exploration concessions to the planned new harbour at the coast.


Dar es Salaam is notoriously congested, some say just badly mismanaged, and while it is of course the main import and export hub of shipped goods for Tanzania, it is avoided as much as possible by the hinterland countries due to the bureaucrazy – pun intended – the red tape and the general hassles associated with shipping through the commercial capital of the country. Hence, the exploiters, processors and exporters of the newly found riches have in the past often voiced their ‘concern’ over the state of the harbour in Dar, and not unexpectedly advocated for a new sea port to be established, with its own rail and highway link, avoiding the populated areas around Dar, offering arguably greater protection for their shipments and keeping watchful eyes at a greater distance.

A new purpose built port ‘extension’ is planned for Mwambani Bay, incidentally not very far from the existing and still very underutilized port of Tanga [last year’s shipping volume touched about 650.000 tons only] and dates back to 1977 and in fact prior to that, when the East African Harbour Authority developed a study for expansion of harbours along the East African coast, including Tanga.


Yet, with the left not knowing what the right does, in 2009 the Mwambani Bay was declared a marine park, as off shore from the planned harbour site is the habitat of the Tanga Coelacanth, a CITES protected ancient deep see fish species, for which the marine park was thoughtfully created amid much fanfare and publicity. Mwambani Bay, where the new harbour extension according to sources in Dar es Salaam is to be build, is of course also the home of many fishing villages and nearby subsistence farms, feeding thousands of people. While a few may indeed find a menial jobs should the new harbour construction indeed commence at this site, most of the present thousands of residents are expected to become internally displaced, left at the mercy of the Tanzanian government and its promises to ‘resettle them and give them land elsewhere’, none of which has so far materialized for those already chased away. Detailed reports at hand at this stage portray a picture of blatant disregard for existing law, rules and regulations, there is a peanut compensation scheme for those already driven from their ancestral land and claimants being ‘jerked about’ while waiting for new land and funding to relocate, sinking into abject poverty where previously they were able to make an honest living from farming and fishing.

Other reports speak of ‘forced’ evictions, using cloak and dagger methods, intimidation and threats, all denied by official government mouthpieces but true nevertheless. The intimidation reaches even into law offices, where no law firm of repute in Tanga seems ready to represent the Mwambani people, very likely fearing repercussions and loss of future business. Human rights advocates and conservation groups are considering using law firms based in other East African countries, or from further abroad to seek justice but one source closely involved in this struggle said: ‘we do not expect justice to come in a timely fashion from Tanzania’s court system. If at all we get a fair hearing in the first place it will be delayed for ever by motions of the defendants. We are considering pushing this case to the East African Court in Arusha which is in our opinion unbiased towards the claims’.

Equally it was learned, that representation in the few ‘consultative meetings’ discussing the new harbour project did not include local residents or their chosen representatives and those actually participating were brought on board as part of a very selective and discriminatory decision, showing intent to keep things ‘under wrap and out of the public domain’ for as long as possible.


The human dimension here will be tragic for those affected, as few promises made by East African governments in regard of ‘resettlement and compensation’ have ever yielded the hoped for results, with those driven from their land under acquisition orders and vacation notices more often than not were condemned to poverty after losing the land of their ancestors. They will be a new recipient community for international donors and aid organizations, depending on long term handouts after being robbed of what was theirs by a government gone ‘development crazy’ in the most insensitive manner.


As important for conservationists however is the despoilment of a pristine marine area with critically endangered marine life, as certain to be destroyed by a constant stream of ships and resulting pollution, as is the great migration in the Serengeti once an endless train of trucks, busses and cars races across from end to end, thousands in a few years and probably a great multiple in a few decades.


Here the circle closes conclusively for the informed observer, laying bare the schemes and manipulations of the Tanzanian government to put short lived profit before conservation of what truly are world heritage assets and obstinately refusing to look at other viable options, even if for instance in the Serengeti the German government would fully fund an alternate route so as to save the Serengeti. It does appear that president Kikwete’s mind is made up, for reasons best known to him and his inner circle, and knowing fully well that his time in power will be up in 4 years, probably being the best pointer in this all to the undue haste and speed with which all these connected projects and developments are being pushed.


Conservationists in Eastern Africa have now few options left, but pursuing those with great vigour. Legal challenges are expected to be launched, both in the domestic court system but also through the East African court system thought more unbiased and fair when hearing such critical high profile cases, and conservation advocates are also procuring legal opinions from leading experts on international conventions Tanzania is signatory to and might be in breach of.


And then there is the final arrow in the arsenal of opponents, the call, should it become necessary, for a tourism if not wider boycott of Tanzania over the wanton destruction and reckless carving up of the national heritage, so cherished by founding father ‘Mwalimu’ Julius Nyerere, who with his long time friend Prof. Dr. Grzimek worked tirelessly to not only protect the Serengeti but to make the name immortal through the television series ‘Serengeti Must Not Die’.


Well, the political grandsons of Nyerere seem to think otherwise, as DIE is the most plausible and likely outcome for the Serengeti as we know it today, should a highway cut the great herds of wildebeest and zebras off from the mid- and late year grazing grounds in the Masai Mara. Expert opinion and a study by the Frankfurt Zoological Society is available that already in the short and medium term the size of the herds might be reduced by as much a 70 percent owing to food scarcity, a disrupted breeding pattern and an upset social structure of the herds.

A similar fate awaits Lake Natron’s flamingo breeding grounds, where the ‘lesser flamingo’ exclusively breeds before returning to their wide spread Eastern African breeding grounds, but again, no amount of expert advice has been heeded towards that likely outcome.

The Eastern Arc Mountains, stripped of the UNESCO World Heritage Status before it could even be awarded, are also expected to be subjected to robust and unsustainable exploitation of resources, with all the environmental fallout expected from increased logging and conversion to short lived farm land, and when the function of the mountainous forests as a crucial water tower has been damaged, no government will be able to alleviate the effect on people and their way of life.

At the coast, again displacement of people and marine life will trump conservation, if developers, global mining giants and international financiers have their way, and it can only be hoped that exposing all of this will trigger a fresh round of well argued and presented opposition to maybe still sway the powers that be from this utterly destructive course.


If not, a final hope is vested in the court of international public opinion and the courts of justice of Tanzania and East Africa, but do not hold your breath as this may be a long and protracted process while government keeps snipping away at its very best natural assets any country could wish for, trying to create irreversible facts on the ground by use of state power and its organs, to which few would dare, nor likely be able to successfully stand up against.

Watch this space.

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