CHINAS CHRISTMAS PRESENT TO EAST AFRICA RATTLES CONSERVATION FRATERNITY
News emerged just before the long Christmas weekend that Uganda and Tanzania have signed a joint agreement with CCECC, the China Civil Engineering Construction Company, worth over 450 million US Dollars, to prepare a feasibility study for a new proposed railway route from Tanga port to Musoma on the shores of Lake Victoria from where then a new railway ferry route is supposed to connect across the lake to a proposed new lake port in Uganda. Operated by Uganda Railways, a suggested new port would be connected by a rail link to the capital Kampala and beyond, strange considering that two lake ports already exist at Port Bell and Jinja, and are both grossly underutilized at present, which could be equally used for this purpose.
Additionally the two countries have reportedly also signed a binding Memorandum of Understanding worth over 3 billion US Dollars, under which the Tanzanian lake port in Musoma and the extension of the Tanga port in Mwambani are to be constructed and of course a direct standard gauge line railway connecting the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria.
The conservation fraternity was seemingly caught unaware by the preceding negotiations between CCECC and the governments in Kampala and Dar es Salaam and the subsequent speedy signing of a contract as people prepared to celebrate Christmas and were probably preoccupied with preparations for the festive season, to watch the development unfold. While the two countries had for some time discussed developing alternative routes to create much needed redundancy between Uganda and Indian Ocean ports the landlocked Pearl of Africa presently depends almost entirely on the main route to the Kenyan port city of Mombasa the lack of funding was seen as the key obstacle to actually drive the project forward.
Some conservation groups in Uganda are presently looking into the procurement process, as past complaints about ignoring or sidelining the relevant law has halted projects dead in their track, and questions are also asked under what authority the government in Kampala has borrowed their share of the reported US Dollars 450 million, again something an increasingly belligerent and assertive parliament would have to consent to in advance.
It is understood from sources close to the action in Kampala that China has offered preferential credit terms to pre-finance the feasibility study, similar to their preparations in building the TAZARA railway line between Dar es Salaam and Lusaka / Zambia in the 70s, and that the entire financing of the project may well also be arranged by China, clearly aiding their desire to establish further political and economic strongholds in the Eastern African region and cement its greater influence on the continent as the hunt for the remaining global resources intensifies.
It is unclear at this stage what, if at all, impact this project will have on other plans promoted by Kenya, to develop a new deep sea harbour in Lamu incidentally also largely to be financed by China it appears with a connecting new standard gauge railway line leading to Southern Sudan and into Ethiopia while the Kenya and Uganda Railways Corporations are also advancing plans to turn the present railway between Mombasa and Kampala into a standard gauge, high speed railway line in coming years.
In Uganda there has also for long been talk of reviving the dormant route from Malaba at the border with Kenya to Gulu and extend it to Juba, the present capital of Southern Sudan, but the presently proposed multiplicity of projects, all seemingly aimed at providing the much required SINGLE redundancy to the present main rail connection, may still cause added consultations and discussions between the partner countries and the financiers, to avoid costly duplication for the purpose of gaining a national advantage instead of focusing on the overall regional needs in terms of infrastructural improvements. That is of particular importance in Tanzania where a rail corridor is also to be developed jointly with Rwanda and probably Burundi and Congo, both of which are said to be keen to get their own rail link connect to that new line from Dar es Salaam. For that project the financing has already advanced and MoUs are in place, as has in the past been reported here. Ugandas response, and here national interests clearly supersede regional interests, was to propose the revival of the Kampala to Kasese rail line, with an extension into the Eastern Congo, while also repeatedly talking of their own add on rail link into Rwanda.
Western development partners, notably including the World Bank, hold regular consultative sessions to compare notes and avoid recipient countries playing them, in the process identifying and eliminating duplications, but as China plays its own power games here, they are not thought to be part of this process as it would arguably limit their own plans and designs for the wider Eastern African region.
Western economic woes at present also reduce the clout of the US and Europe in terms of availing the required major credits, singly or in syndicated formats, and reports of their begging in China for participating in bail outs and stabilization packages for in particular the Euro zone has further cast doubts over Western abilities at this time to fully and effectively participate in what cynical observers have already termed the new Berlin Conference. While not a formal conference the intent though is the same to take over Africa, this time however determined by deep pockets and readily available cheque book diplomacy, almost reminding one of the height of the cold war, except that in this round China is playing the lead fiddle with the Russians and Indians also trying to get into the game with but a few drumbeats in the background.
Chinas charm offensive in Africa, which now dates back at least two decades in earnest, focuses almost entirely on infrastructural developments, following which mining and a rather one sided trade have come into the equation. This cheque book diplomacy as born fruits as Chinese money is not tied to the Western credo of human rights, governmental transparency, best practice and anti corruption measures to name but a few the American and European governments nowadays link to giving aid and financial support, lest they be crucified by their own constituencies at home. Environmental standards for projects too are high on the agenda of Western development partners and the newly emerging world power China seems less concerned about all those requirements to do business and has become a viable alternative in this day and age, as the pilgrimage of African leaders to China and the rapidly expanding presence of the Peoples Republic in Africa, politically, economically and in terms of expatriate labour amply demonstrates.
It is no wonder therefore that the conservation fraternity in Tanzania is deeply suspicious of the Chinese involvement, as best practice is not something commonly embraced by Chinese companies, which have often in the past sought to bypass or circumnavigate environmental requirements by using political interventions and directives.
Ugandan sources close to the action have, upon raising the spectrum of the railway cutting across the Serengeti with them arguably the most direct route from Musoma immediately pointed to the sole responsibility of the Tanzanian government to determine a routing, and urged to await the outcome of the feasibility studies and the various routing alternatives, but had to concede that they would not stand in the way of Tanzania taking their pick of those, even if it would run across the Serengetis migration routes. And here the more suspicious minds amongst the conservation fraternity and environmental groups are already seeing the doomsday scenario for the Serengeti revived, coupling an earlier highway project with a railway. Inspite of a written commitment by the Tanzanian government to UNESCO earlier in the year, that no highway would be built across the park, this was later on exposed as a skillfully crafted lie, as in particular controversial tourism minister Maige had not long afterwards rubbished his own letter to UNESCO, proclaiming that the road would go ahead, nothing new of course for a man who habitually belittles the dangers of mining Uranium in the Selous or denies that the icecap of Kilimanjaro is going to disappear if climate change is not halted or reversed.
The Facebook based Stop the Serengeti Highway movement, now over 44.600 strong and growing, incidentally launched following articles about the then largely unknown plans by the Tanzanian government to build a major road across the Serengeti, has already indicated that they would equally strongly oppose any plans to build a rail line across the park. Those in the know are aware that a rail link would then also open up pending mining concessions in the area between the Serengeti and Musoma and possibly give the much needed green light for a soda ash factory at Lake Natron, another pet project of the Tanzanian President, which could only viably export soda ash using rail transport.
In an article titled The corridor of destruction a series of plans have been exposed and linked together in this format for the first time, of major projects between the Coelacanth habitat at the Tanga Marine National Park at Mwambani all the way across the Serengeti to Lake Victoria, posted on the 01st of May and available via this link: www.wolfganghthome.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/tanzania-conservation-breaking-news-the-corridor-of-destruction-from-the-coast-to-the-lake . The read is giving ample reason to sit back and take a more holistic look at the present Tanzanian governments plans to rapidly exploit its natural resources for short lived profits, eventually leaving a destroyed and diseased habitat behind when the mineral riches have been siphoned away. They are also almost willfully ignoring the other green option, i.e. the sustainable use of its nature and wildlife resources, which in the long run would bring greater economic benefits to the country and the Tanzanian people than allowing foreign greed and hunger for the ever sparser resources our planet has remaining, to dictate which way to go.
In addition has experience shown that poaching is experiencing a particularly sharp upturn near major work camps where Chinese companies, in Eastern and Southern Africa are engaged in big projects, adding this component to the issue of the now proposed railway routings and their impact on biodiversity hotspots. Here again China is in the bad books of the global conservation movements as THE main cause for the increase in poaching in Africa. Chinese citizens relentless hunger and greed for blood ivory and rhino horn, which has now become the number one threat for the survival of not just species but the hugely important safari tourism industry in Eastern and Southern Africa has been the stuff of much chat room and blog comments and with a railway line being constructed from the coast to the lake, workers camps will be set up near protected areas with plenty of opportunity to go out poaching or induce and pay for poaching after hours. From Southern Africa one gruesome story after the next emerges of wholesome slaughter of elephants and rhinos, the latter often found still alive after their horns have been hacked off, leaving them die in sheer agony. The arrival on the East African shores of yet more Chinese funded mega projects is very likely to bring this evil right to the doorsteps of our own national parks here in the region.
The conservation fraternity and environmental watch dogs are still coming to terms with these latest developments, not the least as the timing was well chosen as many, including the investigative media, are off on vacation, but come the first week of the new year, phone lines will run hot again in an effort to assemble and gather as much information about the MoUs as possible and to the evaluate the options, from going to court over local to regional to international lobbying to make certain, that environmental and conservation concerns are not bulldozed aside by the political masters hell bent to turn their pet projects into a legacy.
The question only is, what legacy will that be in the long term? As the saying goes in German und nach mir die Sintflut, none of them will be bothered much of what happens to their countries environment after they are gone, bringing a new meaning to the phrase of burnt earth, the type with a delayed reaction after the profit have been reaped by those with no concern for the long term impact and with the money gone, the resources gone and climate change accelerating unchecked, there may indeed be not just the proverbial burnt earth looming beyond the horizon but a real one
Do I even dare to wish my readers a Happy New Year 2012? Well, I do it anyway as there is always hope and we have prevailed in the past to change or halt seemingly cast in iron projects.
Join or like STOP THE SERENGETI HIGHWAY on Facebook to make your objections known and get the latest updates and information on this newest assault on Tanzanias hitherto still largely pristine environment. And as always, watch this space for breaking news from Eastern Africa and from the Indian Ocean Islands.