A highway through the Serengeti- a ridiculous road to take.
It can be difficult, as an outsider, to give opinions on how Tanzania can help itself. Tanzanians are rightly proud of their nation and the independence they struggled for and it’s understandable when they chose to stick by a major decision in the face of outside disagreement. The country, like a child stepping into adulthood, wishes to assert its own ideas and stick by them in a bid to be able to stand without support. There is also the fear a white outsider, such as myself, feels for being compared to an arrogant colonial when imposing personal ideas. After all, surely a Tanzanian would know what is best for his own country?
But when I recently read about the government’s plans to build a road through the natural magic that is the Serengeti, I couldn’t help but feel horror and disgust on a scale that begged to be made known.
Not only would the road, I was shocked to learn, cut directly through the centre of the park but it would sever the route of the world famous wildebeest migration.
I’ve heard the arguments for the construction: it will open up the districts of Monduli, Ngorongoro, Serengeti and Musoma Rural and increase the trade, commerce and quality human of life in those areas. According to President Kikwete, the project is of high economic importance to the nation.
So, Mr President, is the ecosystem that you’re planning to dissect. Tourism accounts for around a quarter of the nation’s GDP and it is precisely the untamed wilderness that brings the tourists in. It’s safe to say that foreigners won’t visit if the ecosystem they’ve dreamed about for so long is brutally sliced by raging cars and trucks.
The Frankfurt Zoological Society reports that recent calculations have shown that, if the wildebeest were to be cut off from their only permanent water source, the Mara River, as would happen if the road were built, the population would decline from 1.3 million animals to around 200,000. This would be the end of the Great Serengeti Migration.
There are other options for where the road can be built. Prof. Anthony Sinclair from the Department of Zoology at the University of Columbia is considered a world authority on the ecology of the Serengeti. After researching, he’s concluded, along with many other foreigners and Tanzanians alike, that directing the road to the South of the park would not only protect the park but would be more economically rational, as more people would be served by the road, such as those in the town of Mwanza.
According to the Frankfurt Zoological Society, this alternative route has already been surveyed by the government and would connect five times as many people as the Northern route, while still achieving the planned end of connecting particular regional centres.
Perhaps in Tanzania the wildlife is taken for granted. For instance, elephants are frequently seen as a pest by farmers. This is understandable. But it cannot be emphasised enough how foreigners like me see the Serengeti. We’ve seen documentaries about it from a young age. It appears as a distant, unreal land from a dream planet untainted by humans. It is also what many first think of when they think of Africa, as if the entire continent was lucky enough to be like it.
The entire continent is not like it. In fact it is the only place in the world like it. It is incredibly special and doesn’t take the brains of an archbishop to realise there’s a duty to preserve it.
I’ve read a Tanzanian journalist who suggests that the building of the road is simply a political ploy from the CCM. It was first coined around election time in 2005 and now, with fresh elections on the horizon, the idea is resurfacing. Indeed, the government has been dismissive in the face of huge international criticism. In loyalty to her political party, Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Shamsa Mwangunga, defended the road on the grounds that the party must follow through on a campaign promise.
That’s a weak excuse when alternatives are viable.
She also claimed that: “Those criticising the road construction know nothing about what we’ve got planned…We’re all keen to preserve our natural resources”. Really? Prove it then! Words are easy but you’ll be judged on actions alone. If the many critics know “nothing” about it, why don’t you inform them!
In a country where money and power are such obviously desired attributes, I myself am very sceptical of the government’s motives. Until they prove otherwise, I’ll remain that way.
(For more information on the planned highway, visit the Frankfurt Zoology Institute’s website at www.zgf.de)