Dar es Salaam — Despite the great uproar raised internationally against the proposed highway across the Serengeti National Park, the government is yet to come to a conclusion about the project, it was officially learnt here yesterday.
“In principle, the government has not made any decision on the construction of the road,” Natural Resources and Tourism minister, Mr Ezekiel Maige affirmed to The Citizen.
“An environmental impact assessment that will guide the government whether to implement the project or not is underway,” the minister added, reacting to reports that a Nairobi-based non-governmental organisation has filed a case at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) seeking to restrain Tanzania from carrying out the 53km project.
According to the minister, the government, which has always been keen on safeguarding the country’s wildlife for posterity, was still consulting various authorities on the issue.
On Friday the African Network for Animal Welfare (Anaw), a continental body working in conservation and animal welfare, sought an interim order of injunction from the EACJ to block the project on grounds that the road would damage the park’s ecology.
Lawyer Saitabao ole Kanchory of Kanchory & Co filed the case on behalf of Anaw at the EACJ in Arusha asking for an injunction on the road project, which has generated much debate in recent months.
Anaw also asked the court to declare that construction of the proposed road was unlawful and infringed on the provisions of the Treaty establishing the East African Community (EAC).
According to Ole Kanchory, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, the move to go to court by Anaw follows Tanzania’s persistence to implement the road project despite criticisms from conservation lobby groups and wildlife experts.
Last month the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) urged the government to abandon the project for the sake of safeguarding the country’s cultural heritage.
“Modern economy should not by any means be at the expense of nature, or at the expense of culture,” said Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova.
“I know that the pressure of modernity is very high,” she said. “Countries must make a balance between preserving their heritage sites and developing their economy.”
In a desperate attempt to save the world heritage site from losing its outstanding universal value, heads of three global environmental conservation organisations, including Unesco, in July and August this year formally appealed to President Jakaya Kikwete to re-examine the proposed highway through the Serengeti.
Chief executive officers of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Commission on Protected Areas and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) made the appeal that was instantly supported by Unesco.
In their letters to the President, they said that the park was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981 by virtue of its exceptional importance for the conservation of biodiversity, the rare and endangered species it harbours, and the area’s annual wildebeest migration that is recognised as one of the most impressive natural events in the world. The spectacular annual migration of 1.4 million wildebeest and 500,000 zebra trailed by carnivores from Tanzania into Kenya, crossing the Mara River, has for decades attracted global tourism to Tanzania.
IUCN is the world’s largest and oldest global environmental network, and the World Commission on Protected Areas is the world’s foremost authority on protected areas, while Unesco is mandated to conserve the world’s heritage. WWF, an international non-governmental organization, works on issues related to conservation, research and restoration of the environment.
“Your country’s national parks play a vital role in conserving biodiversity and therefore providing a solid foundation for the prosperity and health of your citizens,” the chief executives observed, cautioning that a road into this protected area would lead to irretrievable biodiversity loss.
The global concern about the Serengeti arises from the fact that the park is regarded as the last place on earth that represents how the world looked a million years ago.
Opponents of the project argue that the road would damage the integrity and conservation values of the Serengeti World Heritage Site by causing increased levels of poaching and trafficking of wildlife products, rising levels of air and water pollution and introducing and enabling the spread of invasive species.
A highway snaking across this wilderness would cost $480 million (approximately Sh372 billion).
In his first contest for the State House in 2005, President Kikwete was on record as promising to construct the 480km highway linking Arusha to the lakeside port of Musoma.
Before this year’s general election, former Natural Resources and Tourism minister, Ms Shamsa Mwangunga, had said the government was obliged to fulfil the CCM campaign promise on the highway.
But it is widely feared that a highway constructed through the iconic World Heritage Site such as Serengeti National Park sets a very serious precedent and risks damaging Tanzania’s respected international reputation.
Meanwhile, the WWF International top brass has proposed three alternative roads, pledging to offer technical assistance to the government for development of the routes.