After months of intense lobbying, the Unesco World Heritage Committee has finally granted Tanzania’s request to hive off part of Selous Game Reserve to allow mining of uranium in one of the largest remaining wildernesses in Africa.
Monday’s decision comes as a great relief to the government, whose plan to alter the boundaries of Selous met strong opposition from environmentalists on the grounds that mining in the World Heritage Site would have disastrous consequences.They argued that mining of uranium had caused devastating environmental and health damage wherever it had been done.
But, at a meeting in St Petersburg in the Russian Federation from June 24 to 6 July 2012, the committee unanimously approved Tanzania’s request to modify the boundary of the game reserve by 0.8 per cent.
The decision means that some 19,793 hectares (nearly 200 square kilometres) to the south of the Selous, where uranium deposits are found, will also be excluded.
The deputy minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Mr Lazaro Nyalandu, was quick to thank members of the World Heritage Committee, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Heritage Centre and all those who supported the country’s application.
He reiterated Tanzania’s commitment to conservation and added that the decision taken by the Committee gave the country an opportunity to address social and economic challenges and also acquire resources to further strengthen the management of the game reserve. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1982, Selous covers more than 50,000 square kilometres. It is home to the largest population of elephants on the continent.
According to Unesco, the five million-hectare game reserve also has large numbers of black rhinos, cheetahs, giraffes, hippos and crocodiles—along with grasslands and miombo forests. Its diverse landscape retains undisturbed biological and ecological processes. Tanzania applied for permission to alter the boundaries of Selous in January 2011, arguing that extracting uranium in the area was critical for funding development programmes and driving the economy.
The project will be carried out by an Australian uranium mining firm called Mantra Resources at a cost of $400million.
Some environmentalists and politicians, including a handful of MPs, have consistently voiced strong criticism to the mining plan. They maintain that the project will have devastating consequences on the economic and social fronts and deal a major blow to the ecology.
German environmentalists and conservationists were in the forefront in the campaign, arguing that the country risked environmental degradation and significant pollution of land and water. They wrote to President Jakaya Kikwete, through the Tanzanian ambassador in Berlin, to complain that the project was being pursued irrespective of the potential damage to the environment and the country’s biodiversity.
The groups threatened to build a global alliance similar to the Stop the Serengeti Highway coalition which has spread around the globe.
Some environmentalists suggested that the decision to mine the uranium may have already been taken before an environmental assessment was done. The government is projected to earn $5 million (about Sh8 billion) a year from the mining while companies are projecting $200 million (about Sh320 billion) in annual earnings.
The Natural Resources and Tourism Minister then, Mr Ezekiel Maige, said the earnings would supplement the cost of managing the park and create jobs for about 1,600 Tanzanians.
Tanzania spends about $490,000 (about Sh780 million) a year to manage Selous.
The government believes the income from mining could also help pay for guards to stop poaching.