It was reported overnight that Tanzanian President Kikwete demanded the fast tracking of a proposed soda ash extraction plant at Lake Natron, when visiting the Ministry of Industry and Trade. This confirms a long-harbored and long-suggested suspicion that the construction of the equally-controversial highway through the Serengeti is primarily motivated and driven by industrial and mining considerations. The Tanzania government has been saying that the highway is “in the interest of the people.” Perhaps the public did not realize that the government meant just a few of the poeple.
President Kikwete tried to lessen the blow when mentioning the plant should be constructed a few kilometers away from the lake to avoid disturbing the large flamingo populations, which use the shores of Lake Natron as the only viable breeding place across the entire East Africa. However, conservationists consulted overnight – the story broke yesterday (Friday) – to ascertain the impact of such plans and the viability of moving the plant machinery a few kilometers. They all said in unison that as the deposits of soda ash are “in the lake,” the extraction has to take place there. The placement of any machinery, use of large lorries, and presence of workers would inevitably drive the birds off their breeding grounds. Even the construction of pipelines and a pumping station to extract the soda ash would create major disturbances, in particular as the intake position needs to be constantly moved to “suck up” the minerals from the shallow lake floor.
Said one specialist in flamingo behavioral patterns: “The birds are spread over the alkaline Rift Valley lakes in Kenya and Tanzania for much of the year, providing a big spectacle for tourists. They, however, do not breed there and return to Lake Natron for breeding and rearing their young ones before they can fly back to their feeding locations.
“The lake shores at Natron provide an ideal environment for the birds. They make nests using mud, and the heat of the day assists the eggs to mature. Natron is the only known place where the East African flamingos go to breed and us ornithologists are not aware of any other place where the annual mass breeding takes place.
“When NEMC [US National Environmental Monitoring Conference] made their investigation, some people from the developers went to the lake shores and pointed out there were no or few birds only, but they conveniently chose times when the flamingos were not there for breeding, which is only happening at intervals. Then they claimed we were trying to protect ’empty mud flats’ but everyone with at least a bit of an interest knows that the birds return there regularly, lay eggs, and when the young ones have hatched and matured, fly off again. We cannot make that any clearer and my Tanzanian colleagues concur.
“It is not true that because I am Kenyan I have been ‘bought to deny Tanzania development.’ Me and my colleagues’ interest is to see we ensure the long-term survival of the flamingos, because they are a natural asset worth protecting, and they, by the way, are also found in Tanzania, not just Kenya.”
In his directive, President Kikwete spoke of over 300 million tons of soda ash deposits, claiming the untapped riches must be exploited. He cited the Magadi Soda Ash operation on the Kenyan side of the Rift Valley floor as an excuse to wreck the last breeding refuge of the East African flamingo population.
Calling opponents of the plans unpatriotic, he laid down the gauntlet to the conservation fraternity and opened the doors for ruthless pursuit of anyone speaking out against such plans. According to past practices in Tanzania, this may well include trumped-up charges against individuals, sackings from government positions, hounding by sycophantic supporters, and worse. He also accused critics to be “agents of someone,” adding further fuel to the now all but inevitable drive to crush any opposition to his plans, muzzle the media, and denounce conservationists as “traitors to progress.”
Most notable, the refusal last year of the National Environmental Management Council (NEMC) will be tossed aside, as the minister hastily promised to have the final preparations ready by the end of April, unless he wished to incur the wrath of “his boss.” The NEMC denied approvals for the project’s clearance over environmental concerns and lack of mitigative measures available to safeguard the breeding grounds of the flamingos.
NEMC had proposed to use a pipeline – in itself also problem ridden with no clear mitigation assurance – to extract the soda ash and locate the plant some distance away in Loliondo. This was rejected by the Indian-based developers as too costly. Subsequently, rumors emerged that a “deal” was struck ahead of last year’s elections in Tanzania when the ruling party suddenly started to splash out money to ensure – some said buy – elections success, within particular opposition camps. This immediately pointed to the funding coming from industrial groups around the world lined up for mining concessions to be granted to them in return.
The controversial Serengeti highway is clearly the main transportation link for those interests. As with the flamingo breeding grounds, so the migration of the great herds of wildebeest and zebras will have to make way for powerful industrial and financial interest groups in the good books of President Kikwete.
Expect more revelations in the coming weeks and months as the pace to give mining right concessions to developers and break founding father Nyerere’s commitment to protect the priceless natural resources and national parks gathers more speed.