Serengeti-road - only crisis or opportunity?
After the most conflicting opinions on the Internet regarding the state of the negotiations about the 'Serengeti Highway', and the following clarification from the Federal Minister Niebel: 'In Paris, the Tanzanian Government expressed an openness to be involved in the planning of alternatives (to the ''Serengeti Highway'')'.
It is perhaps the time to contemplate and highlight the facts once again in an unemotional manner.
It is only possible to offer an unemotional consideration to whatever has led ultimately to the development of the Serengeti Highway, or which could prevent its construction, when one factors in the economic development of both countries in which the Serengeti is situated: Tanzania and Kenya. The largest part of the Serengeti Mara ecosystem is to be found in Tanzanian territory, but Kenya contains, along with the especially fragile Masai Mara, the most important part of the Serengeti, with its roughly three-month long dry season. The Mara River is in addition the most important reservoir of water in the northern ecosystem.
Since its independence Kenya has had a capitalist form of government, whereas until the last twenty years Tanzania has muddled along with socialism. This has led to Kenya, through a massive amount of developmental help from the western world, and a much better building of infrastructure, becoming the strongest national economy of East Africa. Kenya's economic strength is about double that of Tanzania, and that has been the case since the construction of the Trans-Africa Highway from Mombasa to Kampala in Uganda - surfaced and with four lanes over long stretches - along the most important east-west trade route of East Africa. Trade, the availability of transport, logistics, and the provision of services have allowed Kenya to develop more quickly and with more economic success than Tanzania. Even tourism to the country has been, over decades, overtaken by that of Kenya. Tanzania was not able to obtain the amount of help from the western world that Kenya did, and even a modern deep-water port at Tanga remains stuck in the planning stages. Because of the Trans-Africa Highway, the city of Mombasa has risen to become the most important port on the East African coast, well ahead of Durban in South Africa.
Both Kenya and Tanzania are spending huge amounts of money on developing as nature-reserves enormous regions of their territory in addition to the Serengeti area. The non-existence of uncompromising taxation systems, an ineffective administration lacking modern information technology, and corruption, ensure that these reserves are even today highly unprofitable. Both countries constantly require money infusions from the industrialised nations. Also, without international aid and donations, it will certainly not be possible to maintain the nature reserves for much longer.
In Kenya and Tanzania, because of the climate, just 10 to 20% of the national territories can be used as agricultural land.
There are considerations which prevent the realistic maintenance of the nature conservation areas - beyond a notable increase of income and taxation - and also an improvement within the food sources of this quickly growing indigenous population. This leads as usual to local conflicts of interest. Within the large and poor population, acceptance of the idea of nature reserves is steadily dwindling. Land-reforms decided by earlier Kenyan governments, which involved the displacement of pastoral tribes from their agricultural areas, sent the population and its livestock into the Mara ecosystem, where, during the last few decades, numbers have increased umpteen times. The abundance of fodder available in the Masai Mara for livestock and animal breeding has led to the settlement of the previously pastoral-living Masai.
Since that time the strong and steadily growing competition for food between the livestock of the Masai people and the indigenous wild animal population in the Masai Mara is a long-lasting cause for dispute, and causes quickly falling numbers within the latter group.This problem doesn't just extend to the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem alone, for in many other nature conservation areas within East Africa the same problems exist, leading to similar conflicts and decrease of the wild animal population. Even the large lion population of East Africa, regarded earlier as being completely invulnerable, has decreased by around 70%.
In Tanzania, because of the high income from hunting tourism, lions continue to be pursued. Meanwhile, in Kenya, their population has reached such a critical point that we can reckon on them
being extinct in the wild in less than twenty years.
This development clearly means that besides the future maintenance costs of the protected areas in East Africa, enormous sums from financial resources must be expended on compensation, resettlement projects, and the education and training of the nomadic and partly-nomadic population. This could be obtained from adjacent countries, international investment funds, or charitable organisations alone. In addition to this, there is a need of strongly sustainable economic growth, aided by the industrialised nations, in order to increase national income directed towards development.
We in the West tend to believe that all of Africa's problems lead back predominantly to corruption, and this does actually apply within many sectors. In the absence of functioning economic processes and taxation systems, salaries and wages, (most of which in any case are well below subsistence level), corruption in many parts of Africa has developed what might be called a 'shadow' economic system. Everybody tries to earn a living by soliciting business with others, in order to somehow feed themselves and their family. Because of this, the state coffers of African nations, whether large or small, lose enormous amounts of money. This can only be stemmed through a policy of development which offers much stronger education and training possibilities, and also puts into place properly functioning administration systems.
To summarise: the necessity of economic growth in East Africa cannot be purely for the benefit of the elite or the corrupt upper class, (as is commonly thought), but above all for fundamental
things like ensuring that the population is fed, be that through farming or the additional purchase of food. Without an improvement of the economic situation, agriculture will penetrate further
and further into the conservation areas. The northern Masai Mara - from the North Bridge up to Aitong, most suitable for the farming of wheat or maize - will in fewer than twenty years be under
the plough, through continuous negative development, and with it a domino-effect will be triggered, which won't stop when it reaches other natural areas. We can presume that the worldwide desire
for ecological fuels from bio-mass will just accelerate this effect. These consequences will exceed the damage brought about by the building of the 'Serengeti Highway' by a long way; not only
will the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem thereby collapse, but also many other nature reserves.
Therefore we nature conservationists first have to accept that East Africa has the same right to economic development that we in western industrialised nations have presumed, with little regard for our own environment.
There is particular interest in the idea that, in East Africa, with the right planning of the infrastructure and other measures, a sustainable economy could be developed, from which the maintenance of the enormous protected areas is not excluded, and which could even be combined with a marked increase in national income.
The present situation
Safari tourism still provides Kenya and Tanzania with the biggest part of their foreign income. A disruption or downturn within the tourist trade would lead immediately to yet more massive
payment problems in both countries, and would have a braking effect on further economic development.
It is possible to develop sustainable economic growth for Kenya and Tanzania, apart from tourism, but only through the expansion of trade, the provision of services, or the refining of raw materials. The basis of this would be the trade routes from Central Africa to the ports on the Indian Ocean.
After a broad, far-reaching establishment of peace in the Congo, (with its extremely high ore, mineral and other raw material deposits), these trade routes, with all their associated service provisions, could develop into a multi-million-dollar business.
The only established trade route with freight-capacity worth mentioning goes presently through Mombasa in Kenya. The country is now in need of an addtional deep-water port to increase the present freight-capacity, and proposals have been advanced to build one on land rented to Qatar. This would be close to Lamu, the historic town on the Tana Delta, an important and irretrievable wetland system. It is obvious that Kenya is just as ready as Tanzania to sell its spirit of nature conservation, and offer its large natural spaces to economic growth.
It is perfectly understandable that Tanzania does not want to cede future businesses and trade routes from Central Africa to the Indian Ocean to the Kenyans alone. The country is therefore
planning some ways in which it might reasonably participate. When looking at the construction of its own first trade route, the obvious answer appears to be the shortest route, which would go
through the Serengeti, and the financing of which could be effected by the simultaneous opening up of the mineral deposits at Lake Natron.
But it remains very questionable as to whether the mining of the soda ashes found there would lead to economic success, as Tanzania would of course be in direct competition with the USA, the mineral's world market leader, with over-sufficient supplies and resources at its disposal, and well able to crowd out and ruin the competition. An increase of the market volume would lead furthermore to a simultaneous, proportional fall in the world market prices, and in Tanzania, as with the earlier bulk buying of sisal, the idea would very quickly become economically unviable. In addition, through the exploitation of the soda ashes at Lake Natron, a large proportion of the East African flamingo population would be disturbed, and with that Tanzania would lose a further source of income which until now has hardly been accessed.
The map indicates quite clearly that the present planned route through the Serengeti (shown in red), would hardly be in a position to effect a decrease in Kenya of its serious share of the market in trade and transportation to Central Africa. A competitive situation between Kenya and Tanzania would also make no sense. The budgets of both nations would be put under yet more pressure, and the bilateral relationship would deteriorate to the extent that a future working relationship in nature conservancy and tourism would be extremely difficult.
For the red route to be economically successful, Tanzania also requires, (in addition to the deep water harbour that it is hoped China will build at Tanga), a modern container terminal on Lake Victoria, with a high capacity for heavy goods vehicles, in order to bridge the roughly two hundred kilometer long shipping route to Kampala in Uganda. It might never be possible to obtain the overall amount of investment for the planned road construction through the Serengeti, and the development of a ferry connection with an appropriately high heavy goods vehicle capacity, because of possible competition with the existing Kenyan Trans-Africa Highway to Kampala (marked green on the map). In particular, Kenya could also respond with its own, shorter ferry connection, thus linking the new, surfaced Nairobi-Narok road with Lake Victoria.
It is quite possible that the route known as the 'Serengeti Highway' will totally destroy the annual migration within the Serengeti, and would consequently lead to a considerable loss of income from tourism for both countries.
Economically worthwhile for Tanzania is simply the construction of a main arterial road (marked blue on the map), going south of the Serengeti in the direction of Mwanza, around the emerging Rwanda, and with Burundi and the Congo on its direct route before reaching the Indian Ocean. The present transport capacity of existing roads and rail connections from Kenya or Tanzania to Central Africa is nowhere near able to cover present, let alone future, demands. The existing roads and tracks which could possibly be developed are indicated on the map by perforations, as are also route changes depending on topography, and perhaps detouring new buildings. It is easy to see that the construction costs of this route are hardly any higher than that of the highway leading through the Serengeti. After peace is brought to the Congo, the new trade route might even become an even bigger economic success than the Kenyan Trans-Africa Highway, without consequently compromising the economic development of Kenya. It might even be possible to hope that the opening up of new markets for the Congo would lead to to a quicker establishment of peace within the country; Tanzania and Kenya could then perhaps profit through its trade routes.
With this road implementation inside the protected zones the Serengeti would remain undisturbed, and another plus is that the route offers many advantages for a better and ecologically-worthwhile touristic development within the whole region. The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem covers around 40,000 square kilometres, and has had a good ten percent of its surface area exploited by intense and disruptive tourism for a for a very long time. If the planners linked the new southern bypass road, through the upgrading of the existing tracks, up until Narok in Kenya, the northern point of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, the Serengeti could be used in its entirity (indicated in orange on the map). Thus the current and disruptive clogging of mass tourism within limited areas would be allowed to markedly slacken off. Touristic ventures could plan completely new routes, also involving Lake Victoria, and open up a whole range of new destinations for the growing market of 'eco-tourism', and in which the native population would also be involved. In particular, the area from Mwanza to Musoma and up to the Kenyan Trans-Mara region can be much better developed than by a road implementation directly through the Serengeti. If the upgrading and modernisation of the airport at Mwanza on Lake Victoria was brought into consideration, a third point of entry for tourism to the Serengeti could be opened up in addition to Nairobi and Arusha. By the use of appropriate planning, tourism in the environs of the Serengeti-Mara could perhaps be more than doubled. It could then also become more relaxed, and nature- and environmentally-friendly, through visitation restrictions, (flexible or enforced), for example: three days visiting northern Masai Mara, likewise three in Central Mara and then South Mara, and in the same manner through the Serengeti.
It is absolutely clear that this great opportunity for nature conservancy and sustainable economic development in East Africa is not only feasible, but with appropriate planning and implementation could lead to a total win-win situation for Tanzania and Kenya, the two countries in which the Serengeti is located.
Therefore Kenya must also become fully involved here, and not just from the viewpoint of nature conservancy. A future, successful tourism concept in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem can only be acquired when both countries work together. It might also be worthwhile to re-open the Serengeti-Mara border crossing on the Sand River for touristic purposes. The success of a cross-border tourist concept has been more than proven by, for example, the ski-routes (inter-linked ski areas) in the Alps. A joint East African tourist visa could lower administrative expenses for all parties with vested interests, including the tourist.
However, for the success of both of them, the preservation of the Masai Mara must be urgently considered in the future tourism planning of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The former has already
lost more than seventy percent of its animal stock, and the predators, notably the big cats, can nowadays hardly find enough food to survive.
Kenya must finally get its homework done on the Mara ecosystem, and not think about relying any further on the quick, destructive profit that can be made from the tourist trade; it also needs to reduce its agriculture and livestock breeding within the heartland. If not, then in only a few years the Mara will be left with the consequences of the construction of the Serengeti Highway, which have already been identified.
Dr. Richard Leakey, in an interview concerning the nature conservancy situation in Kenya, above all that in the Mara ecosystem, was asked why his country continues to conduct itself in such a manner regarding the possible consequences of the Serengeti Highway. He gave a very apposite response:
"People who live in glass houses don't throw stones for a good reason".
A drastic decline of the income from tourism through the loss of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem would strike Kenya and Tanzania equally, and it would take years to compensate these losses to the
national economies of both countries.
No matter how one regards it, whether from an ecological or economic standpoint, the Serengeti Highway makes economically no sense at all, and harms the natural environment and possible economic development of Tanzania and Kenya in the most grievous manner.
The construction of an alternative, new trade route from Tanzania to Central Africa would not only preserve the Serengeti and revive the Tanzanian economy, it would simultaneously offer an enormous opportunity for the future for many millions of people from the heart of Africa, which has been ruptured by civil wars.
© Uwe Skrzypczak, August 2011