I was at the National Geographic offices in Washington DC when it was announced that the Tanzanian Minister for tourism had issued a statement that the controversial Serengeti highway had been canned.
A huge cheer went up. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone but me thought that this was a good thing. I was not convinced that the the statement meant what everyone thought it did.
I don’t have to tell you about the negative stare down I received, I even had a couple of arguments with people who accused me of simply being negative and pessimistic. I looked deep inside, I don’t feel that way, I like to think of myself as a realist, someone who listens to her gut. It doesn’t always work so I search all sources to inquire why my gut is giving out warning signals.
When I was asked for a quote for a National Geographic news article, I toned down what I really wanted to say and instead said “We would like to see a stronger commitment that defends the Serengeti in to perpetuity. As it now stands, there is no promise not to go ahead with preexisting plans once the heat is off. It’s happened before.”
They took my comments seriously and titled the piece “Is the Serengeti Highway really canceled?”
The way I see it, the president of Tanzania made a campaign promise to his people who voted for him because he put their needs first. The official statement saying the plans were off, was signed by the Minister for tourism not the President. This is a strong sign that the President may not agree with the decision and he can overturn a ministers decision at any moment.
It was clear from the outset that the Tanzanian authorities are going to first “ address the socio economic needs of communities in Northern Tanzania” and secondly “safe guarding the outstanding universal value (OUV) of the Serengeti National Park.” If safeguarding the Serengeti was their first priority the issue of the road would never have come up in the first place.
My third source of “gut alarm” comes from the feeling (and I could be wrong on this) that the Tanzanian Minister for Tourism has been strong-armed by outsiders, individuals organizations and governments into making the statement. This is not a sustainable way of doing conservation in Africa. We heard that the IUCN, World Heritage Commission, German Government, US Government and many tour companies had put pressure on the Tanzanian authorities not to mention the facebook site and numerous blogs and petitions. The campaign has been incredible and effective but at what cost?
The reality is that Tanzania, like Kenya and many other countries in Africa, aspires to become an industrial nation and to do this they must seek the most economical way of growing their economy. Conservationists, me included, have been focused only on the threat of this road to the Serengeti, and I don’t think we have tried hard enough to understand that the that the main purpose of the road was to develop two struggling isolated towns of Musoma and Mwanza on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria. These two towns desperately need the road, it will enable them to become become major lake port cities connecting Tanzania to massive trading opportunities in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo.
As conservation groups, we have focused on the impact of the road on the wildebeest migration and loss of associated tourism benefits, but I’m not sure that anybody has calculated if that loss outweighs the economic imperative to diversify Tanzanian industry? In Kenya we have all seen how fickle tourism can be.
Today the Tanzanian government is saying that the road will be built, but it just won’t be paved. The world has erupted in shock and horror that they seem to be taking back what was said earlier. Why are we surprised? They have done this twice before.
Our inflexibility as conservationists may eventually take us out of the discussion, and prevent us from participating in developing new, ambitious and creative ways of promoting conservation AND development. The Serengeti IS globally important but ordinary and very poor Tanzanians are paying for it’s survival – for what gain? For them, it probably feels like they are paying the costs of saving a resource that only international tourists can afford to enjoy.
I think that we need to re-frame our approach if we are to win the hearts and minds of governments, and local people. Involvement of Tanzanians must be genuine and fair. If we are to save the Serengeti from this and many other threats that it faces, we need good science, and we must listen to the voices of Africans and treat this as a very African issue.
So, maybe it’s a wild idea but conservationists aren’t allergic to wild ideas, why don’t we start supporting Tanzania in thinking creatively about building a road that serves both the wildlife and the development needs of Tanzania?
Paula Kahumbu is the Executive Director of Wildlife Direct. She has a PhD from Princeton University and is the winner of the National Geographic/Buffett award for conservation leadership in Africa 2011. She is also a National Geographic emerging Explorer 2011.