Victory in the Serengeti!

Victory in the Serengeti!

On November 9, 2010, I posted this graphic above my blog suggesting the Tanzanians would eventually back down from building a road through the Serengeti.
As I’ve been suggesting for a year, the “Serengeti Highway” will not be built through the park, but will be built right up to the eastern edge, and the goal of reaching the Lake Victoria port of Mwanza will be pursued as a new southern road from Arusha.

Wednesday, the Tanzanian government released a letter to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site office, which had threatened to remove World Heritage Status from the Serengeti if it were bisected by the highway, confirming that a paved west/east road through the neck of the park had been scrapped.

This is not a total victory, but a significant one. Let me explain why it’s not total.

Right now commercial traffic does move through the Serengeti, but it’s laborious. A paved road leads to the entry to the Ngorongoro Conservation Authority (NCA), and it’s then gravel for a long way, 5-6 hours to the Serengeti’s western gate.

What is planned, now, is for a new paved road to the eastern edge of the Serengeti, which will then continue as a new (short) gravel road to the existing gravel thoroughfare that runs roughly from Lobo to the western gate. When completed this “new route” will cut down the existing travel time through the Serengeti from 5-6 hours to about 3-4 hours.

The “new route” will also be significantly easier, as it will be straighter and less hilly than the winding cloud forest road through the NCA. So there will definitely be a new incentive for commercial traffic to increase once the route is completed.

But it is still likely a toss-up for commercial traffic to take this [faster] route rather than start from Arusha in a northwesterly direction on paved roads the whole way. This and the fact all roads within the park will remain unpaved are significant disincentives to commercial travel.

So in this sense it ends at least for the time being nearly two years of the most aggressive efforts by conservationists and scientists worldwide to alter a local country’s management of its sovereign wilderness.

Don’t pop the champagne.

First, this could not have been easy for the Tanzanians to have done. They have backed down. Can anyone imagine Eric Cantor backing down? Some creative spinning and long-term vengeance is in the political forecast.

Second, the real reasons for abandoning the project may not be known for some time, and I believe the main one is economic and strictly so. If I’m right, when the economic situation improves, the issue could reemerge.

Third, there is enough ambiguity in the letter that a flipflop would be easy … at any time.

Certainly there are recent indications that foreign donors – including the United States – engaged in some hard bargaining which may result in greater foreign aid to Tanzania, and likely for the construction of that southern road.

Hillary Clinton was in a specially good bargaining position last week. She was in Dar when the al-Qaeda leader, Mohammed Fazul, was killed in Somalia, and when his passport revealed that the only country which had given him safe haven was Tanzania.

What she told Tanzanian officials about Fazul’s capture is not known, and what was released instead included her reprimand about building a highway through the Serengeti.

Clinton was only the last of a long list of prominent diplomats who opposed the highway. Consortiums of scientists and wildlife organizations presented an impressive array of opposition, too. I remain seriously disappointed that our own American consortium of zoos was unable to get it together to join the impressive team.

An effort to get AZA, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to join the world conservation opposition failed last year.

The first suggestions about the road came in early September, 2009, when East Africa was not yet suffering the world economic depression. What is hard for westerners to understand is that much of the developing world, and East Africa in particular, actually experienced increased growth until virtually this year.

But this year has hit East Africa very hard. Most prominently, the master road-builder China is reassessing its aid to East Africa and the world economic recession means that year after year, now, there is less to give to Africa.

Tanzanian president Kikwete is bound by a net of politics to help the Maasai in Loliondo, just to the east of the Serengeti. He linked this good, ostensible need with a bevy of corrupt components to give it a PR smile.

He can forego the corrupt goals, but the Maasai goal can’t be abandoned. This is the reason the government said, and I knew they would always have to deliver, a paved road up to the eastern edge of the park.

With less aid that will be difficult, now. But I feel that actually takes precedence over the grand scheme of linking Arusha with Mwanza, linking Tanzania’s northern heart to Lake Victoria. The priority must be the road to Loliondo.

So what happens when that is completed, but money runs out for the much more expensive southern road?

It depends. It depends upon how well tourism fairs in this down economic times. It depends upon how well Bilila Lodge (which was in the route of the old proposed highway), in which the president holds personal and substantial stock, does.

It depends upon whether the Grumeti Reserves continue to draw too much water from Lake Victoria. It depends upon whether American hedge fund traders do well enough to build the new Serengeti headquarters as they’ve promised.

It depends upon how prominent the opposition MP from Arusha, Godbless Lema, fairs in the next couple years.

All of these depends reduce to this:

If foreign donors put up the funds and build the southern road before all of the above depends play themselves out, the Serengeti is safe for another decade or two. If they don’t, it all depends.