UNESCO statement raises false hope of Serengeti highway cancellation

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2011:
United Nations Educational & Scientific Organization on June 24,
2011 declared victory over the Tanzanian government plan to build a
highway crossing Serengeti National Park, but apparently had not
examined the details of the letter from Tanzanian Natural Resources
and Tourism Minister Ezekiel Maige that prompted the celebration.
“The Serengeti road project has not been abandoned. We have
just revised it. I don’t know where all this confusion comes from,”
Maige told Reuters reporter Fumbuka Ng’wanakilala on July 1, 2011.

But by then the erroneous UNESCO statement had already been
amplified around the world for a week, touching off premature
celebrations by animal and environmental advocates. Ecological
Internet of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, even issued a
fundraising appeal crediting itself with “successfully leading”
international opposition to the Serengeti highway. The appeal was
dated June 23, 2011–one day before the UNESCO announcement, albeit
one day after Maige actually wrote his letter.
“We expect many more victories of this sort over the coming
years,” said Ecological Internet president Glen Barry.
Opened the June 24 UNESCO statement, “In an important
decision taken at the current session of the World Heritage Committee
at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, the United Republic of
Tanzania has stated it will reconsider its North Road project. The
alternative,” said UNESCO, “is to maintain the 53-kilometer stretch
of gravel road mainly for tourism and administrative purposes, as it
is currently, with the Committee calling upon the international
community to provide support for an alternative route, running south
of Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation area.”
Among the first public skeptics was Africa Network for Animal
Welfare founder Josphat Ngonyo. “Our lawyer has advised that we
should not celebrate until we obtain a court commitment that no
development whatsoever or upgrade will be carried out on the road,”
Ngonyo e-mailed to ANIMAL PEOPLE on June 24, soon after the UNESCO
announcement was made.
WildlifeDirect executive director Paula Kahambu was also
skeptical. Blogged Kahambu on July 7, 2011, “I was at the National
Geographic offices in Washington D.C. 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. I was not convinced that the statement
meant what everyone thought it did. 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. Why are we surprised?
They have done this twice before.”
Luke Dollar of the National Geo-graphic Big Cat Initiative
acknowledged Kahambu’s doubts, deep in the June 24 National
Geographic NewsWatch coverage.
“After a closer look at the official Tanzanian statement,
it’s questions, not toasts, that are being raised, and
conservationists are divided as to whether it means the highway is
truly canceled,” blogged Ker Than for National Geographic News on
June 28, 2011, as the reality of the matter emerged.
Said Serengeti Watch, a web site hosted by Earth Island
Institute, “Unfortunately, some in the media have claimed a great
victory for conservation. Those who have pushed for a commercial
route through the Serengeti can claim victory as well. If their
plans continue, they will get their road across the Serengeti. They
will get improved connecting roads on either side of the park. They
will get a bonus southern route around the Serengeti.
“The current Tanzanian government has been refused funds for
the Serengeti highway by every major donor, government, and lending
institution in the world,” Serengeti Watch continued. “Those who
want a true commercial highway clearly cannot achieve it now. But
they can make inroads and later connect the dots. In its recent
letter to the World Heritage Committee,” Serengeti Watch pointed
out, the government of Tanzania stated that the road through the
Serengeti will not be paved, but will ‘remain gravel road.’ The
truth, however, is more complicated. No gravel road exists across
this 53-kilometer stretch. Much of this area is designated as a
wilderness zone, with no public access.”
Wrote Ngonyo to the World Heritage Committee, “It was with
relief and jubilation that ANAW initially received media reports that
the Tanzanian government had agreed to abandon the Trans-Serengeti
road project. We were, however, disappointed to find out that far
from promising to stop the construction of the road, the letter of
the Tanzanian Minister for Natural Resources dated June 22, 2011
addressed to you actually affirms that ‘the proposed road will be
ANAW, pursuing a lawsuit against the Serengeti highway,
“was in court on June 29, 2011,” Ngonyo wrote. “The Attorney
General of Tanzania, who was represented in court, did not give any
indication to us or to the court that the project had been shelved or
reviewed in any way.”
But Kahambu acknowledged that she had rethought her own position.
“Conservationists, me included, have been focused only on
the threat of this road to the Serengeti,” Kahambu posted, “and I
don’t think we have tried hard enough to understand 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.”
The planned road “will enable them to become become major
lake port cities connecting Tanzania to massive trading opportunities
in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo,” Kahambu wrote. “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.”
Suggested Kahambu, “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?”


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