Talk of airport near Serengeti raising conservation questions again


(eTN) – With the contentious and potentially lethal Serengeti Highway not yet fully out of the picture, and the route of a proposed railway line to and from Tanga to Musoma on Lake Victoria kept a tightly-guarded secret, rousing more suspicion about another battle between conservationists and politicians looming in the distance, it is now news about an equally-contentious project to build an international airport near the Serengeti at Mugumu which is raising the temperatures once again.

The current management plan for the greater Serengeti ecosystem, drawn up in 2005, specifically mentions human settlements and encroachment as one of the Serengeti’s greatest future threats, urging the authorities to refrain from encouraging ever more people moving into the border areas of this UNESCO World Heritage site, something a major aviation facility will inevitably prompt, being located so close by and requiring a large number of staff and a constant flow of supplies to keep it going.

“We have been opposing this airport development for reasons which are self evident. Poaching in and around the Serengeti have been on the rise. Mwanza is an existing international airport which should be enlarged and modernized and from there, small planes can reach all the airstrips in the Grumeti Sector and the main Serengeti very fast.

“If you put up a new international airport at Mugumu, it requires a complete back up with a logistics train involving fuel, catering supplies, and a constant movement of a large number of staff. Take offs and landing will mean aircraft are flying low and that noise will have an impact on the wildlife in the area and much greater than a few hot air balloons flying over the savannah. A new airport means new roads, new settlements, new warehouses, pollution, and all and that means a lot more people coming to live in a critically-near area outside the park boundaries.

“It seems our politicians have not learned one thing from the global opposition and decampaigning our country has seen over the highway plans. If this were to be an airstrip like at Seronera or some of the camp airstrips, even if tarmacked, it would be different, but a complete airport? We have to say no to that and even though TCAA [Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority] has given the thumbs up, they are after all just mouthpieces of the politicians.

“We hope the upcoming EIA will state what we all know, that it is unsustainable to put an airport up there where a fragile environment would just be destroyed. And we hope it is not doctored as we have seen it before. It is the same almost like these insane plans to put a soda ash plant in the middle of the flamingo breeding grounds or put a harbor into the Coelacanth marine park. There is no amount of mitigation to undo the damage and this is why Tata [Tata Africa Holdings (SA) (Pty.) Limited] pulled away, because they realized they would be the punching bag if they started a soda ash factory.

“This airport madness is exactly the same. And have no doubt here, this matter will go to court if the government goes ahead with it. And those who back it will be named and shamed, too. If Tudor [Paul Tudor Jones, an American billionaire businessman with vested interests in several top-of-the-range safari lodges in the area, i.e. Singita Tanzania] is going to raise the finance, be sure that his safari business is going to be named as responsible for this act of destruction, and once under the spotlight who will want to go there and be branded an enemy of the environment, an enemy of the Serengeti?

“We are encouraged by the East African Court of Justice in Arusha to take up such issues with them, should our own judiciary fail us. Once the government tries to create facts on the ground, we shall seek a permanent injunction while we prosecute our cases in court,” said a regular senior conservation source in Arusha when discussing the issue yesterday.

Recalling the massive opposition the Serengeti highway plans caused around the world, which united the global conservation fraternity like few other issues had and continues to have, Tanzania’s track record on conservation, already under the spotlight over a number of other equally-controversial plans, called into question, a new front could have a serious impact on the country’s tourism performance.

Suggestions by government sources of the positive impact an airport in Mugumu would have on tourism incomes generated from Serengeti visit, therefore, seems like a castle in the air, as it seems to neglect the negative impact of a campaign directed against the project.