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March/April 2011
Vol. 36, No. 2


Tanzania: Proposed road stirs controversy

The following article includes corrections from its original version -- October 2011

Rich in natural resources yet consistently ranked as one of the world's poorest nations, Tanzania must wrestle with the lure of financial promises made by large developers and mining companies which would lead to projects most likely to destroy its raw beauty and would severely compromise its environmental health. Sr. Veronica Schweyen, who spent over 35 years as a missioner in Tanzania, recently joined the staff of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and contributed to the following article.

Despite persistent resistance from environmentalists and others, President Jakwaya Kikwete, who has led the country since 2005 (and who won reelection in November 2010), supports a government plan to pave a road through the Serengeti National Park. The highway would link two of Tanzania's major cities, Arusha in the east and Musoma in the west on the shore of Lake Victoria. The funding source for this project is not clear, though it is likely that mining companies and countries such as China would consider this plan highly beneficial.

Every June, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, gazelles and zebra move north in the great migration through the Serengeti, which was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1981. The chance to see and experience the park's wildlife and landscape brings over 100,000 tourists a year to the country, a significant contribution to Tanzania's economy. One of the world's leading experts on the Serengeti, Prof. Tony Sinclair, believes that if the road is built, eventually the Serengeti as we know it will no longer exist. The planned highway would prevent traditional migration routes and would expose the thousands of animals who live in the area to greater danger and environmental degradation.

It is possible to build a different route, one which would bypass the Serengeti. The alternative plan would be more costly but would preserve the natural beauty of the park. Kikwete has rejected the alternative plan, despite an offer of funding from the World Bank.

On a related note, immense tracts of land have been given in trust for 99 years to wealthy rulers from countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In the Loliondo area of northern Tanzania, 1,000,000 hectares have been leased (in two different agreements); the Maasai tribal people are now evicted from grazing lands which they have used for centuries. A Maryknoll sister working in the Maasai area in Tanzania said that students reported that their families' homes were burned when they refused to move. These lands now sprout hotels, hunting areas and provide airport access. (When asked about the evicted people, Tanzanian authorities have insisted that they were Maasai from Kenya.)

While leases of this kind have been reported by the international press, they are not publicized to the Tanzanian people, very few of whom will benefit from such transactions. The proposed Serengeti road will cost $470 million. The advocacy group Serengeti Watch asks, "What number of schools, dispensaries, hospitals, training centers ... could be built? Are there really altruistic motives operating here? Or will a few people, a few large enterprises, ultimately benefit?" [corrected from original]

Learn more about this issue and the campaign to stop the road through Serengeti Watch.

New public road to split the Serengeti? National Geographic, August 2010

Tanzania road plan in Serengeti offers prospects and fears, New York Times, October 2010

Donors to snub gov't over Serengeti Road, AllAfrica.com, March 2011


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