A Chinese road to disaster through the Serengeti?

Monday, 4. October 2010     1 comment(s)
Andrew Jones
Research Assistant
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme
Photo by Ryskas (Wikimedia commons) Photo by Ryskas (Wikimedia commons)

A Chinese road to disaster through the Serengeti?

The Tanzanian government has made plans to build a two-lane road through the Serengeti National Park to provide access to the coast for those in remote regions. Construction is due to start in 2012 but there are claims that the road will spell disaster for the entire Serengeti ecosystem. At the same time, China is being painted as a culprit for allegedly offering funding the project. Is China implicated or an easy target?

Writing in Nature, a team of scientists claim that this would disrupt the migration of the Park’s estimated 1.3 million wildebeest. Whilst clearly undesirable on the face of it this does not appear disastrous. However, Andrew Dobson, a professor at Princeton University, explains that impacts on this keystone species would have dire consequences for the ecosystem as a whole. Should the wildebeests' access to the Mara River be blocked, this could see numbers fall to below 25% of current numbers, massively reducing their vital role in the circulation of the nutrients, also placing stress on the populations of big cats. Additionally, grazing wildebeest eat enormous amounts of grass, which acts to suppress fires which have been widespread when their numbers were low.

With such calamitous consequences around the corner of such a road, it begs the question of why this road is seemingly going ahead – especially given the existence of ecological and economically superior alternative to the south that would provide coastal access to many times more people. However, President Kikwete is staunchly backing the road through the Serengeti in the run up to the Tanzanian general election on October 31st. The politics of this venture are quite opaque, with the Tanzanian government declining to explain its reasoning, and Kikwete dismissing opposition to the plans as “aired by people from abroad”. With little known by anyone outside of the Tanzanian government, rumours are in good supply.

One repeated suggestion, in Nature and by some in the international press, is that China has put up the money for the project. Indeed, China’s increasing engagement with Africa in recent years , involving a multiplicity of infrastructure projects, and this has drawn intense criticism in the West. Yet, there is no evidence of such backing, and given the relative paucity of Chinese activity in Tanzania, there is no apparent motive for China to act in such a way. The much-vaunted TAZARA railway built by China in the seventies and the TanZam highway provide access to the port of Dar es Salaam from Chinese-run mines in Zambia. In Tanzania however, China’s interest is not in natural resource extraction but an on-off complex three-party investment deal between China and Angola for Tanzania’s state-owned airline. At the same time, somewhat off the radar, it is India that has recently been involved in Tanzania’s rail sector. So, could this be just another example of uncritically pointing the finger at Beijing?

As China attempts to show itself to be a ‘responsible actor’ and raise its international profile, financing such a project would be as damaging to its image as its TAZARA railway is iconic. President Kikwete made similar promises for such a road prior to his election in 2005. Hopefully, once again, these plans will not materialise and an alternative is followed.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (1 comments)

5.10.2010, Sam Hussey

I welcome this Chinese investment. Tanzania needs infrastructure. The government should offer more policies to speed this development.

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