This morning Morning Feature will look at the Serengeti Road, a new national highway planned for Tanzania, and dig deeper into the dilemma faced when a local economy clashes with its environment. (More)

The Tuesday Digging Deeper Morning Feature surveys an ongoing news topic through multiple sources to invite in-depth conversation. Please check back over the coming days for additional comments. This week’s Digging Deeper topic is the Serengeti Road, and here is the story in a nutshell:

The 480-kilometre road will link the Lake Victoria area with eastern Tanzania and, according to the Tanzanian government, bring essential economic development to the region – linking remote communities to the major road network, allowing transport of people and goods and connecting farmers with markets.

The road will bisect the path of the renowned ‘great migration’ of wildebeest and zebra, when each year millions of animals migrate between the Tanzanian Serengeti and Kenyan Masai Mara in search of fresh water sources.

The Great Migration

Let’s start with some eloquent word pictures from the New York Times on Oct. 31:

Every spring, out here on this endless sheet of yellow grass, two million wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and other grazers march north in search of greener pastures, with lions and hyenas stalking them and vultures circling above.

It is called the Great Migration, and it is widely considered one of the most spectacular assemblies of animal life on the planet.

But how much longer it will stay that way is another matter. Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, plans to build a national highway straight through the Serengeti park, bisecting the migration route and possibly sending a thick stream of overloaded trucks and speeding buses through the traveling herds.

Scientists and conservation groups paint a grim picture of what could happen next: rare animals like rhinos getting knocked down as roadkill; fences going up; invasive seeds sticking to car tires and being spread throughout the park; the migration getting blocked and the entire ecosystem becoming irreversibly damaged.

“The Serengeti ecosystem is one of the wonders of the planet,” said Anne Pusey, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. “It must be preserved.” “

The Frankfurt Zoological Society has prepared a presentation on the concerns and a possible alternative.

The Times also raises the specter of Road Kill in the Serengeti?

Imagine. You are lying in the grass in the east African savannah, watching wildebeest fording a shallow river. You can hear the funny grunting noises they make, and as they pass by, you can feel the impact of their hooves on the ground and smell their rich animal smell. You see their kicking heels, their beautiful sleek bodies. Then you look up, and you realize that the herd stretches as far as you can see, that the plain is dark with wildebeest. If you were to wait for them all to pass, you would be there for days.

The sight is magnificent, primal and profoundly moving. It is the wildebeest migration.

Every year, more than a million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles, move through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem of Tanzania and Kenya, following the rains. In the course of a year, an individual wildebeest may cover as much as 2,100 kilometers. (That’s more than 1,300 miles — which is further than the distance between New York and New Orleans.) It is the last great migration on Earth.

But for how much longer? A large part of the migration takes place within the vast Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and there are reports that the Tanzanian government is preparing to build a major road through the northern part of the park: through a designated wilderness area, through the migration route.

Roads are catastrophic for wildlife. The experiment has been done again and again all over the world: we know. Among the problems: roads allow the easy spread of invasive plant species, as car tires often carry their seeds. Roads also allow the rapid spread of animal diseases, and lead to an increase in poaching, building and other human activities.

Serengeti Highway Would Disrupt World’s Greatest Migration, Conservationists Warn:

“The Serengeti is the site of one of the last great ungulate migrations left on Earth, the pre-eminent symbol of wild nature for millions of visitors and TV viewers, and a hugely important source of income for the people of Tanzania through ecotourism,” said Dr. James Deutsch, Executive Director of the WCS’s Africa Program. “To threaten this natural marvel with a road would be a tragedy. We implore the Tanzanian government – known around the world for its commitment to conservation – to reconsider this proposal and explore other options.”

“A commercial road would not only result in wildlife collisions and human injuries, but would serve to fragment the landscape and undermine the ecosystem in a variety of ways,” said Prof. Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation Programmes for ZSL, which partners with WCS in the long-term monitoring and conservation of Serengeti’s cheetahs. “To diminish this natural wonder would be a terrible loss for Tanzania and all future generations.”

The Human Needs

Government On Why Serengeti Road is a Must Project

The government has said plans to construct a road through the Serengeti National Park (Senapa) are still on course despite emerging opposition from environmental lobbyists and conservationists.

Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Shamsa Mwangunga pointed out that the government is obliged to fulfill a campaign promise, made by President Jakaya Kikwete in 2005, that the fourth phase administration under CCM would complete construction of the $480 (Sh372) billion Arusha-Musoma road. But in a quick government reaction to campaigns among local and international groups that got underway over two weeks ago to oppose the project, Ms. Mwangunga dismissed growing fears that the road would interfere with the Serengeti ecosystem.

In an interview with The Citizen this week, the minister said the main reason the road connecting Arusha-Musoma was considered was because of the need to satisfy public interests. She said the construction of the road wouldn’t disturb the popular annual wildlife migration as claimed by the campaigners.

Seeking to allay fears, she said the road, which would link Serengeti-Loliondo districts with the national grid of major roads, won’t cut cross Senapa but would be routed in a manner that won’t affect wildlife migration patterns.

Work on the project, according to Mr. Deusdedit Kakoko, who is the regional manager for Tanzania Roads Agency (Tanroads), will begin early 2012. A feasibility study is currently underway, he said. Users currently loop more than 418km to the south to skirt the protected Serengeti.

“Those criticising the road construction know nothing about what we’ve planned…We’re all keen to preserve our natural resources…We’ll never compromise on that,” declared Ms. Mwangunga.

The life of the Tanzanian people is harsh:

Farmers are completely reliant upon beneficial rainfall (not too much, not too little and all at the right time) if they are to produce a harvest that will both feed them and leave a surplus to be sold or bartered. Even if the rains come, they have little recourse to pest control and so must just hope that they are free of pestilence – whether elephant or locusts. Fertiliser is expensive and hard to get; it is also often poisonous after prolonged use. Medical services are difficult to access and prohibitively expensive. Life is hard.

Agriculture is important to Tanzania:

Agriculture is the foundation of the Tanzanian economy. It accounts for about half of the national income, three quarters of merchandise exports and is source of food and provides employment opportunities to about 80 percent of Tanzanians. It has linkages with the non-farm sector through forward linkages to agro-processing, consumption and export; provides raw materials to industries and a market for manufactured goods.

Agriculture in Tanzania is dominated by smallholder farmers (peasants) cultivating an average farm sizes of between 0.9 hecters and 3.0 hecters each. About 70 percent of Tanzania’s crop area is cultivated by hand hoe, 20 percent by ox plough and 10 percent by tractor. It is rainfed agriculture. Food crop production dominates the agriculture economy 5.1 million ha. are cultivated annually, of which 85 percent is under food crops. Women constitute the main part of agricultural labour force. The major constraint facing the agriculture sector is the falling labour and land productivity due to application of poor technology, dependence on unreliable and irregular weather conditions. Both crops and livestock are adversely affected by periodic droughts.

The Fragile Ecosystem

Some environmentalists are concerned about destroying a major carbon sink:

The project has attracted criticism from environmental groups which fear the effects on the ecosystem could be devastating and may even result in huge releases of carbon into the atmosphere.

Andrew Dobson, Professor of Conservation Biology and Infectious Disease Ecology at Princeton University, who has worked in the Serengeti since 1986, said this decline in wildebeest numbers could indirectly destroy the region’s function as a major carbon sink.

“If the wildebeest population declines by even fifty percent it could lead to an increase in the fire frequency in the park, as less grass would be eaten – this could flip the entire system from a major carbon sink into a major source of carbon.”

The Serengeti road to disaster :

These instantly recognizable images belong to a very small part of Africa–the Serengeti ecosystem of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. It’s so spectacular that it burns our consciousness out of all proportion to its size of about 30,000 km2 (12,00 square miles). It defines Africa in a unique way, perhaps, as some scientists argue, because it’s the landscape where we became human.

If a planned road cuts it in half, it may be a landscape our children will watch only as history.

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I encourage you to follow the links and read the articles.

Here are some questions to get us started, not in any order and not intended to be all inclusive:
– If every harmed habitat and lost species harms us all, do we all have a veto when it comes to the enviromental impact of a change?
– At what point does “economic need” override “environmental damage”?
– Do we have the right to dictate policy that impacts the lives of farmers getting their crops to market and a country linking remote villages to vital government resources?
– Is this really a clash of “I want wildebeest photos for my coffee table” versus “People are starving”?

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Please share your thoughts and additional links in the Comments.

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At BPI Campus.com our Progressive Agenda is:
1. People matter more than profits.
    • Corollary: Each person matters … equally.
2. The earth is our home, not our trash can.
3. We need good government for both #1 and #2.