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While the standard gauge railway will be a boon for the economy, Nema director general Geoffrey Wahungu should demand that it skirts around the Nairobi National Park for the sake of conserving the environment.
Kenya Railways applied for an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) licence to construct the second phase of the SGR from Nairobi to Naivasha across the park.
After hundreds of conversations with Kenyans from diverse sectors, including industry, communities, wildlife experts, and government officials, I believe Wahungu should reject this application.
On October 27, concerned citizens and stakeholders from Kenya Railways, Kenya Wildlife Service, and several conservation and research organizations met for a dialogue on “How best can we achieve a balance between conservation and infrastructure development in SGR Phase II?”
The 176 participants all agreed that Kenya needs the SGR, as it will bring great rewards in terms of economic growth and poverty alleviation. However, there was overwhelming consensus that the SGR should not go through the park.
For one, the park is a protected area. As such, the railway should give way to the park, not the other way round. There is growing global recognition of the importance of wilderness, parks and open spaces for human health and well-being, especially in cities. Our forefathers knew this when they gazetted the parks, reserves and forests of Kenya.
As such our protected wildernesses should be considered a sacred cultural heritage, as well as globally important sanctuaries for wildlife and biological diversity. It is Wahungu’s duty, on behalf of all Kenyans, to defend them.
Secondly, the project will set a precedent that will affect all our parks and reserves, forests and other areas of national heritage. It will also set a precedent for the rest of Africa.
Thirdly, Kenya has lobbied internationally for global support for conservation of environment, and for decisive action to eradicate the illegal wildlife trade and halt climate change. This proposal flies in the face of our commitments and intentions. It will significantly damage Kenya’s international reputation as a world leader in conservation, and the image and name of our President as Africa’s number one champion for wildlife.
Fourthly, alternative routes for the SGR exist, for example, via Konza or Athi River. The courageous decision to adopt an alternative route will establish Kenya’s leadership of efforts to achieve sustainable development for Africa and its people, while protecting wildlife and the environment.
This may cost more money, but my guess is that international donors will be queuing up to support such a ground-breaking initiative, given that it allows them to deliver on the Sustainability Goals that they and Kenya signed up to earlier this year. Money can be obtained. Our wildlife is priceless and, once lost, irreplaceable.
RISK OF DESTRUCTION
I have subsequently reviewed the ESIA, which does not address the precedent that it will set. While I appreciate the importance of the SGR, it is my opinion that regardless of any proposed mitigation measures to reduce impact on wildlife, the SGR must not cross Nairobi Park.
We simply cannot take this risk that it will destroy the park. The section of SGR in Tsavo National Park has impacted wildlife significantly. Just this week, another elephant was killed on Mombasa Highway at Mtito Andei due to the effect of the SGR interfering with elephant movements between Tsavo West and Tsavo East. People on the ground have also witnessed a dramatic surge in deadly human-elephant conflict as a result of the SGR.
Though most government officials are surprisingly silent about their concerns around the SGR, thousands of Kenyans have reacted. Some have conducted demonstrations on the streets, others have chained themselves to the park gates, and still others have delivered petitions to the president.
The outcry by Kenyans has been reported widely by the international press and has alarmed lovers of nature and wildlife around the world. These citizen actions and concerns among friends of Kenya overseas must not be ignored.
NATIONAL IDENTITY AT STAKE
Kenya is at a crossroads. We find ourselves in a crisis. Our national identity is associated with thriving wildlife, yet conservation is currently being viewed as a threat to development, poverty alleviation and threatening our aspiration to become a middle-income country.
Do we want to be known as the country with the only park in the capital city, or the only country in the world constructing mega railways across our parks?
The truth is Kenya can have secure parks and ecologically sensitive railways and infrastructure. We can become known in the world as the country in the world that leads by having both thriving wildlife and development, if we simply improve our planning processes, avoid rushed implementation, ensure transparency and stakeholder involvement, and balance attention to development with environmental protection.
Destroying the oldest park in Eastern Africa, a park our founding President Jomo Kenyatta promised to protect at all costs, the park where 105 tons of ivory was famously burned earlier this year, will be a great embarrassment and cost to all Kenyans, especially our Head of State who currently stands as Africa’s main champion for wildlife conservation.
It’s not just that Kenya Railways’ plans contradict our understanding of “protected area”, but it has already led to several court cases. This results in costly delays, damages Kenya’s reputation and that of the Head of State in international arenas, and destroys trust among financiers of the project.
The Transport ministry must take responsibility for working within Kenya’s environmental frameworks and deliver the full ESIA for the entire length of the SGR from Nairobi to Malaba, and not do things in the present piecemeal way, which has really led to the crisis in Nairobi. We would hate to see another crisis in the Mara, and then the Mau and yet other areas along the pathway of this great railway.
Nairobi Park turns 70 on December 16. Show your support for this unique park by writing to Nema and commenting on the proposed railway. The deadline for submission of comments on the ESIA is the November 25. After that, Nema will consider public feedback and respond to the Railways proposal.
I urge all Kenyans and people around the world who care about Nairobi Park to respond to Nema and express their views, by writing to the Nema director general Geoffrey Wahungu today.
Dr Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of WildlifeDirect and chair of the National Museums of Kenya. She has a PhD in Ecology and spearheaded the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign, which catalysed action in Kenya to save elephants.