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Birds and biofuels at odds in Kenya

July 21, 2008

tana-demonstration.jpgThe road to Kenya’s Tana River Delta from the Indian Ocean resort of Malindi is a lonely stretch of tarmac punctuated only by road blocks manned by armed police.

Few people from the outside world come this way.

Most foreign and local holidaymakers heading for the popular Lamu Islands prefer to fly rather than use the road.

On either side, grasslands stretch to the horizon. People here live as they have for decades, making a living from grazing animals and fishing.

But a proposed sugar and biofuels project would see 20,000 hectares of the pristine wetland planted with cane.

The plan has sparked anger among some locals and conservationists, who say it is a threat to their way of life and a precious eco-system.

I was given a tour of the area by government officials and the project backers.

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The government is working in partnership with the private sector to grow sugar in the area in a bid to fill an annual deficit, create jobs and latch onto enthusiasm for biofuels in the face of surging oil prices.

East Africa’s biggest economy imports about 200,000 tonnes of sugar every year as its western sugar belt does not produce enough to meet requirements.

But opponents of the Tana project say it will hurt livestock-keeping communities through loss of grazing lands and also threaten hundreds of wildlife species, including birds and rare sharks.

The pastoralists and the conservation groups, which include Nature Kenya and Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have filed a case against the project in court. Earlier this month, the nation’s high court stopped the project temporarily, pending a judicial review.

Kenya’s Nobel Laureate, environmentalist Wangari Maathai, has weighed in, saying no sugar or biofuel is worth messing with the delta.

Project backers say the area - which has a high rate of poverty and illiteracy – needs new investments as the only route to development.

Danson Mungatana, the local member of parliament, captured hopes of transforming the area when he told constituents they would get satellite TV and other modern amenities when the project is up and running.

But will the plans really benefit locals? Should the government go ahead?

How do you strike a balance between development and environmental protection? Is self-sufficiency in sugar, job creation and energy production a good reason for developing wetlands? What do you think?


Conservation of this critical ecosystem must override economics and other political exigencies.The Tana Delta is a source of livelihood for many and it behoves authorities and well meaning Kenyans to preserve it for future generations.

Posted by Muigai | Report as abusive

The Tana Project like hundreds before it is 1 part sincere hopes for uplifting regional economic benefits and 4 parts the usual greed, indifference to ecological and heritage issues, and development of product while using up the “free” natural resources of the area. The GOK should lean over backwards to find the sugar investors-developers a good location that won’t devastate natural assets.


Posted by Brack Brown | Report as abusive

am interested in eco-tourism especially in the kenyan coast.thanks for the article

Posted by wamaitha keega | Report as abusive

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