The East African Court of Justice ruled against a paved commercial highway through Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Although a great victory, the ruling contains ‘potholes.’
Serengeti Watch supported a court case brought forward by the African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), a nonprofit organization located in Kenya, who filed for the case in December of 2010. We provided funding through its Serengeti Legal Defense Fund which paid for research trips to the Serengeti and legal fees for the Kenyan attorney, Saitabao Ole Kanchory.
The suit was filed after the government of Tanzania announced plans to build a 53 Km commercial highway across the northern section of the Serengeti National Park. The highway would replace an existing dirt track. According to a Tanzanian government study the highway would carry up to 800 commercial vehicles a day by 2015, with increasing numbers thereafter. Scientists warned that the highway would bisect a narrow section of the Serengeti ecosystem that was critical to the annual wildebeest migration. Therefore, the proposed highway would cause the migration to collapse due the fragmentation of natural migration patterns.
The lawsuit sought a permanent injunction against the proposed highway on the grounds that it was in violation of the East African Community Treaty, of which Tanzania and Kenya are signatories. The Treaty calls for “the promotion of sustainable utilization of the natural resources of the Partner States and the taking of measures that would effectively protect the natural environment of Partner States.” The applicant sought to bar Tanzania from “upgrading, tarmacking, paving, realigning, constructing, creating or commissioning” the existing track.
Serengeti Watch and ANAW contended that opening a paved highway to the general public would cause irreversible damage to the Serengeti. The highway would impact: migratory species such as zebras and wildebeest; wildlife poaching; air quality and noise; soils; flora and fauna; road safety and increased accidents as well as many more unforeseen issues. ANAW cited conservation organizations that had issued warnings about the impact of the highway, including the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
The case also contended that the government of Tanzania was in violation of various international treaties. Chief among these, a UNESCO treaty declaring the Serengeti a “World Heritage Property” of “outstanding universal value.
The court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the highway would have irreversible negative impacts. It affirmed that construction of the highway would be a violation of the East African Community Treaty. In doing so, the court order cited Tanzania’s own Environmental Impact Study and relied heavily on statements issued by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
“A permanent injunction is hereby issued restraining the Respondent from going forward with its initial proposal of constructing or maintaining a road of bitumen standard across the Serengeti National Park subject to its right to undertake such other programs or initiate policies in the future which would not have a negative impact on the environment and ecosystem in the Serengeti National Park.” Read the court verdict.
After the verdict ANAW’s Executive Director, Jophat Ngonyo, said: “This was not a win for ANAW; nor for our lawyer, Saitabao Ole Kanchory, not for Serengeti Watch, not for our expert witness John Kuloba, but for the millions of animals in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. It is a win for nature and God’s creation. Nature has won today.”
A road upgraded is still in the pipeline:
Although, the case sought to prevent any form upgrading, the court did not specifically bar this, only the development of an asphalt road. The government of Tanzania says it will instead upgrade the existing dirt track to an all-weather gravel road. The track is in a zone designated to wilderness area, reserved for park vehicles and walking safaris.
Roads for public use not addressed:
The EACJ said that roads in the Serengeti should be “reserved for tourists and park personnel and not the general public,” its injunction did not specify this. Tanzania still has the ability to open roads for the public, including commercial use. In fact, in a recent press article, government officials have emphasized their intention to build a highway that would inevitably cross the park.
Roads outside of the park not addressed:
The entire Serengeti ecosystem includes areas within the Serengeti National Park and outlying areas such as the Masai Mara. Wildlife migration takes place across all these regions. There are plans for paved roads in migration areas outside the park that will impact the migration. The court case did not address this issue either. Click HERE for more details.
An uncertain future:
Many observers warn that the gravel road will inevitably become a highway carrying more commercial traffic. There will be increasing pressure to connect the paved roads on either side of the park with a commercial link through the park. Richard Leakey, for one, said that a highway is “inevitable.”
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