Project Description

Opposing camps to hold dialogue on railway through Nairobi National Park

October 25, 2016 | Paula Kahumbu | The Guardian

Paula Kahumbu: The proposal to put a railway through Kenya’s iconic wildlife sanctuary raises issues that should concern us all

The Kenyan Ministry of Transport has announced that it is moving forward with its plans to build a standard gauge railway (SGR), linking Nairobi with the port city of Mombasa, that will cut through Nairobi National Park.

Nairobi is one of the world’s fastest growing cities. It is also unique in encompassing, within its precincts, a major national park that supports lions, rhinos, and other large wild animals. Despite its modest size, the biological diversity of Nairobi National Park is greater than that of some entire countries. It is also a sanctuary of global significance for some endangered species, notably the black rhinoceros.

These wonders lie within easy reach of millions of Nairobi residents, as well as tourists and business visitors from all over the world. The co-existence, side by side, of bustling metropolis and natural wildlife paradise sets Nairobi apart from every other capital city on earth.

The proposal to construct a railway through the park has led to a major conflict between conservation and development interests, and a heightened level of public concern about environmental compliance in the implementation of large-scale development projects. It has also divided the conservation community in Kenya.

Most Kenyan conservationists are resolutely opposed to the proposal. However, one our most famous and respected colleagues, Richard Leakey, has been at the forefront in supporting the proposed project. In my many conversations with him, it is clear that he is convinced that, like it or not, Kenya will continue to develop and therefore change is inevitable, especially in one of Africa’s fastest growing cities.

He thinks that the only way to save the park is to raise the railway on pillars like a viaduct 18 m above the park. He is convinced that this will not harm the wildlife, but may in fact become recognized as a wonder of technology, like the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland, Cikurutug Bridge in Indonesia which soars above a rainforest, and the Landwasser Viaduct in Switzerland to name a few.

Richard Leakey believes Africa should not be afraid to aspire to greatness in construction, but most of all, he is so confident that it will work in Nairobi Park that he believes it will be a model for other African countries facing similar challenges, such as the Tanzanian plan to put a road across the Serengeti.

The Government of Kenya’s argument in favour of the route through the park is more straightforward: it is the cheapest and, technically, the easiest option available. But most conservationists in Kenya, and many people around the world, would say that it is madness to take a decision like this based purely on economic and technical criteria.

New Yorkers would never fill their Central Park with more office buildings, even though they would generate tremendous profit. Central Park is the soul-restoring asset of New York City. Like Central Park, Nairobi National Park is irreplaceable. But it is quintessentially Kenyan, and immeasurably grander and greater than anything in New York City.

Surely, this argument goes, the park is a priceless asset. No amount of money can buy the feeling of awe and wonder at meeting 4-metre tall giraffes for the first time, or the sound of the galloping hooves of thousands of zebras. No economic benefits are sufficient to compensate for the loss of the peace and tranquillity, the feeling of being at one with nature that the park provides.

A further concern of environmental experts is that, if the railway crosses Nairobi Park, it will set a very dangerous precedent. National parks in Kenya face multiple threats, including from poaching, illegal grazing, mining, and unregulated urban and agricultural expansion. At root, all these threats arise from conflicts—real or perceived—between economic and environmental conservation goals.

By allowing economic interests to trump environmental ones in this case, the government and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) will lose the moral authority to protect other parks facing comparable threats. This will damage Kenya’s reputation and, potentially, roll back decades of conservation successes.

I appreciate all these arguments. To understand them better, I have spoken to engineers, land owners, communities, children, politicians, wildlife managers, and conservationists. I have visited the site of the massive new railway terminal under construction in Nairobi.

I have been criticized by conservationists for considering all options and discussing the matter with the railway engineers themselves. But I needed to do this in order to understand the different issues and develop my own position.

I have come to two conclusions. Firstly, we should apply the precautionary principle. Richard Leakey and Kenya Railways have assured President Kenyatta that the railway will not damage the park or the wildlife, a view he has repeated in speeches. They may be right, but hundreds of experts think otherwise, and we will not know who is right until it is done. In my view this is simply too risky an experiment for us to test.

But secondly, I recognize that I have no right to expect that my opinion will prevail. There is a need for dialogue. By bringing as many people involved together to discuss the proposal, we may be able to mitigate some of the negative effects and reduce the uncertainty regarding its consequences. It could give democratic legitimacy—that is currently sorely lacking—to the final decision that is taken.

Last but not least, it will provide the opportunity to initiate an ongoing national conversation around the wider issues raised by this case—issues that go to the heart of our vision for the future of Kenya and the African continent.

Like many people in this largely Catholic country, I have been inspired by the wisdom of Pope Francis in his Encyclical on Nature, where he urgently appeals for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet:

We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all … Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity … All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.

When I first mooted the idea of a dialogue a few weeks ago, I had no idea what the response would be. I have been heartened by the widespread and generous support the idea has received. This has enabled my organization WidlifeDirect, together with other conservation organizations, Kenya Railways, KWS and three research institutions to convene a meeting between government and other stakeholders that will take placin Nairobi on 27th October.

Even though the Phase 2 of the railway was formally launched last week, our hope is that there is still time to achieve a negotiated consensus on the best outcome for conservation and development. If successful, this dialogue will not only help secure the future of Nairobi National Park. It can also be the start of a process, building bridges between politicians, planners, engineers and the conservationists to improve decision making for future development projects.

Artist’s impression of the proposed railway viaduct crossing Nairobi National Park, Kenya. Photograph: Courtesy of Kenya Railways

Environmental and wildlife campaigners protest against plans to build a railway through Nairobi National Park. Nairobi, Kenya Monday, 17 October 2016. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

A group of female impala stand in grass made long and lush by seasonal rains in Nairobi National Park, Kenya, 17 May 2015. Photograph: GRAYLING KENYA PHOTO / STUART PRICE/MEAACT Kenya

Giraffe grazing in Nairobi National Park, Kenya, with the city skyline in the background on 17 May 2015. Photograph: GRAYLING KENYA PHOTO / STUART PRICE/MEAACT Kenya