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04.08.2021 12:41 News >> Retaining Tanzania's Selous Reserve On World Heritage Elicits Mixed Reactions

Retaining Tanzania's Selous Reserve On World Heritage Elicits Mixed Reactions

Environmentalists say move sets dangerous precedent for abuse of other heritage sites in name of sustainable development.

Sitting in a helicopter seat with his waist tightly secured by a safety belt, Ali Hassan Mwinyi or "Mzee Ruksa" as he's popularly known in Tanzania, could not hide his feelings upon seeing fearsome crocodiles slithering in murky waters at the Selous Game Reserve as a dozen tourists lazily gilded along shallow lakes in aluminum-hulled skiffs.
For the 96-year-old former president of Tanzania, flying low across a vast wilderness, while unflinchingly gazing out the window to admire the unique nature in a country he had once led as its chief executive 36 years ago, was thrilling and breathtaking.
Mzee Ruksa, dressed in a shiny flak jacket, was among a few retired leaders, including former President Jakaya Kikwete, who flew across the park to inspect the progress on the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Dam, a multi-million-dollar scheme nestled on the Rufiji River that has drawn widespread criticism for allegedly endangering the park's ecosystems.
"What surprises me is a human's ability to build such an amazing project of this scale," Mwinyi said after emerging from a giant tunnel, which diverts water into the turbines.
The park, whose attractions Mzee Ruksa found enchanting, won a rare victory last week when it was spared from being removed from the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites after being granted the title 37 years ago, because despite concerns over the perceived effects posed by the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Dam, the scientific body was convinced that alleged threats to the park's ecosystem are negligible.
Country's milestone
Gerson Msigwa, the chief spokesperson for the Tanzanian government, described the move as a milestone for the country.
"This is a big achievement for our country. It is a seal of approval by UNESCO that both hydropower and the Selous Game Reserve are socially, environmentally, and economically sound undertakings," he said.
The move to retain Selous as a World Heritage site was reached in Fuzhou, China, followed a secret ballot by the UNESCO committee shortly after a sheaf of arguments by Tanzania's delegation to convince the body to retain the park's status. The move is seen as a political milestone for new President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who is working to improve tourism battered by the outbreak of COVID-19 and on other strategic projects with the potential to put the country on the path of economic development.
The move followed the decision by the Tanzanian government to develop a 2,115-megawatt hydropower dam, the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Project, within a nature reserve, which environmental activists and scientists have long claimed would inflict irreparable damage to the world's renowned wildlife sanctuary.
Reacting to the move, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a global environmental watchdog said the decision by the 44th UNESCO Heritage Committee has gotten the East African country off the hook for building a hydropower dam in the heart of Selous, a site of ecological importance.
"The committee's decision sets a dangerous precedent that opens up other World Heritage properties to destruction in the name of sustainable development. … It is not just about Selous. It will adversely impact natural heritage globally," said Shruti Suresh, the EIA deputy Wildlife Campaign leader.
The controversial project has been repeatedly flagged by UNESCO and other environmental activists for allegedly flouting Tanzania's commitments under the UNESCO Convention by causing irreversible damage to the reserve's environment and biodiversity besides destroying the livelihoods of fishers and farmers.
Irreversibly damaged
Earlier, the EIA had called on the World Heritage Committee to remove Selous from a list of global heritage sites on the grounds that the dam could irreversibly damage the park's ecosystems.
A technical review commission from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an official adviser on natural world heritage, suggested in 2009 that a strategic environmental assessment meant to guide the decision on whether the dam could be built did not adequately address its environmental viability.
The review was commissioned after UNESCO's World Heritage Committee reckoned the scale of the project could harm the park, so leading to its world heritage status being stripped.
The committee was concerned that building a dam with large reservoirs inside the park was incompatible with its world heritage status.
Critics say the decision to retain Selous on the list of World Heritage sites despite the alleged effects on its ecosystem is a stark illustration of UNESCO's flawed ability to make sound decisions and is regrettable to ignore scientific facts in favor of political negotiations.
The Selous Game Reserve, nestled on a wide expanse of virgin land, is Africa's largest game reserve and striking wildlife sanctuary.
The park was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1982 for its hugely rich diversity of wildlife and unspoiled nature.
The Rufiji River, whose striking meanders cut across the middle of the Selous, serves as the artery to the park and contributes to its rich natural vegetation.
The Julius Nyerere Hydropower Project, a $2.9-billion engineering marvel, so big that it stuns every visitor, is touted as a "silver bullet" to rid the East African nation of 58 million people of an electricity crisis partly caused by long drought spells.
Hydropower meets roughly 35% of the country's total energy needs. Other sources are natural gas, coal, and diesel.
While hydropower facilities do not emit planet-warming greenhouse gases, environmental activists say the Rufiji hydropower project is ecologically devastating since it destroys natural vegetation, animal habitats, and chokes off the river's flow, killing fish, which are a source of livelihood for thousands of families downstream.
Selous gained its World Heritage status in 1984, in recognition of its virgin and unspoiled nature.
"This project is a pride of the nation," said Mwinyi.​​​​​​​ -



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