Sugar is not so sweet
A flourishing wetland on Kenya’s northern coast is under serious threat from plans to grow vast amounts of sugarcane, partly for biofuel production. Developers want to transform nearly 20,000 hectares of the spectacular Tana River Delta, into sugarcane plantations with other parts of the Delta earmarked for rice.
“This development would be a national disaster, wreaking havoc with the area’s ecosystem and spelling the end for wildlife across much of the Delta”, said Paul Matiku, Executive Director of NatureKenya. “Large areas would become ecological deserts. The Delta is a wildlife refuge with cattle herders depending on it for centuries as well. There is no commitment to mitigation for the damage that will be done and no evidence that local incomes will be in any way improved. The sugarcane scheme cannot be allowed to go ahead.”
The Delta, covering 130,000 hectares in total, is one of Kenya’s largest and most important freshwater wetlands. It is a vast patchwork of habitats including savannah, forests, beaches, lakes, mangrove swamps and the Tana River itself. Local people live by the seasons, adapting to the regular floods that keep the area fertile through the year.
The sugarcane scheme, submitted by Mumias Sugar Company and Tana and Athi River Development Authority, proposes nearly 50,000 acres of irrigated sugarcane, together with sugar and ethanol plants. Local community livelihoods are likely to be severely impacted by any large-scale irrigation project.
“This development would be a national disaster, wreaking havoc with the area’s ecosystem and spelling the end for wildlife across much of the Delta” —Paul Matiku, Executive Director of NatureKenya
The Tana Delta is home to several Endangered and Near Threatened species such as the Southern Banded Snake-eagle Circaetus fasciolatus, the Malindi Pipit Anthus melindae, and the migratory Basra Reed Warbler Acrocephalus griseldis. The Tana River Cisticola Cisticola restrictus, extremely local and on the verge of extinction, has recently been recorded. Over five thousand water birds of at least thirteen species breed in the Tana Delta and twenty two species gather in internationally important numbers.
An environmental assessment for the proposal has been completed but it considered only a three-month period of the Delta’s life and ignores the huge income increased tourism would generate. It underestimates the project’s impact on wildlife and communities, and flouts international wildlife treaties including the international Ramsar wetland convention. The two major impacts of development – the destruction of habitats and changes to water flow – are given cursory mention in the report with no promise of action to offset damage or create replacement sites.
NatureKenya, with the backing BirdLife International, has urged Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority, to reject the sugarcane plan. The groups want the most critical parts of the Tana River Delta and floodplain – designated as an Important Bird Area – made a national protected area so that future development proposals take account of its value to wildlife.
They have also proposed that the government draw up a master plan for the Delta to include an economic assessment of its local, national and global environmental worth.
“Critical environmental and livelihood issues need to be addressed first, before any development proposals can be considered”, added Paul Matiku.