Uganda led four other African countries at the Unesco World Heritage Committee conference in Fuzhou, China, in saving Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve from being struck off the list of World Heritage Sites last week.
The World Heritage Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had proposed Selous’s delisting, citing permanent damage to its ecosystem caused by the ongoing 2,100 megawatt Julius Nyerere Hydropower Project.
Instead, delegates at the virtual 44th session of the committee — with Uganda leading Ethiopia, Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria — put up a spirited opposition that resulted in an amendment on the original draft, directing Tanzania to address the concerns raised and report by December 1. This is to be followed by another updated report on the state of conservation of the reserve to be delivered to the World Heritage Centre by February 1, 2022. The delegates also advised continued dialogue between Tanzania and conservationists.
China, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina also joined the side of the 21-member committee that rooted for Tanzania while Norway pushed for the delisting.
Tanzanian delegation leader Allan Kijazi, who is the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Natural Resources, said IUCN and the WHC were “unnecessarily” reopening issues that had already been “positively” concluded through previous dialogue with Tanzania since 2017.
He said Tanzania’s stated position contained in its report that it was ready to comply with the WHC’s wishes to send an inspection team to the project.
In their assessment report on the project that pegged the delisting motion, IUCN and WHC said Tanzania had failed to show cooperation in facilitating what they described as a “reactive monitoring mission” for an on-the-spot visit to gauge the project’s environmental impacts first-hand.
Claims of damage
They also said the project had caused “irreversible damage” to the values of undisturbed ecosystems and high density of wildlife on which the reserve was first placed on the World Heritage Site list in 1982.
“As such the site’s integrity has been lost,” they argued.
The assessment report reiterated the committee’s position that the construction of dams with large reservoirs within property boundaries is “incompatible” with World Heritage status.
Tanzania’s referred to its January 30, 2020 conservation report, where it said it had notified both the World Heritage Centre and IUCN of its intentions to build the dam as a solution to its power supply problems.
It said IUCN had even “recognised” that the project would result in “clearance of a small portion of vegetation (about 1.8 percent of the entire property) that will cause insignificant effects on the ecosystem.”
Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, Egypt and Hungary upheld most of Tanzania’s defensive arguments including that the dam project covered only 1.8 percent of the reserve’s 5.2 million hectares of land, making it insignificant to warrant complete delisting.
Ethiopia’s lead delegate Henok Tefera said delisting the reserve would be a “grave mistake” because “it suggests development and heritage protection cannot go hand and hand”.
The Ethiopian delegate’s point of striking a balance was echoed by South Africa, China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Russia. According to the Brazilian delegate, changing global social and economic circumstances meant the subject warranted a special debate by the committee on how to handle future heritage site nominations or delisting motions involving similar factors.
The $2.9 billion project involves construction of a 130 metre-high dam along the Rufiji River at the famous Stiegler’s Gorge junction - a key feature of the reserve - plus an accompanying water reservoir measuring 12.5 kilometres in width and 100 kilometres in length.
According to IUCN and the WHC, these structures will “inundate” an area of 125,000 hectares. The project also includes a 703-metre long river diversion tunnel from its natural riverbed, a power plant, transmission lines, workers’ camps, access roads, transmission infrastructure and river closure coffer dams.
Labeled as one of the late Tanzanian president John Magufuli’s pet infrastructural ventures, the project has not gone down well with conservationists.
The Selous Game Reserve, with an area of 54,600 square kilometres, was first established in 1922 and added to the list of endangered World Heritage Sites in 2014 due to then rampant poaching activities and an ensuing significant decline in its elephant population which was seen to be hurting the entire ecosystem.
In 2018, environmental impacts arising from the dam project which was then still at a planning stage, particularly the tendering of large-scale logging rights related to the project, were added to the justification for Danger Listing.
IUCN and WHC argued in their delisting motion that the reserve was initially endorsed as a World Heritage Site primarily for its significant populations of wildlife including elephant and black rhino and its relatively undisturbed ecological settings such as the “globally significant” Miombo forest habitat and the “dynamic” Rufiji River ecosystem.
Dr Kijazi told committee members that the government was finalising a general biodiversity management plan for the larger part of the reserve area that is not “directly” tied to the dam project.
“The plan has taken on board all issues raised by committee members. So there should be no worries at all that we are ignoring the area simply because there is a big project going on,” he said.
Apart from the Selous Game Reserve, other current World Heritage Sites in Tanzania are the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro National Parks, the Stone Town of Zanzibar, the Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara, and the ancient Kondoa Rock-Art Sites on the Masai escarpment bordering the Great Rift Valley.
The World Heritage label is considered a powerful tourism incentive while also encouraging governments to pursue serious protection and conservation policies in coordination with Unesco.