Planned road across Kenya’s parks creates dichotomy between environmental costs and economic benefits

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Written by Carlos Muresi

ABERDARE MOUNTAIN, KENYA (AP) — Thousands of feet above sea level, in a dense layer of greenery, cedar, podo and hegeina trees pattern the landscape, with thick moss hanging from the branches and feathery lichens on the bark. It’s attached. Numerous streams flow through it, cascading down steep waterfalls. Water buffalo, bushbuck and monkeys roam in search of pasture.

This is the Aberdare Range, a forest and mountain range in central Kenya that is one of the country’s main sources of water and important wildlife habitat.

But it may not remain the same.

The Kenyan government wants to build a 32-mile paved road connecting the two counties, and the country’s environment agency, the National Environmental Management Authority, issued an environmental impact assessment license for the project last month. The project would clear 15 miles of closed canopy forest, potentially increasing vehicular traffic on game trails.

Residents are optimistic that the project could improve their lives. But scientists and conservationists fear irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Endangered tree species can be cut down, animals can be hit by cars, roads cross wetlands (vulnerable catchment areas), and invasive species and pollutants can enter the park through cars. There is sex.

Supporters of the project, including Kenyan President William Ruto, argue that the road will bring economic benefits, saying it will directly link the agricultural counties of Nyeri and Nyandarua, increasing trade and improving livelihoods. It claims to improve. Most Kenyans live on a few dollars a day, and the proposed project has supporters in the rural, agricultural areas to which the road would connect.

To transport crops and other goods from Nyeri town in Nyeri district to Ndunyu Njeru town in Nyandarua district, Nyeri-based truck driver Francis Kibuye uses paved roads to bypass the Aberdare Mountains. It has traveled a distance of 118 miles. However, using roads through forests and national parks, the distance he travels is reduced to 40 miles.

“With the new road, you can do two round trips, because you go, you arrive, you come back, you get more goods, and you come back again,” he said.

The proposed paved road, named the Ihite-Ndunyu-Nigeru Road, is an improvement on the harsh dirt road typically used by forest and park visitors but rarely used by the general public. It is something to do.

In Ndunyu Nigel, a small rural town dotted with one-story buildings, chief Grace Ngige said, “We have no opposition to the road.” It’s development. ” She cited a number of reasons, including increased trade between Nyeri and Nyandarua, improved access to Nyeri markets for farmers, reduced travel distance for students studying in Nyeri, and an increase in tourists from the east heading to Nyandarua. added.

In both towns, operators of Matus vans that transport people are excited about the road’s prospects, saying it will open up new routes on both sides and bring in more business.

Ndunyu Niger matatu operator Patrick Maina said: “We are very happy and grateful to the country’s leaders for coming together and deciding to open this road. ” he said.

President Ruto resolutely pushed ahead with the start of construction. Since taking office in 2022, he has used various occasions to speak out against construction plans, advocating for them to proceed before they receive environmental approval from NEMA and opposition from conservationists.

“Do you want us to build this road? Or wait until law enforcement tells us to do so?” he asked at an event last month, before asking Highways Ministry officials to allocate construction funds. I instructed him to do so.

Environmental activists and political analysts say this amounted to political interference and could have affected NEMA’s independence in decision-making.

In response to written questions, Kenya’s special envoy on climate change, Ali Mohamed, said the president was “committed to sustainability and has prioritized climate action and environmental conservation.”

The proposed construction also draws attention to public concerns about the president’s recent tendency to ignore and criticize courts and other independent institutions that make decisions that go against his administration’s plans. He has repeatedly threatened to remove judges whom he accuses of derailing his own projects.

“It’s just a threat,” said Herman Manyara, a Nairobi-based political analyst. “Once we have systems in place to ensure that regulations are followed, those systems must be respected.”

Since Mr Ruto’s comments, the licenses issued by NEMA have caused concern to environmental activists. The validity period is two months, which is “the period until the project starts.”

NEMA says the road width needs to be reduced from 40 meters (131 feet) to 25 meters (82 feet). But conservationists argue that upgrading existing roads to accommodate all traffic would be harmful. According to the permit, construction would destroy 75 hectares (185 acres) of bamboo, 14 hectares (35 acres) of montane forest and 14 hectares of wasteland.

Conservationists have long called on the Kenya National Highways Authority (which first proposed the road in 2009) to find an alternative route across the Aberdare Ranges with minimal environmental impact. Some have launched online petitions.

One of Kenya’s five main water towers, the Aberdare Ranges naturally absorb, store and release water into rivers and lakes, providing most of the water used in the capital, Nairobi. It also supplies water to the Seven Forks Hydroelectric Power Plant. , the country’s major generator.

Simon Oniwere, associate professor of environmental planning and management at Kenyatta University, said the road could attract human settlement and, over time, allow fires and grazing to rain down the Aberdare Ranges. He said vegetation growth would be curtailed. The potential damage will take decades to recover, he said.

“Water is everything. If we live through water, we shouldn’t add anything that reduces our ability to use water,” he said.

This forest preserve is home to native trees such as the sycamore fig and African cherry, as well as endangered species such as the parasol tree, Monterey pine, and African cherry. It is home to some of the less than 100 endangered mountain bongos left in the world, along with rhinos, elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards and more. UNESCO classifies the Aberdare Ranges as a World Heritage Site.

The 296-square-mile Aberdare National Park also attracts thousands of locals and foreigners who pay park fees to see roaming animals. Tourism is the country’s main source of income, employing hundreds of thousands of people in this sector.

“This is the only route that many people take when they come here to see the wildlife,” said tourist Isabel Aron, who visited the park. It would take away the reason to come to Aberdales.” ”

The wetland area the road will pass through has a large population of elephants and “almost traverses the entire area,” said Christian Lambrecht, executive director of Rhino Ark, a conservation trust. It will destroy the habitat of elephants, destroy the habitat of elephants and cause habitat disturbance, it added. Once constructed, they endanger both animals and road users.

Conservationists are calling for development not to come at the expense of the environment.

“The disconnect between humans and the environment is the inability of humans to understand what the environment is doing to them,” Oniwere said.

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Associated Press journalist Brian Inganga contributed to this report.

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Associated Press climate and environment reporting receives funding from private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Learn about AP’s criteria for working with philanthropy, a list of supporters, and funded areas at AP.org.

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