Infrastructural development is a key determinant of economic growth. However, it comes at a cost and the outcome can be detrimental and irreversible, particularly when it entails environmental degradation. The East African Community regional bloc ranks as one of the fastest-growing economic blocs globally. It is home to over 177 million people, with just over 20% living in urban areas, according to the East African Community 2019 statistics report.
Further research shows that East Africa is among the fastest urbanizing regions globally at an average rate of 4.5% from 2000 to 2018, with Uganda ranking as the fastest growing country in the region. Economic growth characterized by urbanization means that there will be a need for many new resources to conform to the changing standards of a town or city.
Infrastructural development, irrespective of the size, destabilizes nature. If not carried out under sustainability measures, it can cause more harm than good. In this case, governments, investors and developers are faced with dilemmas on whether to pursue economic development over environmental conservation or find a balance which, in essence, hinders full-blown infrastructural expansion.
Nonetheless, developers and governments alike overlook the possible damage a building, a road, or a manufacturing plant can cause to humans, wildlife and the environment in general. Biodiversity is being destroyed as a consequence of development, with thousands of trees cut down as the first victims and animals killed.
In Kenya, for instance, the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Nairobi to Mombasa triggered a lot of uproars, demonstrations and petitions regarding the environmental damage it would cause. Notwithstanding, the construction of the SGR continued, which of course, led to the destruction of trees and animal habitats. The railway line passes through the Nairobi National Park, a unique ecosystem that thrives in the middle of a city, a one-of-a-kind in this world. The number of trees destroyed in the process still cannot be quantified.
A reconnaissance study of the SGR published in February 2021 established that forests in Kibwezi, located in South-Eastern Kenya, had to be cleared to pave the way for a railway station. Another significant expansion in Nairobi is an ongoing construction of a 27-kilometer expressway linking the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Westlands area through the Nairobi Central Business district. Trees have not been spared.
It is a development feature that many conservationists were against the initial plan where the road could chop off part of Uhuru Park hence could have destroyed an iconic Mugumo tree that is approximately 100 years old.
The road’s plan was reviewed and redesigned after immense public pressure, leaving Uhuru Park unscathed; still, trees were cut. The big question is, will more trees be planted along the highway as promised to compensate for those that have been destroyed? I guess only time will tell, and I hope the Kenyan public holds the government accountable for its promise.
Bugoma forest in Hoima District of western Uganda is rich in biodiversity and home to over 500 chimpanzees. Thousands of hectares of the forest were cleared for the plantation of sugarcane to meet the demands of two sugar processing companies nearby. The destruction of Bugoma forest is not an isolated case.Similarly, the Mau forest in Kenya, a critical water tower, has been destroyed courtesy of several companies and ranches that grabbed the forest for their benefit. Some of these companies have established colossal structures and nothing is done to them.
Notably, deforestation is happening at a time when climate change is devastating several communities globally. Ironically, as the rate at which trees are being cleared increases, very ambitious tree-planting targets set up by individuals and governments are on the rise. Destroyed forests have negative implications such as biodiversity loss, water scarcity, floods, and desertification. Curbing such events demands that governments and developers relook at their business ideals by fully integrating sustainable development.
Kenya’s government set a target to plant 2 billion tree seedlings by 2022, aiming to achieve the 10% forest cover target outlined under the 2010 constitution. The total forest cover currently stands at approximately 7%.In its Green Legacy Initiative, Ethiopia plans to plant 20 billion tree seedlings over four years starting 2019. In 2020 alone, a 5 billion tree goal was achieved. This followed 2019’s Green Legacy Day, where about 354 million seedlings were planted in a single day, surpassing the 200 million target.
Will the set targets be achieved within the specified time? If so, is it an assurance that timber harvesting, illegal logging, or felling of trees for development projects will be restricted?After seedlings planting, then what? Are there any plans to nurture the seedlings to maturity or is it a matter of checking bucket lists for development approvals without a guaranteed commitment to nature?