Mary Mwendwa in Tanzania
October 02, 2012
Local communities in Northern Tanzania stand a chance of economic gain though ecotourism than the proposed soda ash mining at Lake Natron, a study reveals.
A new Cost Benefit Analysis report projects that the return on investment over the next 50 years would translate in a loss of between $44, 354, 728 and $ 492, 142 , 797, if exempted from paying government taxes.
According to Dr. Reuben Kadigi, the economist who led the cost benefits analysis team, “at present levels of soda ash prices and investment costs the benefits of ecosystem conservation outweigh the benefits of soda ash mining.” “The soda ash plant would deliver far worse returns for local people. There will be losses of benefits from different uses,” he added. The economic case for soda ash mining is complicated by the fact that the quality of the mineral at Lake Natron is low.
Lake Natron is an important breeding site for Lesser Flamingos in the world. East Africa is a home to about 2.5 million pink flamingos, which is equivalent to three-quarters of global population. In East Africa, most of these beautiful pink birds are hatched at Lake Natron.
Tata Chemicals Industries put forward the initial proposal to construct a soda ash plant at the Lake in 2006, but withdrew in May 2008 following concerns over negative impacts on flamingo breeding , local livelihoods and environment.
Lake Natron is a wetland of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention. The lesser flamingo is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List 2004.
Several tourists usually flock the area for flamingo watching. Mrs Sophia Ndakarr, the Chair of the Ngare Sero cultural boma says ecotourism gives the local communities better opportunities. “Tourists come to see our beautiful culture and enjoy nature. In the process our lives are better. We cannot say the same of a soda ash plant,” she notes.
Birdlife international through a campaign dubbed ‘Think Pink’ continues to advocate for a complete withdrawal of the soda ash project which it says will risk the endangering of the lesser flamingo and the integrity of Lake Natron ecosystem as a whole on which many local livelihoods depend.
The report shows that the Tanzanian public and local communities stand to gain between $1.28 and 1.57 billion in 50 years, if the Government of Tanzania invests in tourism, protection of the environment and promotion of local livelihood alternatives. Compared to soda ash mining, the people and environment would still tap greater benefits even if the Government continued managing and investing in the environment at current levels (business as usual).
“At the present levels of soda ash prices and investment costs, the benefits of ecosystem conservation outweigh the benefits of soda ash mining,” says Dr. Reuben Kadigi, the economist who led the Cost Benefit Analysis team.
“The soda ash plant would deliver far worse returns for local people. There will be losses of benefits from different uses,” he adds. The economic case for soda ash mining is complicated by the fact that the quality of the mineral at Lake Natron is low.
The report further shows that support for the soda ash mining proposal at Lake Natron is insignificant.
Up to 84 percent of 175 local community respondents consulted during the study were strongly opposed to the soda ash plans while 10 per cent were in support. The rest were neutral.
The study, which was undertaken between September 2011 and May 2012, looked at three possible options for Lake Natron: soda ash mining, business-as-usual and ecotourism and livelihood promotion.
Estimates of benefits and costs from the soda ash business were based on eight production options. The eight options were a combination of the amount of soda ash to be produced (that is either 500,000 or 1 million tonnes per year); annual increase in soda ash production (2% or 5%) and length of the project (17,38 or 50 years). Four of the options assumed that the investor would bear the costs of construction/rehabilitation of the Tanga-Lake Natron railway and the road from Arusha.
From the Cost Benefit Analysis study, only three out of eight soda ash scenarios seem to suggest some positive benefit to the investor but even these would require soda ash to be produced at 1 million tonnes throughout the project period.
“This level of soda ash production is not tenable for an ecologically sensitive environment like Lake Natron. It would also be technologically unrealistic” said Dr Fred Kilima who co-authored the report. “These scenarios require that the construction of basic infrastructure like roads and rail link be borne by externally and not by the investor.”
The report further points to another challenge to future natural soda ash production – the stiff competition it faces from the synthetic variety. China is a leading producer of synthetic soda ash. Tata Chemicals Magadi factory in Kenya has been feeling this competition and has at times operated at very low production levels.
“The Government of Tanzania should use the report to re-assess its long-standing desire to build a soda ash factory at Lake Natron,” says Mr. Deo Gamassa, the CEO of Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (BirdLife in Tanzania). He added that, “the Lake Natron communities are better off without the soda ash plant. Investment should now focus on promoting ecotourism which is now proved to be the economically better option.”