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Balancing Tourism With The Environment

Gambela National Park - must conservation make way for profits?

Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN  May 10, 2011

(eTN) - In a remote corner of Ethiopia, not far from the border with the soon independent South Sudan, the little known Gambela National Park is found, visited by a very few adventure tourists who, going by blog reports found on the web, were enchanted by their experience and raving about their discovery, with few, if any, other tourists around at any given time of the year, making it one of the most exclusive safari experiences available on the market today.

This very diverse park, in terms of scenery and landscapes, as well as the game found, does not even feature on the web very much as yet, and information sourced from there is at times contradictory, as its size according to different sites is pegged between about 5,000 and as many as 20,000 square kilometers - an incredible variance by any standards and probably one of the main reasons for this article, as will become evident soon, in the absence of defined boundaries.

What is, however, beyond doubt is the majesty of the park area, from the mountains down to the plains and wetlands, which extend towards the South Sudan border, where according to a source in Addis Ababa, over 400 species of birds are found, as well as over 50 mammal species, including predators like lion, leopard, cheetah, hyenas, and a variety of smaller cats and foxes.

The presence in the park of a permanent major river, the Baro, which flows towards the Nile, adds to the attraction of the park as it is navigable for much of the year – though reportedly not used for regular trips by tourists – and its depth and width makes a good habitat for many hippo colonies and the giant Nile Perch. The most common plains game are reportedly the white-eared kob, also found in the hundreds of thousands at Boma National Park in Southern Sudan, and the Nile or Kafue Lechwe.

Ethiopia as a tourist destination remains well behind its potential, and while known for its history, ancient cultures, and allegedly hidden treasures – the mystical Ark is rumored to have been hidden in Ethiopia somewhere – the country is not too well known for its national parks.

It is, therefore, probably for lack of demand by tourists, itself, of course, caused by a lack of determined marketing of the country’s natural attractions, that an alarming trend has been observed, in particular around the Gambela National Park.

While it is, of course, true that Ethiopia has in the past been suffering from devastating droughts and subsequent famine – maybe one reason why the country is not considered the typical tourist destination in spite of its attractions – and the parallel need to produce more food for the population in parts of the country, which is less prone to drought effects, the agro-industrialization lobby has now earmarked the national park land to provide more farmland for expansion. Sadly, for the hungry in Ethiopia, the anticipated production though is not aimed at the local market but for export to feed the growing populations in India and the Middle East, where added farmland is either impossible to get or where climatic conditions, like in Saudi Arabia for instance, make it impossible to grow food crops on a large scale in a sustainable fashion.

Hence, officials and tycoons from such countries have sought out opportunities on the African continent, where governments of relatively poor countries can easily be induced by grand schemes and grander cash resources to part with arable land on a major scale. Hundreds of thousands of acres are in coming years, and probably sooner rather than later, to be converted into mega farms, growing food crops, oil crops, and there is even speculation that crops aimed to produce bio-fuels – the bane of feeding the hungry in Africa and the rest of the world – are to be grown.

With the expected inflow of farm workers, talk has it that tens of thousands might be needed, along with whom come roads, villages, and farm infrastructure. Extensive swamp lands are earmarked for draining, to use the water and create added farming areas, interfering with crucially important ecosystems responsible for the moderate micro-climate this part of Ethiopia enjoys. With the biodiversity such threatened, environmentalists and conservationists are starting to ask hard questions, now that these developments are slowly coming into the public domain, hitherto carefully hidden from the prying eyes of the conservation community and the global media, but not this correspondent.

One leading tourism expert in Addis Ababa, with whom this correspondent is in regular contact, was careful about his reaction and almost paranoid about not having any identity revealed for fear of repercussions, something which the regime is notorious for. Said the source: "Even in Addis, we hear little about the plans for Gambela. A lot is shrouded in secrecy because of the deals which have been made, are being made. What Ethiopia should have done first is to tap into tourism on a scale like Kenya or Tanzania do or you in Uganda. This park is really not known, only very few know about it. But the wildlife numbers are very big, the scenery is spectacular, in fact.

"I hear even across the border into South Sudan they want to tap into the Boma National Park for tourism where they have also a big migration of kobs. Last year, I was aware of a global group, Wildlife Conservation, to work with some officials to survey Gambela and other wildlife areas. There are reports, but I do not know where they are kept or if they are available for us to read and learn about findings. I think our government needs to sit down with us internal experts and discuss our country’s way forward.

"This should be for all of us to decide, do we want to mortgage our land to foreign investors or become investors ourselves in tourism and make it a big industry? Ethiopian Airlines is the best in Africa and flies to the most places everywhere. Let us work hand-in-hand with them to promote tourism. It brings investment, jobs, foreign exchange, and is sustainable. But once we drain swamps, destroy habitat for crops, the animals will become enemies of the farmer, because they eat the crops, then they are hunted, fenced out, starve. I think this story has to become public knowledge, like you did with the Serengeti story since last year. Please help us spread information."

Added details obtained from other sources also speak of imminent displacement of the hunter/gatherer tribespeople living in the area, who will have to make way for agro conglomerates and either end up as menial farm laborers or in camps, in both cases losing their freedoms to do as they wish to and having to give up, likely against their will, age-old customs and lifestyles. Deforestation is already evident in parts of the park previously covered by woodlands and will arguably accelerate further, when firewood will be needed to fire boilers, for households’ domestic use, and for timber to build houses.

In closing, it is hoped by this correspondent that a healthy debate will ensue from here on, and that all pros and cons of these developments are discussed and affected populations consulted to ensure the long-term survival of one of Ethiopia’s and, in fact, East Africa’s last pristine wilderness areas, where with some degree of careful planning, agriculture and conservation could easily co-exist, instead of one having to give way to the other by force.

Like "the corridor of destruction" in Tanzania, where from Lake Victoria to the shores of the Indian Ocean at Mwambani near Tanga, major consumptive and destructive industrial and infrastructural projects are being planned and relentlessly advanced by the Tanzanian government, totally insensitive to the outcry by the global conservation community and their domestic tourism sector, here in Ethiopia, too, similar forces seem at work.

Coincidence or the plan of the world’s rich and powerful to carve up Africa and suck its resources dry before discarding us when we have nothing else left to give?

Gambela National Park - must conservation make way for profits?
Gambella National Park / Image via

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