Top Kenyan nature reserve under threat

Huge sugar plantation would devastate Tana Delta, home to dozens of bird species

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Little disturbs the tranquillity of the Tana Delta. As the deep orange sun sets above Kenya's largest wetlands hippos wallow in the shallows, crocodiles slide off the banks into the brown river, while terns and whistling teals circle above. It is one of Kenya's most important natural reserves and very soon it could all be gone.

Plans have been drawn up to turn part of the delta into Kenya's largest sugar plantation – an 80,000 acre area that could produce 100,000 tons of sugar a year and bring 20,000 jobs to a region where most people do not have jobs. Conservationists are alarmed. They warn that the plantation will destroy the wetlands and with it the habitats of dozens of species of bird includingAllen's Gallinules..

More than 15,000 birds from 69 species were counted on a single day earlier this year in an area comprising just 15 per cent of the wetlands. The coastline is home to endangered marine turtles, while two endangered primates can be found in the forests that line the wetlands – the red colobus and the crested mangabey. "To put sugar plantations right into the heart of the Tana Delta will spell the end of the delta," said Colin Jackson of the Mwamba Bird Observatory. "It will be a natural disaster if this development is allowed to go ahead the way it is currently planned."

The Tana Delta stretches for 50 miles inland from the northern coast of Kenya, between Lamu and Malindi. To reach the Mbililo lake at its heart requires a bumpy two-hour journey along dirt tracks, followed by two hours on a motor boat through reeds and under thickets up the Tana River. Just what it is that will be lost is only clear when viewed from the air. The lush, rich greens of the wetlands continues for mile upon mile. Thousands of cattle graze along the banks, and flocks of waterfowl soar from the river towards the pink clouds above.

But amid the beauty there is desperate poverty. Around three-quarters of the delta's residents live on less than $1 a day. Jobs are scarce, clean water and electricity are non-existent.

Mumias Sugar Company, the company behind the scheme, which is backed by the regional development authority and the Kenyan government, has promised to bring jobs and investment to the delta. It also said the project will bring roads, water, electricity, schools and hospitals.

Local residents are divided. "The government hasn't brought us anything," said Ibrahim Nossir, a father of three. "If we refuse this we might not get anything else. How will we pay our school fees for our children if we do not agree?"

But local conservation officials believe too much will be lost. "If the plantation comes we will lose all of our natural resources," said Ibrahim Hiribae, the secretary of the Lower Tana Delta Conservation Trust. "What if the project fails? We will have nothing left."

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