In mid-January, the Conservation Alliance of Kenya protested the planned high-speed standard gauge railway (SGR) extension through Nairobi National Park.
Why? Because, they said, the plan will isolate a large section of the forested upland of the park, and separate it from the grasslands.
The giant infrastructure project will also result in significant population displacements in Dagoretti and Karen.
The mere thought of disrupting the current reserve areas means that we do not have a plan to manage our resources sustainably and we may never realise our conservation goals.
It is too soon for Kenya to ignore the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) meant to transform the world and which Kenya subscribes to.
Goal 15 commits us to “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”
These were well thought goals that are meant to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all that we should not violate even one of them.
Indeed five of the 17 goals touch on environment. Perhaps goal 9 — on building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation — is more relevant to the discussion of infrastructure and conservation.
The successful completion of SGR is not a problem but rather a challenge that we must overcome with innovative thinking while we conserve the little that we have.
We must, therefore, dismiss the growing fable that conservation efforts always stand in the way of development. Which explains why the proponents of the SGR cutting through the Park are refusing to listen to conservationists.
Lessons from many parts of the world tell us that conservation and development have never been in conflict.
It is the imagined differences that create the skirmishes we witness. What is important is how we can collectively work together to achieve objectives of these two critical archetypes of economic progress.
New technologies for infrastructure development have made it possible to do what we considered impossible just a couple of years.
Technology provides us with the opportunity to do some things today that would be a great monument for future generations.
It is my considered view therefore that the SGR should go underground and leave the park intact. This is what the Britons and the French did to build the Channel Tunnel, a 50.5-km rail tunnel linking Folkestone, Kent, in the United Kingdom, with Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais, near Calais in northern France.
For this distance, the railway line goes beneath the English Channel at the Strait of Dover. Several other countries have built such infrastructure to preserve the environment.
These include a Brazilian highway between Sao Paulo and Santos which blasts through rocky mountains to link the two cities; the Gyeongbu High Speed Railway that runs from Seol to Busan piercing through mountains and cutting the distance by several kilometres to preserve the mountainous forests.
We have a great moment in history to be a little creative and leverage the abundant human resource to conserve but also build a major rail infrastructure.
If we fail to gather the courage to do something innovative, then we would rather take the infrastructure through the Southern Bypass, which intrudes less into the reserve areas.
Nairobi National Park is one of the most visited parks in the country. It is a true tourism icon, the only national park next to a major city.
It is in our interest to preserve it as part of our strategy to achieve the SGDs by 2030. Already the Northern Bypass has taken a portion of the reserve, phase 1 SGR too has hived off some portion and now SGR phase 2 is more ambitious and wants to cut through the park.
We must halt this appetite for reserve land, and instead leverage innovative technologies to build a sustainable future for all.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US President, said, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.
I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognise the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
We have a collective responsibility to protect our natural resources without compromising them under the cover of development.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.