By Orton Kiishweko

An Indian company that was keen to invest $500 million (about Sh600 billion) in a soda ash project along Lake Natron in Manyara district has reportedly pulled out.

The firm, Tata Chemicals, announced it was putting on hold its plans for a soda ash extraction and processing plant at Lake Natron due to intense pressure by environmental lobbyists.

Mr Homi Khusrokhan, the firm's managing director, said his company has suspended the investment and will wait results of the final Ramsar Management Plan currently under preparation for Lake Natron.

We still wait for a report that is meant to put the investors and environmentalists concerns into consideration, he said.

However, a report published in the Hindustan Times, one of India's leading newspapers, quoted Mr Khusrokhan as saying the project was also facing a tricky situation that has something to do with a tedious environmental convention.

Environmentalists all over the world have opposed the project, saying Lake Natron, which is an important breeding ground for flamingos, would be destroyed if the company set up a factory. Their campaign forced the shelving of the first environmental impact assessment report that had cleared the Indian firm to invest.

Yesterday, Tanzanian authorities were, however, unaware of the planned suspension with Environment Minister Dr Batilda Burian and Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC) chief executive Mr Emmanuel ole Naiko saying they were yet to receive official information from the company.

Mr Ole Naiko said the suspension of the project may not be conclusive as an assessment report that will consider the interests of investors and conservationists was still being awaited.

The merits and demerits of the project are still being debated and a common understanding has not yet been reached as far as I know, Mr ole Naiko said.

Dr Burian told The Citizen that the Government has not approved the project, and was still assessing it to determine whether to endorse it or not.

As the Government, we are obliged to bring about sustainable social, economic and environmental development. This means that we can allow the project only after the merits and demerits of the whole scheme, she said.

Mr Khusrokhan, a key spokesperson for the project, admitted that it was clear now that the plant could not be sited at the lakeside because of the risks to the environment. Therefore, the original Environment and Social Impact Assessment should be treated as withdrawn, he said.

But Mr Gideon Nasari, managing director of the state-run National Development Corporation (NDC), has in the past said that they plan to shift the plant 35km (22 miles) from the lakeshore to help preserve flamingos, which are a major tourist attraction.
However, a UK-based environment group, Birdlife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, opposed this saying that shifting the project 35km from the lake would not mitigate the negative impact the project is likely to pose to lesser flamingos and the local community.
Twenty-four conservationists from East African countries, under the banner of Lake Natron Consultative Group recently , called on the Tanzanian government to halt the project, saying its a recipe for destruction of the lake and it inhabitants.

Conservationists also argued that the economic benefits of the plant are insignificant, compared with its long-term negative effects on the environment and the country's struggling tourism sector.

Their reports have indicated that Lake Natron is by far the most significant of only five sites in the world where lesser flamingos breed regularly and successfully. The breeding at Lake Natron accounts for 75% of all the world's lesser flamingos.
Their reports also say, that based on flamingo tourism alone, Lake Natron has a value of close to $12 million a year.

Chanzo: The Citizen, 23/05/2008

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