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Dear Uganda, ‘development’ does not mean destroying our heritage
Daniel Kalinaki
Posted: 9 months 1 week

I recently interviewed Kaddu Sebunya, the Ugandan president of the African Wildlife Foundation, over lunch in Nairobi. I expected a preachy sermon about poaching and clichéd quotes about elephants and rhinos. Instead I was introduced to a new ecosystem of thinking about conservation altogether.

Here is an example. Nairobi has a sprawling national park just off the city centre. You can drive into the park in a Toyota Vitz and see lions, giraffes, zebra, et cetera, in their natural habitat, with the city’s tall buildings in the background.

Nairobi is the only capital city in the world with a game park. This is, obviously, an asset – and one that brings in tourism dollars. But it is also a challenge. As the city expands and its population grows, there is encroachment on the park. A few times lions have wandered out of the park into the city, paralysing traffic and sending Kenyan pedestrians towards the Olympics.As Kenya builds more roads and railway lines to connect the city to the coast, there is bound to be more pressure on the park. Folks working in conservation say the park is sacrosanct and should not be touched. Kaddu takes a pragmatic, if not contrarian view.

Kenyans, he says, must first acknowledge that the park is what makes Nairobi unique and gives it its identity and character. San Diego has its zoo, New York its skyscrapers, Paris its Eiffel Tower and Nairobi its park. Having done that, they must then negotiate concessions: If the park’s intrinsic value is priceless, they will or should be willing to pay more money to divert roads and railways away from the park or settle humans elsewhere.

If, however, it is not, then they should quantify that value and demand compensation, and a premium, say for relocating the animals to another park in the country, and then giving the relevant body equity in the residual project, to fund conservation of the relocated animals.

This is a simplified version but Kaddu’s idea turns the conservation agenda on its head in many ways. He doesn’t get Christmas cards from some of his colleagues for it, but it is a useful way for countries and cities to rethink the conservation-versus-development question.

Uganda should pay attention. Our pursuit of ‘development’ has been characterised by a withering disregard for tradition, heritage or conservation. Breaking down and building up is our idea of ‘progress’.As usual, it is often a lack of imagination. Green spaces, stadiums and wetlands are lost to used car lots, ugly malls and dysfunctional hotels. Soon, The Observer reported, the curtains will fall on the National Theatre in Kampala City.

“This iconic 60-year-old piano-shaped building,” the paper noted, “is set for demolition to pave way for a 36-storey modern tower” with arcades, restaurants, cinemas, and auditoriums.Rather than bemoan the death of yet another cultural artefact and facility, we can apply Kaddu’s logic to the project. First, the public should have an opportunity to see and comment on the project proposal to ensure that this remains a creative space in design and functionality.

Then, we should ensure that the Uganda National Cultural Centre, which owns the land in trust, retains an interest in the new property development, whose proceeds are earmarked for creative projects, such as setting up theatres as well as film, drama and acting schools across the country.

None of this, of course, answers the fundamental question that arises: What are those things that are unique to Kampala or Uganda that we must protect at all costs? Here I propose a simple rule-of-thumb: Every time a developer attempts to take over public land or a landmark building, we should ask; can this project be built in place of the Kasubi Tombs?

If the answer is yes, then it should get the go-ahead. If not, then the developers should be advised to buy land at market rates, or relocate or replace whatever they are seeking to destroy. After all, you can set up a new sugar plantation in Amuru, but you can’t replant Mabira forest.

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Related: I was recently forced to visit the Garden City Mall in search of a new strap for my wristwatch. Forced, because I generally make it a point to stay away from business premises that were implanted on public land or green spaces. I would be lying if I did not admit to a tinge of schadenfreude seeing all the empty shops and those struggling to remain open. Mind, Acacia and Village Malls, built on private land, are thriving. The strap broke after a day.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist,

Twitter: @Kalinaki