- Kenyan National Environment Management Authority (NEMA)'s decision to turn 20,000 hectares of the pristine Tana Delta into irrigated sugarcane plantations has not bode well with conservationists and residents, who argue the move is detrimental to wildlife in the area.
The two groups maintain that the move backed by Kenyan government is illegal, and are thus determined to do everything in their power to forestall it.
The Delta is home to a variety of wildlife, which comprises 350 species of bird, lions, elephants, rare sharks and reptiles including Tana writhing skinks.
Executive Director of Nature in Kenya (Bird-life Kenya), Paul Matiku is convinced that decision is a national disaster that will certainly devastate the area.
"Tana's ecology will be destroyed yet the economic gains will be pitiful. It will seriously damage our priceless national assets and will put livelihoods of people living in the Delta in jeopardy," Mr Matiku lashed out.
He added, "environmental assessment for scheme was poor yet government has defied even those very modest recommendations. We refuse to accept that this decision as final. The development must be stopped at all costs."
The proposal was approved by Kenyan government's National Environment Management Authority, which put 14 conditions on the sugarcane plan. Conditions are however said to be weak and ignore environmental assessment, which showed that irrigation of crops would cause severe drainage of Delta.
The decision also reportedly overlooks ongoing dispute over compensation for farmers and fishermen who would lose their land and fishing rights.
Mr Matiku said, "this is the only dry-season grazing area for hundreds of miles and its loss will leave many hundreds of farmers with no-where to take their cattle."
A report commissioned by Nature Kenya and RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) in May established that developer's plans overestimated profits, ignored fees for water use and pollution from sugarcane plant, and disregarded the loss of income from wildlife tourists.
The study indicated the Delta's ecological benefits "defied valuation" and that proposal would cause "irreversible loss of ecosystem services" - benefits such as flood prevention, storage of greenhouse gases and provision of medicines and food.
Mumias Sugar Company says income from sugarcane cultivation will be US$2.45 million over 20 years, though report showed revenue from fishing, farming, tourism and other lost livelihoods would be US$59 million over same period.
Africa specialist with RSPB, Paul Buckley, noted, "until now, Kenya's support for global agreements to protect wildlife has been excellent but this development could severely damage Kenya's reputation for caring for its environment."
Conservationists say that an integrated management plan for entire Tana River basin should precede any development considerations. Lack of project design documents, required by Kenyan environmental law, is reportedly a critical omission in whole Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process.
"Current EIA was hurriedly produced and lacks vital information. NEMA should reject it and request for a new EIA study for new project site," Mr Matiku was quoted as saying.
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