African ecologists unite for environment

ESEA aims to protect east Africa's ecology Copyright: FAO / Odoul

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[NAIROBI] East African scientists have united in a bid to protect the region’s ecology and biodiversity from changing climatic conditions, the invasion of pests, and unsustainable development.

The newly formed Ecological Society of East Africa (ESEA) involves 200 of the region’s scientists, who will lead scientific investigations and provide policy advice on these threats.

Ecologists from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda met in Nairobi last week (3–4 May) to set up the society’s secretariat and elect its interim officials.

Eric Mugurusi, director of the environment in the Tanzanian Office of the Vice President, said protecting the region’s ecology is important.

"The ecological systems are the basis for economic activities. Tourism, fisheries and agriculture depend on ecological stability," he said.

ESEA will, amongst other goals, aim to address ecological threats to the region, such as the emergence of alien species like ferns and other weeds that destroy pasture, encroach on agriculturally productive land and raise the cost of maintaining existing transport networks.

The Mathenge weed, for example, was introduced to east Africa to combat desertification by providing vegetation cover in arid lands. But the plant has proved poisonous and displaced 300 other plant species in Kenya and Tanzania.

The weed formed bushy paths and clogged access to highways, increasing the cost of maintaining roads in the remote countryside. The plant was also responsible for livestock deaths in local communities in Kenya.

According to Geoffrey Howard, regional programme coordinator at the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union, "There is a real risk that places like roadsides in equivalent climatic zones like East Africa will continue to replicate scenes like these unless their spread is checked and investigations are carried out on the likely impact of climate change on the spread of invasive species."

ESEA will also address concerns that increased extraction of natural resources, such as gold mining around Lake Victoria and the construction of natural gas stations in Tanzania, could increase the risk of environmental catastrophes like water and mercury pollution.

The organisation will help regional authorities take into account the environmental impacts of economic activities like these and develop policies to safeguard the integrity of the environment.

Jonathan Baranga, deputy vice-chancellor of Mbarara University in Uganda, said ESEA should take the lead in providing the region with the right policies to facilitate informed decision-making.

Baranga told SciDev.Net that oil exploration and drilling across the region should include sound ecological planning, which means ensuring the conservation of freshwater resources.

Brent Swallow, principal scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, said the formation of the society would allow the sharing of technical information and use of new research by farmers across the region.

"The society would become a partner in the implementation of some of our projects. We are trying to link farmers from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania on better land use and we think we can benefit from the expertise of such a group," he said.