NAIROBI, Kenya – The fig tree, four stories high and nearly a century old, its arching branches forming a giant canopy, has served as a landmark for generations of Kenyans in the bustling Westlands shopping district in the capital, Nairobi.
“Not all trees have the same status,” said Peter Kiarie Njoroge, an elder of the Kikuyu tribe, who regards fig trees as the “house of God” and the abode of their ancestors. This one, he said, craning his neck to look at the giant leaves, is “like a guard post.”
But the days of the famous tree are numbered. It stands on the way to a 17-mile four-lane highway under construction in the city of Nairobi. Government authorities say they will remove it – and although they have promised to move it and transplant it, experts say it might be impossible for such a large specimen. Construction vehicles were already parked nearby on a recent afternoon, and workers said they were preparing to start any day.
This tree has now become the most visible symbol of growing public opposition to the massive new highway – the Nairobi Highway – for reasons ranging from the environment to the economy to aesthetics. Some Kenyans have been outraged that highway builders have already mowed dozens of trees along the route and could walk through Uhuru Park – an iconic strip of greenery in the city center. Others oppose the project because they say it will indebt Kenya even more deeply to China, which is building the project at a cost of around $ 550 million, which taxpayers will have to repay, in some way. of another.
Kenyan officials are defending the road as necessary to unclog the city’s notorious traffic safeguards. Charles Njogu, a spokesperson for the Kenya National Highways Authority, said the new road would pass through the heart of the city center, reducing rush-hour travel time from Westlands to the international airport by around two hours to just over 10 minutes. . The project, he said, will also create around 3,500 jobs during and after construction and help reduce the roughly $ 165 million Kenyans lose in traffic jams each year. It is expected to be completed in 2022.
Mr. Njogu refused to answer any questions regarding the environmental impact of the project or the fate of the fig tree.
The highway has come under heavy criticism from many camps. Lawmakers in parliament initially questioned the decision to start building the road before the environmental agency issued the permit documents. Environmental groups said there were no proper studies on the impact on air quality or green spaces, and yelled at the plan to cut through Uhuru Park. The park was rescued from bulldozers in the 1980s by Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who died in 2011.
Even after the government said it would save the park, environmentalists were not appeased. “As we’ve seen in the past with other kinds of developments that have gone through, one thing is said and then another is implemented,” said Elizabeth Wathuti, Campaigns Manager at the Wangari Maathai Foundation.
The foundation is part of a consortium of groups that have appealed the decision to issue an environmental permit for the highway.
There is a law that requires construction to stop until the case is decided. But the contractor, the China Road and Bridge Corporation, has already started work, including cutting dozens of trees along the route of the highway.
In a city with dwindling green space, Nairobi residents fear the expressway will have an impact on biodiversity. With nearly 5 million inhabitants, Nairobi still has two urban forests and two nature reserves. Public parks, gardens and playgrounds are all shrinking due to expanding development, according to a 2020 report from the United Nations Human Settlements Program.
Ms Wathuti, who recently led a protest against the fig tree felling, said the highway project shows how much the government cares about infrastructure and trade development.
“I think the best gift we can give the next generation is to protect these spaces,” she said.
The highway economy “doesn’t make sense,” said Tony Watima, Kenya’s economic consultant and Business Daily columnist. In a country where the majority of people live in rural areas and in a city where most people take public transport or walk to work to get to work, the government should not have made a commitment in a public-private partnership that only serves the few people who drive, he said. .
“You are creating a government policy that continues to anchor social and economic class,” Watima said in a telephone interview.
As with many Chinese-backed projects in Kenya, he added, “We always have to find ourselves trading between environment and economic value, which is a bad thing.”
Last year, a court order ended a China-backed plan to build Kenya’s first coal-fired power plant in the historic seaside town of Lamu due to the lack of a comprehensive environmental assessment.
Motorists using the Nairobi Expressway will have to pay tolls and the proceeds will be donated over 30 years to the China Road and Bridge Corporation.
Still, details remain scarce on how the company will collect its fees, who will bear repair costs and how much to charge for vehicles used by commuters – like matatu minibuses, said Mark Odaga, a program manager at Natural Justice. , a lawyer. working group on environmental issues and human rights.
Some people wonder if a freeway is really the best solution to traffic congestion in Nairobi. Once completed, the traffic lane could face the “Braess paradox,” in which adding roads to an existing network ends up hampering overall traffic, said Amos Wemanya, a Greenpeace Africa activist.
When Najma Dharani, an environmental consultant, moved from Pakistan to Kenya in 1992, she documented the trees and shrubs native to East Africa, eventually publishing the “Field Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs of Africa. of the East ”in 2002.
From the start, the giant fig tree, she said, took my breath away. ”For days Mrs. Dharani said she would go and sit in the shade of the tree, which she said is up to 100 years old and identified as Ficus lutea, l one of over 30 species of fig trees in Kenya.
“This particular tree is a symbol of Nairobi,” Ms. Dharani said in a telephone interview. “I have never seen anything like it. We must keep it as a national heritage.”
The authorities said they will uproot and move fig tree, a movement according to Ms. Dharani is not feasible.
But if this decision comes to fruition, Mr. Njoroge hopes that the elders of his community will be allowed to conduct a ritual, so that they can “bring peace and harmony” to all those who will one day pass by the highway.
Mr. Njoroge grew up listening to stories about the sacred nature of the fig tree, known locally as the mugumo or mukuyu, and its place in the origins and religious beliefs of his community. As a young man, he heard the story of how a traditional Kikuyu seer, sitting under a fig tree in Thika, north of Nairobi in the 19th century, prophesied that British colonial rule would end in Kenya when this tree withered and died. Almost 70 years later, the tree is dead and the British are gone.
As he became a scholar in religion and an ancient tribal, he joined his family and members of his clan under a grove of fig trees to make sacrifices to God, hold circumcision ceremonies, and pray for wealth, fertility and the rain. He said he was resigned to the plan to cut the tree down, but lamented it.
“All living things have their rights which must be respected,” he said. “You just don’t need concrete all the time. You need the green.