for National Geographic News
Plans for a 50,000-acre (20,000-hectare) sugar production plant in Kenya's Tana River Delta have ignited a bitter dispute between conservation groups and economic-minded officials.
Supporters say studies show that sugar cane grows nearly three times as fast in the delta's rich wetlands as it does in western Kenya, where the bulk of the country's sugar is currently produced.
Such output would give Kenya's sugar industry a huge boost when it needs it most, proponents say, and would provide up to 20,000 new jobs in an impoverished region of the country.
But opponents argue that development could irreversibly ruin the delta, which is home to several indigenous groups, a vast array of bird and fish species, and two species of highly endangered primates.
On a single day in January of this year, the Mwamba Bird Observatory and Field Study Centre counted 15,000 water birds belonging to 69 species, including herons, terns, African skimmers, and stork.
Colin Jackson, who led the recent count, estimated that the census covered only 15 percent of the delta's acreage (see a map of Kenya showing the Tana River).
"I was stunned by the number of birds and the diversity, the volume—and we were only looking at a tiny percentage of the whole area," Jackson said.
He added that he was surprised at how little attention the sugar factory issue has received so far from other environmental groups.
"It appeared that there was actually very little concern being raised in the conservation world about this, even though the site is really, really important," Jackson said.
"Normally with a development of this size, which is huge and will have a major impact on the ecosystem, there's normally quite some noise being made."
The situation in the Tana River Delta is a microcosm of the challenges facing Kenya and much of East Africa.
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