Plans for a sugar factory in Kenya's Tana River Delta have ignited a bitter dispute between conservation groups and economic officials. As Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi, opponents argue development could ruin the delta, which is home to several indigenous groups, a vast array of bird and fish species and endangered monkeys.

On a single day in January of this year, the Mwamba Bird Observatory Field Study Centre says it counted 15,000 water birds belonging to 69 species, including herons, terns, African skimmers and stork.

Colin Jackson, who led the recent count and has been an opponent of the sugar project, estimates the census covered only 15 percent of the delta's acreage. Jackson warns the factory could upset the ecosystem of the region along Kenya's east coast.

"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," he said. "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. 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. Although the region boasts extraordinary biological diversity, it is also a place of deep poverty, leaving many people desperate for development.

Balancing the need to protect the ecosystem with locals' demands for jobs has not been easy. The revived sugar project, to be run by Kenya's Mumias Sugar Company, is the latest in a string of proposed development ideas for the delta.

The latest plan would take about 50,000 acres of land for production and could cost some $350 million. And, other producers have been showing increased interest in the area in recent days.

Mat International Sugar announced last week it has acquired 223,000 acres, adjacent to Mumias's claim, as part of a second, $2 billion sugar project.

One of Mumias' most important backers is the Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA), whose chair is a nephew of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

And, President Kibaki has expressed his support for the project, which comes at a crucial time for the Kenyan economy.

Next February, Kenya may drop tariffs for sugar imported from other countries in the regional trading group known as Common Markets of Eastern and Southern Africa. Sugar from elsewhere in COMESA is about 40 percent cheaper than Kenyan sugar.

TARDA spokeswoman Damaris Kiarie says officials fear that, without its own cheap source, Kenya's sugar industry could be wiped out.

"Poverty levels in the area are very high," she explained. "There's also the issue of COMESA sugar. In 2008, once COMESA starts bringing duty-free sugar and Kenya has a debt of about 250,000 tons, it means we will lose out. So, we have to produce sugar at low production cost so that we bridge the deficit gap. So, it's a national goal, actually.

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 Kenya's sugar is now produced.

Proponents say such output would give Kenya's sugar industry a huge boost when it needs it most and would provide up to 20,000 new jobs in an impoverished region of the country.

Over the years, the delta has seen several failed attempts at bringing in money and development.

One was a World Bank project meant to protect the red colobus monkey and the crested mangabey, rare primates that live in the delta. The bank's solution was to relocate people, an idea that only fanned anger and resentment toward wildlife. Eventually the project was abandoned.

And, in 2000 and 2001, deadly clashes erupted between the Orma farmers and Pokomo cattle herders in the region about water and land resources. Many observers believe the conflict was caused, in part, by numerous failed irrigation projects in the delta.

Tentative plans call for many farmers to be moved away from the delta, an idea that could lead to new animosity.

Critics of the sugar plants have suggested that developers focus, instead, on the resources that the delta already has: freshwater fisheries, mango plantations, rice, and tourism. They argue the studies on sugar growth cited by proponents of the projects have not been submitted for public scrutiny.

And, they point to fears of new clashes. The Pokomo are largely in favor. The Orma are opposed.