Development efforts frustrated by environmentalists

An irrigation project that would have turned 20,000 hectares of the Tana River delta into sugarcane fields for biofuel production, appears grounded by protests from environmental conservationists. Environmentalists insist that the present state of the Tana Delta is the best way of improving the economic status of area residents  – through tourism.

The use of the Tana Delta for sugar and ethanol production is supported by President Mwai Kibaki and local Member of Parliament (MP), Mr Danson Mungatana. The Kenyan government says the project will provide employment to locals while providing food and energy security to the country.

Mr Mungatana’s opponents argue that the proposed project will deny their people grazing land during the dry season. The Tana delta is home to both agrarian and pastoralist communities. Mr Mungatana represents agrarian communities while his opponents come from tribes that practice traditional type of cattle herding known as nomadic pastoralism.

The Kenyan government has given approval to several organizations to conduct sugarcane farming in the Tana Delta. The first was MAT International, a company linked to Arab investors but which is yet to begin operations. The second is Mumias Sugar, the country’s biggest sugar miller. Until now, Mumias Sugar had confined its production to Western Kenya. The National Irrigation Board, a state-owned corporation, also intends to revive irrigation projects along the Tana River.

The bulk of opposition to the sugar project comes from environmental conservationists who say that the Tana Delta is home to a wide spectrum of wildlife whose existence would be threatened by the mega project. According to Nature Kenya, the Tana Delta is a, “critical site for the conservation of birds.”  Nature Kenya also backs the pastoral communities agitating for the protection of pasture.

“The Tana River Delta supports several communities and enormous numbers of livestock, wildlife and water birds. The people have adapted their lifestyle to seasonal extremes. Farmers cultivate on receding lake edges, seasonally fertile floodplains, and where the river spills fresh water into their fields with the tidal flow. Other people raise livestock or engage in fishing. In times of drought, pastoralists bring livestock from as far as the Somali and Ethiopian borders to graze on the grasslands.”

Once again, there is conflict between the desire to conserve the environment and national needs for industrialization and employment creation. Across the African continent – and by extension the entire developing world – environmentalists funded by industrialized countries have intervened against development projects.

Still in Kenya’s Coast Province, a couple of hundred kilometres south of the Tana Delta, a massive project aimed at extracting titanium ore has stalled for a decade. Just like in the Tana Delta, environmental concerns and political infighting has ruined what would otherwise have been a major income earner for a country struggling at the lower ranks of global social indicators. Local people in Kwale were continually made to demand higher compensation fees.

The opposite corner of Kenya is also witness to yet another troubled project, thanks to environmentalists and politicians. The Dominion Group of Oklahoma, USA, was granted the rights to undertake commercial farming in the Yala River swamp that drains into Lake Victoria. The area has massive rates of poverty and it was believed that the entry of the Dominion Group would help raise living standards. Yala swamp is also ideal for rice and cotton production and initial tests yielded a huge harvest. But interference by politicians and non-governmental organizations turned the local communities against the project.

By early 2008, the Dominion Group was threatening to pull out from the area due to extortion from local leaders. The announcement was made by the group’s CEO who had flown from the United States.

Communities from Meru, Nyeri, Laikipia, Kwale and Taita Taveta Districts constitute the forgotten victims of environmental conservation. Human – wildlife conflict in areas surrounding national parks has largely been ignored as the country rushes to win internation accolades in wildlife conservation. With people killed by marauding wildlife and crops destroyed, life next to Kenya’s national parks is nothing close to what is portrayed in tourist brochures. Killing an elephant in self defense is likely to attract the wrath of law enforcers and a lengthy jail sentence. However, if a wild animal kills a human being, the survivors get only Kshs30,000 (US$447) in compensation.

“You cannot expect to get grand children if you insist on your children remaining virgins,” Prime Minister Raila Odinga has said on several occasions. The message here is that the country cannot hope to increase food production and boost employment without modifying the ecology. Farms, schools, towns, homes, roads and industries all require land, water and fuel. All these must come from the environment.

In neighbouring Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the government to proceed with construction of the Bujagali Hydro-Electric Power station. Protests by environmentalists had delayed the project for years, resulting in 12-hour power rationing in Uganda. President Museveni said that national economic goals could not succumb for the sake of conserving a rare frog.

Perhaps, Kenya’s environmentalists should insist on sustainable development rather than total conservation. Otherwise, as Mr Odinga figuratively points out, Kenya’s people are bound to witness widespread hunger, homelessness, disease and death in the near future. Ultimately, it is better for a country to become self-sufficient than to depend on handouts from elsewhere.

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