Published on Dec 20, 2012
Lamu Island is in the news again but this time round its not about the construction of Kenya's second port in but about land grabbing at Pate Island. Residents there are now complaining that outsiders are encroaching on their land.
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Biofuels land grab in Kenya's Tana Delta fuels talk of war
Mohamed Abdi, 13, points out where his hut used to be. His was the last of the 427 families to leave. "They told us we would be burned out if we didn't go," he said. "They drove machinery round and round the village all day and all night to drive people out. No one understood why, as the village had been there for more than 25 years."
The eviction of the villagers to make way for a sugar cane plantation is part of a wider land grab going on in Kenya's Tana Delta that is not only pushing people off plots they have farmed for generations, stealing their water resources and raising tribal tensions that many fear will escalate into war, but also destroying a unique wetland habitat that is home to hundreds of rare and spectacular birds.
The irony is that most of the land is being taken for allegedly environmental reasons – to allow private companies to grow water-thirsty sugar cane and jatropha for the biofuels so much in demand in the west, where green legislation, designed to ease carbon dioxide emissions, is requiring they are mixed with petrol and diesel.
The delta, one of Kenya's last wildernesses and one of the most important bird habitats in Africa, is the flood plain of the Tana river, which flows 1,014km from Mount Kenya to the Indian Ocean.
Global warming and reduced rainfall has already hit the delta hard. "No proper research has been done into what wildlife is here, and now the habitat is disappearing there is no evidence of what we are losing," said Francis Kagema, of Nature Kenya, a conservation group supported by the RSPB in the UK.
Standing on the bank of a small lake that clearly was once much larger, he points out more than a dozen species of birds within view from his binoculars. "You don't need to be a scientist to see the situation here is critical and the land grab is terrible. This is supposed to be the wet season. The elephants have already gone, the hippos are going, birds are less and less."
The delta's people are trying to fight their own government over the huge blocks of land being turned over to companies including the Canadian company, Bedford Biofuels, which was this year granted a licence by the Kenyan environmental regulator for a 10,000-hectare jatropha "pilot" project. A UK-based firm, G4 Industries Ltd, has been awarded a licence for 28,000 hectares.
At the site where the former villagers from Gamba Manyatta were told to relocate, elder Bule Gedi Darso, 57, shows the foul-smelling stream that they have to draw their water from. "This is not a good place. Children have died, we have typhoid and malaria now. We were healthy before and our children went to school. This river is the drainage and pesticides from all the big farms. The proper river has been diverted to irrigate them and now we just get their poison. When we were evicted they showed us the maps, and we saw many more villages who don't yet know they are to be evicted too. Where will they all go?"
It is a question worrying another village. Didewaride was once surrounded by wetland, only accessible by boat. Now it is stranded amid miles of brown earth with occasional pools of water. Omar Bocha Kofonde, an elder, says: "The hippos have gone, the fish, the birds, and the soil is salty. The goats and cattle have no grazing. The rivers used to flush out the sea water, now the sea is coming up on to our land because there is no river. Everything is in danger. People thought they owned the land, we have been here for hundreds of years. Now we will fight; we are ready to die, for what else is there?"
It is the same view coming from villagers all around the delta, Christian and Muslim, farmers and herdsmen from the Pokomo, Orma, Luo and other tribes. The village of Ozi has just discovered that two huge plots of its land were sold at auction in April – they do not know who sold it or who bought it.
"This land ownership is giving us a headache. We know there are people who have sold our land when it isn't theirs to sell. They are criminals and we will fight them, with guns and with sticks," said Ali Saidi Kichei of Ozi village, which last month sent a delegation to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to demand a meeting with the Kenyan minister for lands. "We lived in paradise, in peace," he said. "Now what? No water, only salty water, land thieves and water thieves, and children with empty stomachs."
Kagema says Nature Kenya is trying to support villagers to go to court. "These people have lived here for hundreds of years, but suddenly someone writes up a piece of paper and they are squatters on their own land. The delta is of international importance, yet they control the water and drain the wetlands and portions are parcelled off to private investors like the biofuel companies. Homes and lands are given away from under them. Nobody cares because nothing happens immediately, but it is coming. Tana Delta is in chaos. When everyone picks up their share with their bits of paperwork … it will be war. The day is coming."
KENYA: Nowhere to go
Some of these so-called returnees, mostly women and children, have never been to western Kenya before but they are being pressured to move out of temporary transit camps after just two or three days.
"There was a warm welcome on the first day. Over the following days they [staff at the camp] turned to enemies. They started telling me that I should go back home," said 22-year-old Grace Anyango, who had been taken to Kisumu's main transit camp, a building site belonging to St Stephen's Cathedral, on 10 February.
"I come from Migori but there is nobody at home. Everybody has died there. They [camp staff] didn't want to listen. I was told: 'Just go or else we will take you in our vehicle and leave you at Migori and you can find your way.' I was put outside together with my luggage," she said.
Anyango was born in Tanzania to Luo parents from Kenya. They moved to Naivasha in Rift Valley Province when she was 16. After her parents died, she found work as a cleaner.
As Kenya's post-election violence took an ethnic twist, the Mungiki, a Kikuyu militia, started attacking other ethnic communities in Naivasha. Anyango took her two-year-old daughter, Ida, to Naivasha prison for safety.
Security there was little better and Anyango was relieved when she was offered a seat on a bus, hired by the local Anglican church, taking displaced people to Kisumu, the capital of Luo-dominated Nyanza Province.
The St Stephen's Cathedral transit camp was set up by locals in Kisumu who wanted to help internally displaced people (IDPs) arriving in the city. Some local residents spent millions of shillings of their own money transporting “returnees” to safety from IDP camps in Nairobi, Naivasha and Nakuru.
"All in all we require on average 200,000 shillings (US$2,850) cash per day. Most of it, to be honest, I pay myself," said Yogesh Dawda, a Kisumu businessman who spent several hours each day at the camp.
The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) came in later to support the volunteers at St Stephen's Cathedral and set up a transit camp in Moi Stadium.
According to KRCS figures, 8,155 IDPs had passed through St Stephen's camp and 1,365 through Moi Stadium by 18 February. Thousands more were bussed directly to smaller towns in the region.
Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
|A displaced woman at St Steven's Cathedral camp in Kisumu town|
"They are not allowed to stay here more than three days. Some are forced to board vehicles to where they think they come from. But in reality they don't know anybody where they are going. They reach these places and they are stranded," said Mary Odhiambo, a volunteer in the camp.
"People have gone and they come back. They say they have looked for their ancestral homes. They have not been able to trace them. The only option is to come back. When they come back they are also told to look for somewhere else."
Stella Atieno, 20, and her three-year-old son Eric, lived in Nairobi with Atieno's parents. When the Mungiki started attacking Luos on their estate, Atieno and her parents found space on a bus taking displaced people to western Kenya.
"The bus was intercepted by a gang. They ordered everyone out and told them to put their identity cards in their mouths. They started cutting the men and raping the women and they burned the bus," Atieno said.
In the melée, Atieno managed to escape with her child and ran into the bush. She assumed that her parents died. She begged a lorry driver to give her a ride to Kisumu and found St Stephen's camp.
Atieno had heard her parents talking about Rangwe, the area they originally came from. She was taken there but could not trace any family members, so she was brought back to the camp.
Volunteers found the name of another relative in Atieno's notebook but Atieno did not want to go: "This is a person who has mistreated me before. They are telling me to go. If I go, I will still end up coming back here."
Several volunteers told IRIN they opposed the camp's policy of moving people on to their ancestral homes.
"They have the right to do what they want. If somebody says I don't want to go home, they have all the reasons why they don't want to go home. This is an adult and she has the right to decide," said James Riako, a volunteer counsellor with the Kenya Red Cross.
However, Gibson Sierra Okello, a volunteer working in the security team, which controlled who was allowed to stay in the camp, defended the policy.
"We believe people from this region must know where they are going to. At least they have their roots somewhere. Somebody must have his people. In the African context, a child is a child of the community. In the Luo context, somebody must have a place where he originates from. It is from that origin that we track them to their final places," he said.
Anyango and her daughter were luckier than Atieno. They were taken in by a Catholic nun, Sister Philemona, who ran an orphanage, St Theresa's, in the city.
"When we reached there [St Stephen's camp], their luggage had already been thrown out of the gate. Eleven children and four women were out on the street. One woman who was pregnant did not know what to do. She was just crying. I feared she could even miscarry because of the trauma she had undergone," said Sister Philomena.
The nun made space for the women to sleep in a classroom in the orphans' primary school. The children slept two in a bed in the crowded dormitory.
The women were keen to find work so that they could start to rebuild their lives.
Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
|Hundreds of people have been displaced in post-election violence|
Kisumu offers more economic opportunities for people who are used to living in an urban environment than the impoverished rural areas. In fact, many 'returnees' had moved to towns such as Naivasha and Nakuru to earn money to support their families back home.
Susan Adhiambo George, a 35-year-old widow with children of 12 and 14, had lived in Naivasha for 14 years. She worked in a beauty salon.
"The only relative I have [here] is my brother-in-law who is very young and I was the one assisting him," she said.
She returned to the camp in the hope of being given some food. "I can't survive on my own. I can sustain my family if I get assistance," she said.
"In the rural centres cash flow is limited and someone who has been conducting business in an urban centre will find it difficult," said Joshua Osewe, a member of the Kisumu Response Team.
"If they can be funded to re-establish themselves in the line of business they understand well, they have a better chance. I think either the government has to come in or donor agencies to support that endeavour."
Some women were so desperate they had left their children at another orphanage, St Francis in Nyamonge, 10km from Kisumu.
"Their fathers were killed in Naivasha. Their mothers said they could survive on their own but not with their children," said Sister Fidelis.
"They said they'll be happy their children are in a good place and they'll visit them."