Kenya: The Delta of shattered dreams

By Wanjohi Kabukuru – On a hot day in early January 2014, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta donned a dust coat and boarded a Massey Ferguson tractor in the coastal delta locale of Galana-Kulalu which borders Kilifi and Tana River counties, 250km north of Mombasa. With the press in tow and smiling guests President Kenyatta drove the tractor ploughing the land. This tilling act signified breaking the ground of his coalition government’s most ambitious agribusiness model the Kshs 250bn ($2.37bn) 1.2million acre Galana-Kulalu Food Security Irrigation scheme.

Much of the 1.2 million acre land is in Kenya’s Tana River Delta which is majorly fed by Kenya’s main river the Tana River.

Kenya’s Tana Delta region

Kenya’s Tana Delta region

President Kenyatta’s seemingly ‘novel idea’ is not the first one along the delta. It has been this way for 50 years and four presidents later.

Tana River traces its source from the Mount Kenya flowing northwards. It then takes a detour in Garissa surging eastwards creating a breathtaking 200,000ha delta of immense global ecological importance consisting of flood plains, mangroves, riverine forests, sand dunes and grasslands as it empties into the Indian Ocean.

The Tana River is a 1000km waterway flowing with broken dreams, marginalisation, competing interests and long-held grievances. The river’s cascade is one narrative of governmental inconsistency and incompatible geopolitical interests amidst a low-intensity yet deadly resource and land based conflict.

Some geologists define the Delta which is a designated Ramsar Site as a biodiversity hotspot starting from the coastal tourist spot of Malindi (200km from Mombasa) and hugs Lamu County and Somalia border. The riparian ecosystem is seen differently by all those it interests.

To agriculturalists the delta is a food basket. Conservationists see it as a rich ornithological site hosting 22 bird species among them rare and endangered birds like the Lappet faced vulture, Basra Reed Warbler and Malindi pipit among others. Investors see the delta as a “commodity frontier” and a natural resource haven. Oil and gas exploration which has shown positive results is underway within the precincts of the vast delta as are established titanium deposits. It is this amalgam of wealth ringed in one spot that makes the Tana Delta a study in contrasts and attracts competing interests.

“Conservation can co-exist with agriculture. The best ways to proceed is by adopting the concept of a biosphere and implement the comprehensive land use plan launched in late July 2015.” Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) lecturer Philip Wandera who has conducted environmental audits in the delta for over two decades says. “Agriculture, livestock breeding, mining and conservation can coexist in the Tana Delta without conflicts flaring. The only problem is that we don’t want to address the land tenure and land use in the delta. If we address these problems comprehensively, the Tana delta can accommodate all those activities.”

Since colonial times the delta has been considered as East Africa’s farm-to-fork bastion, but it has never fulfilled this ambition thanks in large measure to lack of clarity within the government.

At the just concluded 2017 Conference on Land Policy in Africa, held in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, experts mulled on the interest in African land and the lack of community friendly land policies to protect indigenous peoples, youth and vulnerable groups when it comes to large scale land based investments such as agribusiness and extractive industries.

Conference on Land Policy in Africa held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, focused wholistically on land tenure and access to propel Africa’s progress

Conference on Land Policy in Africa held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, focused wholistically on land tenure and access to propel Africa’s progress

Indeed the opaque nature of land acquisition within the delta goes against several principles issued by the African Land Policy Centre (ALPC) which is a land think tank of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). ALPC has provided principles and guidelines for Large Scale Land Based Investments (LSLBI) in Africa. Principle Four of the LSLBI notes that “member states have the responsibility to promote transparency of all parties throughout the investment process.”

Socially disruptive, wholesome displacement of communities, delayed disbursement and mismanagement of funds are the hallmark of all governmental and donor initiatives along the Tana River.

“Youth in Africa can be given hope again to become agents of social and economic change. This can be done through a review of land policies to increase access to land as well as harnessing technology and innovation for securing land rights and increasing productivity. These measures, coupled with transparent and sustainable land based investments, economic justice, climate change mitigation and environmental conservation are critical for the transformation of the continent.” Abdalla Hamdok, the Executive Undersecretary of the UNECA says. “There are other reasons why we must invest in innovative land policies. Land is a strategic resource in industrialization. But for maximal utilization, clarity of policy on its management and use is needed.”

The newly launched ALPC has a wide mandate. “African Land Policy Centre has provided principles and guidelines for Large Scale Land Based Investments (LSLBI) in Africa. Using these guidelines, African states have an opportunity to leverage the abundant natural resources on the continent to propel economic growth and industrialization.” Hamdok says. “With determination and focus, the continent can take strategic control over its resources and seize the opportunities provided by advances in technology to maximize its value from this capital. We know that land has been used as the foundation of economic development elsewhere in the world and promoted food production. We can learn from these experiences to increase production, investment and opportunities in Africa.”

Africa needs to get its land policy right and implement it.

Africa needs to get its land policy right and implement it.

Inclusive participation by respective communities, the norms of social equity and best practices regarding fair land distribution and demarcation are absent in the delta.

“The Tana River delta is a wetland of international importance that can feed the entire East African region and supply industries with minerals without losing its conservation status.” Maulidi Diwayu the chief executive officer of the environmental defence lobby Tana Delta Environmental Conservation (TADECO) says. “The sad thing is that the government and all those investors who have come here have never been sincere. They come here and get titles yet for decades the locals have never even received an allotment letter. It is this dishonesty and hidden agendas that breeds political incitement and inter-community clashes.”

Three state agencies involved in the Tana Delta region, include the National Irrigation Board (NIB), Tana and Athi Rivers Development Agency (TARDA) and the National Oil Corporation of Kenya (NOCK).

The million-acre scheme is a continuation of the large scale land acquisitions that have been prevalent in the delta, dispossessing and excluding the local communities.  According to Diwayu the government’s insincerity begins from its own agencies TARDA and NIB whose functions duplicate. “TARDA has not only failed in its mandate but has always featured in shady deals within itself and dispossessing communities here in the Delta.” Diwayu says.

The NIB has irrigated parts of Tana Delta since the 1950s and TARDA with financial assistance from the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF) set up the 2,100ha rice growing Tana Delta Irrigation Project (TDIP) in 1986. They only managed to irrigate 1763ha. Other than the project being viewed with suspicion by the locals it operated without a title deed for years and became a major failure 10 years later as climate change through El Nino destroyed it.

Hardley Becha director of the coastal environmental lobby Community Action for Nature Conservation (CANCO) echoes Diwayu’s sentiments. “TARDA’s land is contested land. It is only when the TARDA and the Mumias sugar project saga came out to the public that TARDA was challenged to produce documents of ownership.” Becha says. “At that time they did not have any document but later they secured title to that land under dubious circumstances and yet TARDA has been in the Tana Delta since early 1980s. Many local communities do not have tenure rights to their ancestral land.

Environmental defence activist Hardley Becha

Environmental defence activist Hardley Becha

TARDA officials declined to answer any of the queries posed and refused to return our calls.  Their refusal to respond to queries coincided with ongoing investigations on abuse of office and malfeasance by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC). Amidst all these several court cases against TARDA have been instituted by the Tana Delta communities and environmental defence groups. “Both TARDA and NIB have been here for more than 30 years.” Diwayu says and hastens to pose. “In all those years we cannot feed ourselves and the country is still a net importer of food. Do you see the contradiction?”

The Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) notes that the population of the Tana County stands at 262,000 and the poverty index in the Tana Delta is now at 76 per cent.

Trolling through the data of Tana River’s distressed development history a pattern of government and donor managed letdown emerges.

The 1996-2001 Tana River Primate National Reserve (TRPNR) primate saga was not the first of the World Bank’s blunders along the Tana River. The World Bank was first involved in the Tana in 1978 when among other donors it funded the Bura Irrigation and Settlement Project which is 400km north of Mombasa. The project was to grow cotton and maize in a 35,000 acre spread at a cost of $98mn. By 1990 the project was still hobbling as only 6000 acres had been irrigated at an escalated cost of $108mn not to mention a string of disenfranchised families who had been promised land and livelihoods in the Bura scheme but were never allocated any land.

The Tana Irrigation Scheme which was set up in 1953 collapsed in 1989 when the Tana River changed its course. Its revival is yet to yield any significant national success. Almost two years later and NIB which is the lead government agency in the 1.2 million-acre food sufficiency project says that only a 10,000 acre model farm has been irrigated at a cost of $141.4mn. Apparently despite the noble intentions of the 1.2 million-acre scheme it is also being viewed with historical suspicion as yet another plan by government to dispossess the locals from their land in the delta region.

Despite its past record of non-performance TARDA is planning to expand the current rice “irrigation scheme from 1,763Ha to 5000Ha to produce 24,000 metric tonnes of rice per annum.” It also plans to partner with sugar miller the Mumias Sugar Company to develop a further 20,000 Ha of sugar fields and construct a 10,000metric tonnes sugar processing plant complete with a 34MW cogeneration power plant and an installation of an ethanol plant capable of producing 75,000litres per day. These plans have been contested in court by the local community challenging TARDA’s legitimacy in owning the land. “There are many court cases between the community and TARDA. Some of the court cases have not been resolved to date.” Wandera says. “One reason why Mumias Sugar project failed is the question of land which TARDA wanted to lease out to Mumias for sugar cane growing. Communities argued that TARDA cannot lease out portions of the delta that does not belong to it.”

Trying to make sense of how and why half-a-century’s food security irrigation strategies have failed takes one on a torturous 346km long, hot, dusty and bumpy ride from Garissa to Malindi towns with stops along Bura, Hola, and Garsen. This is the main Tana Delta road and it is in a terrible state of disrepair.  The main road itself gives a glimpse of the neglect and double-standards by government accorded to the delta.

“All the projects are top down from government to community. Not the other way round and never inclusive.” Becha says. “Exclusion of communities in project design, and planning is the approach used and the projects do not address local needs and aspirations. All these projects fail because they seem to be displacing people of their rights to land and access to resources”

Interestingly even with a long history of land policy disappointment the delta is still attracting intense interest. Other large scale agribusiness initiatives seeking to exploit the delta include the planned hiving of 64,000ha for jatropha biofuels farming by a British firm Bedford Biofuels three years ago. Also in the pipeline is a $340mn sugarcane irrigation project mooted by Mat International in partnership with troubled sugar-miller Mumias Sugar Company and TARDA. These had been preceded by the bartering of some 40,000ha fruit farming lease to the Qatari government in exchange of some $3.5bn for the construction of the proposed $24.7bn Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor.

On natural resources the National Oil Corporation of Kenya (NOCK) which geologically defines the area as Lamu Basin has curved out the delta into several oil blocks. Block L6 which covers both onshore and offshore areas has been allocated to the Australian Stock Exchange listed oil exploration company Pancontinental Oil and Gas NL.  Zarara Oil has Bloc L4, Lamu Oil and Gas a subsidiary of EDGO has control over Block L14 while Block L2 is under Imara Energy. This scramble by energy conglomerates is a worry to environmentalists.

The interests at play in the Tana Delta

The interests at play in the Tana Delta

According to Becha the Kenyan Delta is like many other deltas in Africa notably Niger Delta and Rufiji Delta with numerous unseen interests at play. “The environmental and social consequences of oil and gas development are well documented with many examples coming across Africa from massive environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity in the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem, as well as dwindling socio economic fortunes of local people.” Becha says. “The question being asked will the Tana Delta be any different from the Niger Delta? Economic factors are being pushed in the forefront at the expense of environmental and social matters and local livelihoods and well being.”

As all these companies seek a piece of the Tana Delta pastry little is mentioned of local indigenous communities. The Orma, Pokomo, Wardei, Malakote, Munyoyaya, Boni, Watta among others are not factored in the land allocations plans. This has bred bad blood against government, donors, investor community and even among the communities themselves.

“All development plans in the delta have failed because of the land question.” Wandera says. “The question we always confronted during our audits was why outsiders and foreigners should get land title deeds when indigenous communities who have been here for generations have no titles. New titles mean dispossession of land for the local people.”

The frustration and opaque nature on the land acquisitions has been distilled down to the communities’ level stirring deadly inter-communal clashes between the Orma, Pokomos and Wardeis claiming over 2000 deaths in the last 23 years. Since the 1992 general elections the Delta has become a grim reaper and every electoral cycle after that.

“The Pokomos who are farmers and fishermen always lived along the river banks and left the hinterland unoccupied because it is dry.” Wandera says. “To the Pokomos that land still belonged to them even if they could not use it for agriculture.”

The government’s inability to contain what has rightly been identified as politically instigated inter-communal clashes between the delta’s three main communities of Orma, Pokomo and Wardei “pastoralist versus farmers” clash remains a mystery. This is especially so considering the 1992 Kennedy Kiliku Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral violence, the 1998 Akiwumi Commission of Inquiry into Tribal Clashes in Kenya and the delta specific 2012 judicial commission of inquiry into the ethnic violence in Tana River.

All the three government commissions of inquiries identified the root causes of the conflict bedeviling the Tana Delta but nothing concrete has been done. Tension still lurks in the Delta.

“The deep problem which most people don’t want to recognize and address is land. Since land in the Tana River is not adjudicated, the main fear for each community is how much land is there for them?” Wandera says. “In my view there are three sources of conflict seen from the community eyes. The Pokomos still feel their land has been occupied by pastoralists. Ormas believe they are Kenyan migrants with a right to be where they are and thirdly the Wardei are seen by both the Orma’s and Pokomos as recent ‘foreign’ migrants.”

Becha concurs with Wandera that the conflicts in the delta are as a result of the lack of tenure rights for the indigene communities, incompatible land use systems, political competition and development projects that are blind to the socio-cultural and economic realities of the communities residing in the delta.

This is but one account of the troubled delta which cites communal conflicts exacerbated by competition over water resources, pasture and farmland. The other angle of the real perpetrators of the violence in the delta which is firmly overshadowing the inter-ethnic animosity narrative mentions competing multi-billion large scale land acquisition deals. The mega-land deals involves multinationals, foreign governments and the elite from outside the delta seeking agricultural land, aquaculture spaces, extractive contracts and exploration blocks for oil and gas.

It is in this restive delta shaped by a five decade economic and environmental discontent that President Kenyatta’s food security aspirations are anchored.  With three unsuccessful presidents will President Uhuru’s 1.2million “field of dreams” acres succeed?