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A new 32 berth port, to ship South Sudanese oil to China, is planned for the Lamu archipelago, a stunning green field heritage site in northern coastal Kenya, teeming with rare species, coral reefs and marine biodiversity and, of course, people. But none of this richness, or the indigenous people for whom this is home, seem to matter to the Government of Kenya and private developers

In April 2013 the Kenya government granted a $484 million contract to a Chinese firm to put up the first three berths for the new Lamu Port in the first phase implementation process of the project. This followed the uprooting of prime mangrove trees in February, to pave the way for the construction of the first three berths and port administration office at Kilalana, a clearance that is nearly complete. The land was created from the felling of mangrove trees, comprising 30% of tree cover in Kenya. However, the developers and their government cronies paid scant regard to an environmental impact assessment, while those who lost their land are still waiting for compensation a year later. Indeed, only fraudsters are getting rich, while the port development has already made thousands of families destitute and hungry. With another 100,000 people potentially in the way of the gigantic development, the first phase portends badly for the rest of the development, since neither project affected persons nor the natural capital and biodiversity have been give the respect they are due by right, and by international law and convention.


The old Lamu coastal fort town was originally settled by Portuguese sailors and Arab merchants, and is made up of a labyrinthine of narrow streets, with silence broken only by the pacing sounds of donkeys squeezed between ancient magnificent facades. Local residents wear traditional Swahili khanga and veils, and the sum effect is to showcase the rich historical and cultural attraction of a heritage jewel, made rich from the treasures of the sea, tiny shell islands offshore, and a mainland of large mangroves, farm crops and herds of livestock roaming in vast grazing fields.

This natural beneficence of the Lamu archipelago was given global recognition over a decade ago by UNESCO who declared it a global heritage site, linked to global sea routes from the slave trade onward, and today a popular destination for local and international tourists.

However, this centuries old heritage and abundance of resources is currently threatened with destruction from a multi-million-dollar mega project linking infrastructure, oil refineries, new urban buildings, railway lines, an international airport and minerals extraction. This set of linked projects stretches from coastal Kenya to south Sudan and Ethiopia.


The fledging Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia project (LAPSSET) has already earned fame as the largest and most expensive joint initiative by the three countries. Its planners claim that it will enhance trade, create reliable transport links and boost regional and individual GDPs. The local and international economic stimulus plans have been drawn up to meet the ever increasing demand for oil globally, and the export potential of oil extracted in the region, while increased trading between the three countries is also promoted as a benefit. Government officials and policy makers have also tried to promote the project in terms of the development needs of traditional marginalized communities of herders, fishers, pastorialists and local sea and farming base communities.


Part of the LAPSSET plan has already commenced, but little noticed internationally as it has so far been confined to seizing large tracts of land owned and occupied, at least until recently, by minority communities, disingenuously explained using ideas of development. Mrs Salma Fazul, of Save Lamu, said that the indigenous Bajuni, Sanye, Arabs and other communities inhabiting the isolated and remote county have faced with the hardest losses, and have experienced the worst violation of their rights.

Over a two-year period land has been seized from local communities and contracts awarded for its so-called ‘development’, despite people voicing their opposition, suspicion, disquiet and discontent since the mega project was made public. Civil rights groups and legal and environmental experts have joined the affected people in a campaign to suspend the project and seek a review in order to resolve the contentious issues. However, the government has disregarded people’s concerns, leading many commentators to note that the ambitious plan has been dominated by controversy, secrecy and opaque business deals.

Mrs Maimuna Saidi, who is among 122 families whose farm was seized in the first phase of the port project, says she surrendered her land under duress and is still waiting for compensation and resettlement.

‘The chief and a group of local elders informed me the government had earmarked my five-acre land for the port project, they asked me to sign several pages of papers to surrender the farm, then migrate and wait for the money’, said Mrs Maimuna.

‘I am illiterate and can’t read. I used my thumb to sign, complete the transaction. We were also threatened not to oppose the order and that is why I accepted and trusted a verbal promise,’ said the single mother of four children.

Similarly, Mr Ali Obo, a dejected village elder and patron of the Kilalana farmers group, said they are now concerned and worried because of the delay to compensate them: ‘It is almost a year now, most of our day is spent, wasted, idling around. It’s quite stressing because we are not used to this kind of life, we are accustomed to tilling land, checking our farm and selling the produce to traders from town’, he said in an interview in Lamu Town.

Mr Obo says the relocation of farmers from the Kilalana area which has been cleared for the construction of the three first berths has been shrouded in secrecy. He also says that like Mrs. Maimuna Saidi and her four children, the other affected families have been deprived of the capacity to produce food, and as a consequence, are now living in abject poverty and are worried they might have been defrauded.

For example, a retired primary school teacher whose farm was seized to create space for a road to the port site at Kilalana has also not been compensated for the loss of his land and livelihood. The teacher, and many other families forced to surrender land, had lost everything since they had previously made a living selling large stocks of farm produce to tourist hotels and local residents. These families now live in poverty facing continuous unrelenting hunger.

‘The whole process is a scam, riddled with corruption. Acquisition of land for the port is a major fraud; it has been exploited by corrupt civil servants and land dealers to make a fortune, with bogus claimants with no land [who"> are also waiting for compensation’, he said.

The testimony and sentiments expressed by these three interviewees are shared by the majority of local residents and community groups. For example, Mr Ali Mzee, a human rights activist, says Lamu Port ignited public anger beginning from when the Government of Kenya first contracted a foreign firm to conduct a feasibility study, then declined to make public the cost of the contract, choosing instead to declare the deal, and findings, confidential.

Indeed, Mr Mzee, in an interview at the Lamu sea front, doubted the worth of any of the benefits promised for LAPSSET, and instead talked of the betrayal felt by the community whose concerns have been ignored. ‘We are worried, feel offended by our government. Some rich Kenyans, our leaders who have betrayed us and some foreigners, we have told them, shouted, and told them not to destroy our environment, grab our land, kill our livelihoods and culture, but we have been ignored’.

Officials of Save Lamu, a community lobby group formed to represent the interest and concerns of the area residents, say communities along the projects sites and corridor lack the capacity to mitigate and cope with the adverse effects of the projects. The group has conducted a series of public meetings with local residents in the past four years which they say confirm that fishing, a main stay cultural and economic activity, tourism, the environment, culture and the unique heritage status of Lamu are set to be directly affected by the port and associated petrochemical and transport projects.


Save Lamu also says that the project is set to destroy the delicate marine life and coral reefs on which many residents depend. Felling and clearance of mangrove trees for settlement and construction now threatens to wipe out the rare plant in Lamu, which represents more than half of Kenya’s mangroves.

Mr Walid Ahmed, a marine expert and official of the Save Lamu group, is concerned that more than 70 percent of the local population, estimated at 110,000 persons, survive on fishing and will not be able to cope with losing this central means of livelihood.

‘The Manda Bay, where the three berths are being constructed, is a fertile breeding ground for crabs, prawns, and lobsters. It guarantees a catch for all fish hunters, but destruction of the coral reef is imminent, [and then"> the fish will all disappear, [and"> our people [will be"> faced with a gloomy future.’

Mr Ahmed points out that disruption of fishing will deny many poor residents their staple diet, raise prices of food, and leave fishing to commercial boats that require expensive modern fishing gears that are beyond the means of the poor.

Mrs. Salma Omar of Save Lamu explains that, ‘The port site and sailing route will cause massive destruction to both terrestrial and marine life, destroy Lamu which is endowed with rich biodiversity, rich marine ecology, coral reefs that are a major attraction to tourists, and which are fish breeding grounds’. She continued to say that the community had been suppressed, while the government and firms contracted to put up the port and administration block had commenced work without public information being provided, and without an environment impact assessment. Overall, Mrs Omar charcterises the project as a fraud disguised as development.

The Government of Kenya has conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment which acknowledges that 30 per cent of the country’s existing rare mangrove trees will be lost as a consequence of building the port in Lamu. It also notes that the port refinery facility, the new city, airport, rail line and mineral exploration will negatively impact the fragile ecosystem proximate to the development. However, the impact assessment seems to have little weight in the overall decision to go ahead with the development.


A feasibility study conducted two years ago projected that the area will be hit by a population boom, with the area’s population set to increase tenfold to 1.2 million from the current 110,000. In fact there is much evidence that this has begun already, with local residents expressing discomfort at the influx of rich Kenyans in the past two years, despite assurances by the government that it had formed a committee to address their concerns in terms of land speculation and land compensation.

For example, Mwalimu Badi of Save Lamu insisted that the government is not honest, has never consulted them, and has grabbed and allocated their land to foreigners. Mrs Omar states further that government officials and politicians party to the development plan had been able to obtain land around the port, resort city, and refinery plant sites with a view to speculative gain.

In contrast, again according to Mrs Omar, no measures were in place to preserve the indigenous cultures of the Bajun, Orma, Sanye and Aweer communities who are faced with the threat of a population explosion set to rise to 1.25 million. Further, she said that all the displacements of families moved from the port site were illegal as they had been carried out in the absence of a resettlement action plan.

Concern for indigenous communities is also shared by Issack Abubakar, a youth leader who said his Bajuni community are pessimistic because they suffer most and benefit little. ‘Our land has been grabbed, the poor are under temptation, many have sold their land, our ancestral land has been seized by the state, investors, we have to accept it, watch non -locals conduct business and play politics because we don’t have money and the number to win elections,’ said Abubakar.

Mr Abubakar, like most jobless youths, blame the government for peddling outright lies and cited its failure to establish tertiary colleges to offer skills that will offer a chance to secure jobs

Local concerns have been reiterated by international missions. In particular, a fact finding mission lead by lawyer Kanyinke Sena, on behalf of the International Working Group on Indigenous people on the impact of the LAPSSET project on indigenous communities along the corridor, indicates that more than 100 million vulnerable, mostly extremely poor and historically marginalized indigenous people are set to be affected in the three countries.

According to Mr Sena, the potential negative impacts include loss of land, resources, increased conflicts, alteration of traditional livelihoods and a collapse of culture and tradition, losses which particularly affect pastoralists, hunters, fishers, and gatherers communities. The Mission established that damage to the rich marine ecology and mangrove forests had already created resource shortages which could only worsen, and which are of the type likely to trigger conflicts.

Mr Babu Khalid, an elder from the Boni hunters and gatherers community, said that strangers were already preventing them from accessing the wilderness to harvest wild fruits and honey.

Professor Abdirizak Arale of Moi University confirmed that 10,000 hunters are faced with displacement and that no plans have been initiated to resettle them or to grant them an alternative source of livelihood, according to a recent study conducted by the department. Professor Arale concludes that, ‘This project must take a break and take a safe and fair route; it must not be guided by the need to increase GDP, trade and revenue, [but"> the fate of those to be affected must be addressed, new laws must be enacted, laws to protect different cultures, the weak communities who have suffered neglect rather than suppress them further’.


As if this ecological and livelihood destruction, still uncompensated, was not bad enough, it is also the case that the developmental benefits promised to the macro economy, such as growth and jobs, look unlikely to materialize, given problems in the design and implementation of the projects.

In fact, many commentators have already convincingly argued that the port and the entire mega LAPSSET project is a vanity, dogged with controversy, rife with allegations of corruption, and facing stiff opposition due to its violation of local and international laws. Kenya’s infrastructure principal secretary John Mosonik said recently that the project is already delayed owing to financial challenges but added that the three countries are making efforts to raise required funds. Mrs Omar, of Save Lamu responds that ‘Our fears are genuine, it is now emerging this is likely to be a white elephant project and a fraud it has been delayed and started without securing funds.’. But, according to Mrs Salma, the Government of Kenya seems bent on moving fast to sign deals, disregard concerns, and implement the project despite its own evidence, in commissioned feasibility studies and research, of looming disaster.


Professor Paul Goldsmith of Pwani University, Mombasa, said the port and associated infrastructure assist China in her quest to dominate investment in, and exploitation in the extraction of minerals. He describes the project as a gravy train being pushed to benefit politicians, wealthy individuals, land grabbers, and a cartel of foreign investors.

‘LAPPSSET is clearly meant to grant contracts to private firms, create structures to ferry oil from South Sudan and nothing else. It’s not about developing the remote north Kenya, it’s not about a change of policy’.

Prof Goldsmith said the high cost of LAPSSET, estimated at $29.24 billion in April 2013, represents a major financial burden to the country and a major investment risk. Furthermore, concerns over delays and reports that South Sudan was looking for an alternative port to export her oil will mean that Kenya is putting up a port that may be idle and incapable of recovering costs.

Lamu county commissioner Stephen Ikua acknowledges that the project will impact on the environment and fishing sector but said measures have been put in place to address the issues, including the preparation of a compensation package for which funds have already been allocated. He accuses some hoteliers of inciting local people to oppose the project.

However, with two years of ‘development’ already done, and with business opacity and a dearth of community consultation, local people are rightly skeptical of government benevolence. Instead, Daniel Lemes, the Turkana member of parliament, advocates for communities to demand a share of the proceeds from minerals extraction, and asserts that the communities are waiting for the government to state how this will be done. If not sufficient, the legislator warns that LAPSSET corridor communities will seek to have the government, financial institutions and foreign governments restrained or held liable for implementing and funding projects that destroy their livelihoods and violate their rights.

* This story was funded by WITS China-Africa and FAIR.



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