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With the recent discovery of oil in Kenya there needs to be a debate as to whether the country follows the path of Ecuador and Norway and leave the oil in the soil or the environmentally and people damaging path of oil exploration in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

Kenya is going through exciting times. The discovery of oil last year in Turkana area, the Northern parts of the country, and the successful conduct of a largely peaceful election in March 2013 and transition to the new administration under President Uhuru Kenyatta have set tongues wagging. The creation of the Ministries of Energy and Petroleum as well as that of Mining, and the enactment of a controversial play, Shackles of Doom (a high school drama set in the fictional land of the True Kanas depicting the socio-economic and environmental impacts associated with oil exploitation), which was banned by the National Drama Committee only to be reinstated by the High Court, are signs of the exciting but treacherous times ahead for Kenya.

The Turkana oil discovery comes hot on the heels of a similar oil discovery in the neighboring Uganda. A host of other minerals have recently been discovered or have been perennially exploited artisanally or commercially. Examples are coal in Mwingi and Mutitu, and titanium, illumenite, rutile, niobium and zircon in Kwale, Malindi and Lamu counties. Perhaps this explains the introduction of the standalone Ministry of Mining. The image in the minds of many Kenyans must be that of imminent riches and ‘development’, a last wave of goodbye to the three traditional ‘enemies of development’ - illiteracy, poverty, disease. What we might be conveniently forgetting in the excitement is another type of disease, the ‘Dutch Disease.’


The Dutch disease, also known as the ‘resource curse’, is the paradox of plenty. Generally countries blessed with abundant mineral resources are, ironically, also the worst off. The greater a country relies on a single or few mineral resources, the greater the chances that it will become undemocratic, militaristic, corruption riddled, and governed without transparency or accountability. Abundant resources are frequently linked to rampant human rights abuse, fragile economic growth, and low rankings in the UN Human Development Index (HDI). The reasons advanced for this state of affairs is that by strengthening a country’s currency, mineral discoveries may render other economic sectors like agriculture, tourism and manufacturing less competitive, while the boom-bust cycles of mineral markets exacerbate social volatility. Corruption becomes rife since a highly concentrated revenue stream is readily diverted away from social infrastructural investment and into offshore accounts. Democracy and citizen participation in decision-making also suffer and quickly crumbles since the rulers and elite prefer to centrally control the resources. Under such conditions, national cohesion, integration and stability is threatened by amplified inequalities at two levels; a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the geographical gulf between resource-rich areas and the remainder of the country.

Contrary to popular expectation, minerals rarely bring any new jobs to the locals to replace old forms of communal subsistence destroyed by the almost certain polluted waters, soils and air. Oftentimes, the multinational corporations that get the mining rights, in an attempt to get a workforce they can easily manipulate, prefer to import laborers from rival communities or distant lands rather than create jobs for communities most immediately affected by extraction operations. The cruel reality is environmental pollution, communal conflicts and poverty.


Early this year (March 2013), I was lucky to join members of EJOLT an international group of academics and activists working to promote environmental justice, on a tour of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, including Ogoni land, to witness the impacts of oil exploitation, and to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria. Like many, I had, until then, only read about the Ogoni in newspapers, books and over the internet. I must say the prior information did not prepare me for the reality on the ground.

The welcoming lush green landscape is rudely interrupted by the overpowering smell of burning oil on alighting from the air-conditioned van. Walking down to the river and creeks, the sight of floating crude oil and burnt out mangroves left no doubt as to the existence of any life within, and of those dependent on them. Then I wondered why the village was empty. The area’s middle-aged traditional chief tells us that the entire village had to relocate due to pollution of the air, water and soil from oil spills and gas flaring (burning of associated gas from crude oil flow stations). Not only are the traditional livelihood sources (farming and fishing) destroyed, access to clean drinking water is near impossible, while respiratory diseases and other health impacts such as cancer are rampant. When we finally locate the village where the community had relocated, the sight of children with sores all over their bodies from swimming/collecting water from the polluted rivers, reports of rampant miscarriages, coupled with the stark poverty was all too clear. These and more have been confirmed by many reports, including UNEP’s 2010 environmental impact assessment study of Ogoni which showed every aspect of the environment as severely polluted, and requiring at least 35 uninterrupted years to clean up.

The billions of dollars from decades of oil extraction in Nigeria have benefited the few elites but spelt nothing but misery for the masses. Was this the ‘development’ the people of the Niger Delta envisaged over 50 years ago when oil was discovered on their land? The problems associated with oil and other mineral exploitation has spawned grassroots resistance movements not guided by any particular reverence to nature but rather by the desire to protect the environment, the source of their livelihood. Such struggles, embodied in the likes of the late Ken Saro Wiwa and Kenya’s own Nobel
Laureate the late Wangari Maathai, are commonly referred to as the environmentalism of the poor or even liberation ecology. Inevitably, the problems have similarly inspired various potential solutions.


One such proposal is ‘leave the oil in the soil.’ As the name suggests, it involves leaving the oil untapped. Its variants, depending on the particular mineral in question, include ‘leave the coal in the hole’ or ‘leave the gas under the grass,’ particularly those found in areas that are highly sensitive socially and environmentally. Potential benefits are several: a stop in pollution, biodiversity conservation, not to mention a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), a key aim of climate change mitigation efforts. However, the greatest inspiration is the chance of avoiding the ills associated with oil exploitation.

The foregone revenue can be recouped through ‘crowdfunding’ (voluntary payments by global citizens and well-wishers) deposited into trust funds, or by trading the ‘avoided pollution’ in the international carbon markets. Critics point to the gargantuan task of alternatively raising the foregone revenue and the fear of mismanagement through corruption, while some simply consider the initiative environmental blackmail. Whether the non-extraction is only limited to newly discovered mineral resources or should cover ongoing exploitations too, and structures to make the non-exploitation permanent are ongoing discussions. Although a fairly recent proposal coming mainly from local impacted communities and social and environmental justice movements, some governments, the most well-known being Ecuador (plan to leave 846 million barrels of oil found within the Yasuni National Park), but also Costa Rica and Norway, have taken a similar stand.

But what would ‘leave the oil in the soil’ mean for a country like Kenya? Granted, Kenya is yet to begin commercially exploiting its oil and therefore has the advantage of hindsight, but it would be naïve to think even for a moment that the country is somehow immune to the resource curse that has befallen countries like Nigeria. Kenya’s low development standards and negligible GHG emissions militates against any arguments to not exploit its newfound oil, if it so decides. The trick is to avoid falling into the now familiar pitfalls, to vaccinate itself against the Dutch disease. The country needs to find out why countries such as Canada, Australia and Norway are resource rich but not resource cursed.

It is worth noting that the resource ‘curse’ is in part a spin-off of a skewed international trade and legal system that compromise developing countries’ sovereignty over their natural resources. Western powers (and lately China) and their multinational corporations tend to exert undue influence over the terms of extraction, inhibiting democratic dispensations from developing while exploiting the environmental, health and labor laws far more lax than those in their own countries. Beware of the double standards! Utmost care must therefore be taken when signing exploration, exploitation and revenue sharing agreements. But Kenya must similarly look inwards. The Western countries and their petrochemical corporations succeed largely because they have in-country collaborators in the form of elites and corrupt leaders.


Moving forward, the country and others like Uganda with newly discovered oil and other mineral resources can put in place certain measures to escape the resource curse. One is to avoid exploitation of oil and other minerals in fragile ecosystems. Concerns are already being raised over the potential negative impacts oil exploitation in Turkana could have on grazing fields which are the chief livelihood support base for the largely pastoral communities.

Diversify the national revenue streams and economic sectors. Oil must not be allowed to become the dominant source of national revenue and foreign exchange. Since Kenya is a subsistence economy, traditional livelihood and revenue generation sectors such as agriculture and tourism should not be neglected but expanded and at the same time cushioned from the pollution associated with mining and oil exploitation

Actively safeguard and expand existing democratic space and civic liberties. Citizen participation in decision-making is a key ingredient of sustainable development and should be actively promoted. In this regard, full implementation of the 2010 constitution, including operationalization and strengthening of the devolved county governments is crucial.

Enhance and strengthen existing environmental laws and regulations, including those on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Strict compliance with such laws is the surest way to protect the environment upon which the livelihoods of the masses and the national economy are predicated. Reports are emerging of the Ministry of Environment ‘advising’ the independent National Environment Management Authority (Nema) to review a decision to stop the mining of niobium by a company in Kwale County which the EIA report established posed a risk to the environment are very worrying. With the discovery of oil and other minerals, such arm-twisting will become more prevalent and could even go a notch higher to include watering down the actual regulations. All Kenyan’s of goodwill must be vigilant and actively resist such attempts.

Make polluters pay through carefully crafted pollution and natural resource depletion taxation regimes and related economic instruments. Lastly, safeguard the social, economic and environmental rights of local resident communities and minority groups.


If these measures fail (as they sometimes do), the country needs to remind itself that leaving the oil in the soil is a viable option. It is sometimes desirable not to exploit a country’s natural resources. Take it not from me but from those who have lived to tell the tale:
‘Leaving the oil underground does not translate to losses but saving. We must learn to save. The oil under the soil is still our oil. We must not exploit every resource simply because we have it. This is simple wisdom’ (Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, 2011)

* Martin Oulu, a climate change consultant in Nairobi, Kenya, is a PhD candidate and researcher at Human Ecology Division, Lund University, Sweden.

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