The forgotten struggle of Kenyan indigenous people

In the Rift Valley region of Kenya, Simon Sencho looks at the mountains that surround the village which used to be his home. He’s one of a thousand Maasai people who had to move, to give way to the Olkaria geothermal plant.

Meanwhile, 380 kilometres north, in Marsabit County, a separate group of about 1,200 indigenous people have been resettled to a different part of the Lake Turkana region to make way for a wind farm.

Both of these projects have EU money behind them. In fact, in the last decade the EIB has given more money to Kenya than to any other African country. The EU’s lending arm, the EIB, supplied a loan of 119 million Euros for the expansion of the Olkaria I and IV geothermal plants and 225 million Euros in funding for the Lake Turkana Wind Project.

The struggle of the Olkaria Maasai

Located south of Lake Naivasha in central Kenya, the Olkaria region has exceptional geothermal potential. The company in charge of the expansion of the Olkaria I and IV geothermal plants is KenGen, which is 70% controlled by the government. The development is financed by the EIB, the World Bank, the French Development Agency, the Kenyan government and others.

1,000 Olkaria Maasai were resettled in August 2014 to make way for the expansion. “KenGen is a big machinery against us, we cannot face it” says Simon Sencho, a Maasai who runs a cultural centre for tourists in the area “In our hearts and our minds we know it’s against our traditions to have left”, he says.

KenGen promised them title deeds with their new homes in August 2014, but they’re still waiting. “We were given promises […], they said after resettlement we will do this for you. Up to now none of those problems has been addressed”, says Sencho.

They sent their complaints to the EIB and the World Bank. Both concluded that KenGen should have transferred the title deeds before the relocation.

Jeanette Schade, a human rights researcher at Bielefeld University says a delay in Kenyan legislation on community land could have been part of the problem, as KenGen has argued, “In 2012, they adopted a land act which regulates private and public land but the community land act has been adopted last year [2016]”.

After mediation by the EIB, the Olkaria community and KenGen signed a new agreement on title deeds in 2016. But KenGen later offered a leasehold of indeterminate duration instead of a land title. “Now the Community Land Act is adopted I don’t see why the community wouldn’t get proper title deeds”, says Schade. But Sencho is not convinced, “There is no guarantee that the land will belong to us one day”.

The semipastoralist Olkaria Maasai feel that KenGen, and the funders, also neglected their rights; they’re recognized as indigenous people by the African Union’s Commission on Human & Peoples’ Rights. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they are entitled to a share of profits when natural resources are exploited on their land. However, in Kenya only hunters and gatherers are considered indigenous. “For political reasons, they have problems classifying pastoralist people communities as indigenous”, says Schade. “Communities already in 2011 demanded some kind of benefit sharing from KenGen which rejected it, saying there was not national law on which this benefit sharing could be based on”, she adds.

Eleni Kyrou, a social development specialist at the EIB’s Environmental and Social Office, told us the bank didn’t classify the Olkaria people as indigenous because “these communities did not fulfill all four criteria of an indigenous way of life. Their means of existence were not homogeneous, in that they were not only land-based and their production was not primarily self-sufficient”, says Kyrou.

She also explained that one of the reasons the bank didn’t trigger its indigenous policy during the appraisal phase in 2009 was to avoid aggravating tribal tension in Kenya, in the wake of earlier violence that had broken out around elections: “The lenders demonstrated sensitivity as to what was going on in the country, given it was just emerging from the 2007-2008 violent civil unrest”. Kyrou added that the EIB does consider the affected people to qualify as a “vulnerable community”.

Talks between the community and KenGen have now stalled. Simon Sencho, of the Olkaria Maasai, has warned KenGen that the Olkaria may retake their land. “We are ready to block Olkaria IV”, Sencho says. In response, KenGen threatened to sue Simon and other Maasai, but the case was dropped.

Anna Roggenbuck from Bankwatch, a banking watchdog, considers the EIB could do more to protect community leaders who complain. “The EIB could have mitigated the risk by making it clear to the company at the beginning that intimidating people is not acceptable” says Roggenbuck. In a letter to Bankwatch the EIB agreed that “any potential retaliation against project-affected communities would be unacceptable”.

We tried to reach KenGen to discuss these points, but they have not responded.

The Maasai want to find a solution with KenGen, but time is running out. While they wait, they fear more Olkaria expansions and are worried that another geothermal plant (Akiira) will be located close to their new settlement, both projects for which EIB funding has been requested.

Winds of uncertainty around Lake Turkana

The Lake Turkana Wind Project (LTWP) is the largest foreign project in Kenya and also the largest wind farm in the country. Its turbines are in place and are ready to provide a fifth of Kenya’s power, by taking advantage of one of the windiest regions in the world. The Dutch company KP&P Africa BV started the project. As well as the EIB, the African Development Bank, Vestas, Norfund, Proparco and the Dutch Government, among others, fund the LTWP.

On July 10th, 2014 in Luxembourg, during its annual meeting with the ACP group of African and Caribbean countries, the EIB presented the Lake Turkana Wind Project as one of its successes. The project has been acclaimed internationally, but the indigenous people living in the Loiyangalani district have had a troubled relationship with it.

Plans for the LTWP to use 40,000 acres of land, and to need an additional 110,000 acres as a buffer zone and for “future developments”, alarmed indigenous groups in Loiyangalani. The El Molo, Samburu, Rendille and Turkana ethnic groups consider the area to be their ancestral land, something they made clear to us when we visited their villages. These indigenous people are recognized by the African Commission on Human & Peoples’ Rights.

Their main complaint concerns how the LTWP received the concession for the 150,000 acres in 2009. The community has started a legal case demanding the project be stopped or at least forced to compensate them for their land. “For them land is a source of lifestyle, identity, of livelihood, so if you take their lifestyle, culture, heritage, identify and livelihood, you leave them with nothing”, says their lawyer Amina Hashi.

In November 2016, Justice Peter Njoroge at the High Court in Meru, eastern Kenya, ordered that the project continue and told both parties to negotiate, but talks have stalled since then. The court also limited the project to 87,500 acres, instead of 150,000. In Nairobi the communities’ lawyer Amina Hashi told us their case centred on one main point: “how were 150,000 acres of community land alienated and was it alienated in accordance with the setting apart process, with the Trust Land Act [now repealed] and the Constitution of Kenya?”.

According to the Kenyan law if land is acquired for development, and people are living on or using this land, then a special board has to be set up to consult with the people who will be affected. “The community feels this divisional board never started,” says Hashi. The Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Charles Keter told us that the Marsabit County Council handled the leasing of the land to LTWP correctly. “There must be consent by the local authority” says Keter, adding that he doesn’t see how it could be operating without this permission from the local authority. The LTWP website says the community will be able to graze animals in the leased area and that project structures will only occupy 0.2% of the 40,000 acres it has acquired.

Although part of the community is grateful that the LWTP and its foundation Winds of Change have shared benefits with them through 60 community projects, some promises haven’t been kept. Sarima is a village whose inhabitants were moved to make way for a road to the wind farm. Simon Ekitoye, a 60-year-old villager, says the only promise kept was to build a water hole, which only works occasionally. “It isn’t enough to provide for us all as we have to fetch water even at night. Sometimes the children don’t get water”. Another villager, Mary Gnumi, says they’re still waiting for a promised hospital. “They said they would build some but they have not”.

While the EIB social expert assessing the Lake Turkana Wind Project, Eleni Kyrou, could not confirm commitments from LTWP to provide schools or hospitals, she emphasized that the project had brought hundreds of temporary jobs to Sarima. “They [LTWP] volunteered and followed through with the establishment of a recruitment plan carrying a tribal distribution of employment opportunities. It’s not something you see very often”, says Kyrou.

While they wait for their lawyer to appeal the High Court’s decision, the Sarima villagers wonder whether the development has been worth it.

LTWP refused our request for an interview and the EIB declined to comment on issues related to the legal case. Now that the project is expected to start operating in the middle of 2017 when its turbines will start feeding a country hungry for energy, the indigenous people wonder what will happen to their sacred treasure: their land.

The place of indigenous people in Kenya’s energy rush

Although the communities affected by the Olkaria and Turkana projects understand that the country needs development, they would have liked to be treated better. Mali Ole Kaunga, a Kenyan indigenous expert says respect of collective land and profit sharing are key to improving the situation. “You need to tell me [an indigenous person] why you need my land, what my role will be and what’s my future involvement in that land”.

While Kenya tries to increase its energy production, both the Olkaria and Sarima communities hope they won’t be forgotten.

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