Nelly Bassily | July 14, 2008
Pastoralist leaders from Kenya’s Tana River Delta area are speaking out against a controversial sugarcane project, saying it would destroy their dry season pasturelands.
Kenya’s environmental authority recently approved a plan to grow sugarcane on 20,000 hectares of coastal wetlands. The plan is a joint project of the Mumias Sugar Company and the Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority. It is supported by the Kenyan government, but opposed by local and international environmental groups, as well as local herders. The herders say that the plan threatens their livelihoods.
At a recent meeting with government officials, local leaders said that pastoralists should be allowed to maintain their traditional grazing lands. The government has proposed to move herders to an area known as Galana ranch for the dry season. But pastoralist representatives say this isn’t an option. Local councilor Abaloni Racha said the proposed grazing area is infested with tsetse flies.
Government representatives, meanwhile, attempted to sell the community on the planned project. According to the production plan, the sugarcane project will create 20,000 jobs. Regional Development Minister Fred Gumo said it was time for locals to embrace change and welcome development.
The government maintains that local communities will benefit from the project, not only from the jobs created, but because better roads and other infrastructure will be built. Government spokespeople also maintain that the project will make Kenya a net exporter of sugar and be an important foreign exchange earner.
Sugarcane grown through the project would be processed into sugar, as well as ethanol. Ethanol is one of the biofuels hotly debated at forums such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s recent summit on the food crisis. Biofuels have been promoted as a clean-burning alternative to fossil fuels, but many say that growing crops for biofuel production threatens global food security.
Environmental groups have also been vocal in their opposition to the sugarcane project. A coalition of conservation organizations known as Nature Kenya has led the environmental opposition, noting that the Tana River Delta is home to more than 350 species of birds, lions, elephants, rare sharks, and reptiles. They say the project would destroy vital breeding grounds for migratory waterbirds and fish.
Environmental lobbyists also suggest that, by displacing pastoralists, the project would have a negative impact on other lands. They argue that if herders can no longer graze their cattle in the delta, they will use other pasturelands more intensively, leading to land degradation.
Click here to see the notes to broadcasters on controversial sugarcane project