Site icon Foreign Correspondent Margot Kiser

The Lamu Port – Progress versus Preservation

Lamu Port: Development vs. Preservation?

The multi-billion dollar development project in Kenya could bring much-needed employment and infrastructure, but at what cost to the area’s nature and culture?
ARTICLE | 12   MARCH 2012 – 4:01PM

Lamu, Kenya:
Three African heads of state – Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, South Sudanese president Salva Kiir Mayardit and Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi – recently hosted a ground-breaking ceremony in Lamu, a Kenyan island off the country’s undeveloped northern coast.

The purpose of the meeting was to officially launch the construction of a “super-port,” which will be the $5 billion flagship component of a multinational mega-development project as controversial as it is grand.

The proposed 32-berth port will serve as an international gateway for the Lamu Port South-Sudan-Ethiopia Economic and Transport Corridor project (LAPSSET), a project which will comprise of a superhighway, a high-speed railway, oil pipelines, and three international airports.

The corridor’s state-of-the-art infrastructure will transport crude oil from South Sudan to China, which buys more than 60% of South Sudan’s crude production, and landlocked Ethiopia. Africa’s newest nation, which seceded from Sudan in July 2011, came away with approximately three-quarters of the former country’s reserves, although little in terms of oil infrastructure. What South Sudan lacks in refining and transport facilities Kenya is now eager to provide.

“This project is expected to play a critical role in enhancing the economic livelihood of over 167 million people in our region,” President Kibaki vowed.

Kenya’s prime minister Raila Odinga, who also attended the ground-breaking ceremony, proclaimed that LAPSSET would open markets in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “It is literally the road toward the realisation of the African century and the African dream”, he said.

Beyond these collaborative ventures, little is known regarding which individuals, companies and/or countries will be awarded (or already have been) the remaining port construction tenders by the Kenyan government.

China, with its big stake in South Sudan’s energy sector, may be a prime contender. The US is also rumoured to be lending a hand to cash-strapped South Sudan.

Keeping it real
If conservationists – both of the natural and cultural stripe – have any clout, the road to realising this vision may prove bumpy.

The port site lies fifteen kilometres outside Lamu’s “old town” – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001. Scholars hail Lamu’s old town as being architecturally and culturally among East Africa’s richest and best-preserved traditional Swahili settlements. In 2010, however, the Global Heritage Fund identified it as one of twelve globally-recognised sites as being “on the verge” of irreparable loss and damage.

The report cited development pressure and inadequate management as the primary causes. The proposed port could prove the tipping point for Lamu’s delisting by UNESCO.

At present, the vast and largely empty Lamu Archipelago, covering 480 kilometres of coastline on the Indian Ocean, seems to swallow the Arab fishing dhows that have navigated its meandering channels for centuries. Among the settlements visible from the sea are grass-hut villages dotting mangrove-forested islands.

But within ten years, the mainland will have been converted into what the Kenyan government hopes will be a modern “growth area” replete with oil refineries, high-speed railways, an international airport and a resort city. If projects live up to artists’ renderings, the area will be East Africa’s answer to Dubai, though distinguished from the Gulf’s boomtown by a high tide of vice, chiefly prostitution and drugs.

Residents of Lamu are finding it difficult to fathom that in a short time coral reefs prized for snorkelling and offering habitat to the endangered dugong, a manatee-like aquatic mammal, will be dynamited, the picturesque dhows displaced, and channels dredged to accommodate the daily passage of up to ten Panamax container ships, the world’s largest operating commercial vessels.

No news is bad news
Champions of the port cling to promises that construction and infrastructure will guarantee jobs for thousands, if not millions, of impoverished Kenyans who are already being lured from other parts of the country. Opponents of the port, they argue, are enemies of development and out to thwart realization of the African dream. The pro-port viewpoint was well summed up by Steven Ikua, Lamu District Commissioner who said: “You can’t eat the environment.”

Members of the largely Muslim Swahili community say they have suffered a long history of marginalisation long before the port project began taking hold.

Government secrecy, failure to include local leaders in decision-making processes, violations of law, and, most contentiously, the use of legal loopholes to redefine the indigenous population as squatters has led to the creation of Save Lamu, a local grassroots coalition of civil society organisations.

Local concerns had fallen on deaf ears until community members filed a legal petition in the high court arguing that the Kenyan government had violated several sections of the new constitution with its installation of LAPSSET.

“Lamu people have had a prosperous port and maritime economy for centuries…they cannot oppose the construction of a new modern port,” asserted Mohammed Ali Baadi, the chief petitioner from Lamu Environmental Protection and Conservation. “What they (the Lamu people) oppose is the ‘secrecy’ in which the project is being implemented, failure to implement an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and lack of consultation with the Lamu people.”

Last week, Save Lamu members learned that an EIA had been quietly submitted to the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) on March 1, the day before the ground-breaking ceremony.

Bubble trouble
Despite tourist kidnappings in the Lamu area in September and October 2011, land prices around the proposed port continued to escalate as they have been speculatively since inside information about the project was shared.

A politician and real estate agent boasted that, since 2009 when plans for the port seemed to be taking hold, “heavies” from Nairobi’s Harambee House [Office of the President] have been coming in “turn-style fashion” to check on progress of their illegally obtained title deeds.

In 2010, he remarked, wealthy whites, local Swahilis, and politicians were buying up land from the port site all the way up to Kiwayu, near the Somali border.

Another speculator claimed he knew the land rush was on when a committee consisting of local politicians in towns near the port site insisted he quickly buy land near the port site.

Well-connected individuals allegedly got in early, grabbing up property to flip it to incoming speculators or sell to the government. Whipping up the frenzy of speculation naturally created a positive-feedback loop, driving up already escalating prices.

A Lamu landowner residing in the upscale enclave of Shela reported on the condition of anonymity that an acquaintance takes “phone orders” for land he has expropriated, and for which he has manufactured title deeds. “Kenyan politicians have sold their soul and earth in the name of greed and profit,” the anonymous source added.

Kenyan officials’ remedy is to revoke the bogus titles, reverting ownership from private hands to the government.

According to Save Lamu, this real estate will be classified as government-owned, though in such a way as to allow the financial elite to access and utilise it – all the while members of the local indigenous population are still regarded as “squatters” on ancestral lands.

The government claims it is giving title deeds to farmers, but these are for house plots, not for much-needed land suitable to agriculture.

Identify and register
SECURE, a USAID-funded project, is a nationwide programme for identifying and registering community lands. Lamu is its pilot site and focuses on areas specific to indigenous tribes near Kiwayu and Kiunga and the Boni hunter-gatherer tribe near the port site. “The government does not recognise these tribes as land-owners”, says a spokesman for SECURE.

Robertson Kabucho, a spokesman for INUKA Trust, a human rights non-profit founded by Kenyan “anti-corruption tsar” and whistle-blower John Githongo, hopes that land reforms under Kenya’s new constitution will curb further land-grabs.

To help bridge the gap between locals and government, the Ministry of Transport appointed former Lamu county councillor Abdullah Fadhil chairman of the port project steering committee. This body’s job is to collect information from various sectors of the community, for relay to the government.

“Our main mandate is to get views from environmentalists and religious leaders to government leaders,” Fadhil explained.

The Lamu port project has been in the pipeline since the 1970s and residents wonder why launch the port now. Fadhil attributes the timing to “regional pressures from South Sudan and Ethiopia, as the Kibaki government is coming to an end.”

A member of Save Lamu, however, suggested: “It’s an election year. If the new constitution of the port is implemented under county government, then Harambee House heavies won’t have money in the coffer for their campaigns.”

Another likely pressure comes from the north and Somalia. Raids by Somali marine bandits, and a rash of kidnappings they’ve carried out within Kenyan territory, make the prospect of the massive security required by a port of this scale attractive to many. This may produce another visible aspect of project’s multi-national cooperation; as Fadhil put it: “The South Sudanese will not tolerate their oil being pirated every now and then.”

There’s one issue, however, on which all parties to the debate agree: the region around Lamu is in desperate need of infrastructure. Not all residents want a global-scale port, but just about everyone wants ground transportation and logistics. Fadhil notes that even if the port doesn’t pan out, north and central Kenya will at last have highways, more schools and a railroad.

Save Lamu doesn’t disagree, but adds, ”If the grand vision doesn’t succeed, the natural and cultural wonders, like Humpty Dumpty, will be all but impossible to put back together again.”

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About the Author

Margot Kiser
Margot Kiser is a Kenya-based American correspondent covering piracy, geopolitics, and wildlife conservation in East Africa. Follow her on twitter.


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