Archive 2003


Thanks for the Bibles, Could We Have the Land Back Now?

Monday, December 15, 2003 

Concentrated around Kenya's principal natural resources are big and small businesses whose rise has in most cases locked out local communities from the use of these resources. 

Long before the multinationals came in to bottle and offer "designer" water in the market, springs and streams were regarded as communal resources to be used by all. Until very recently, the local people merely had to go into the nearest forest to collect as much fuel wood as they could carry on their backs. 

And while some communities depended on wildlife for protein while others had long traded in ivory, people in Kenya had not learnt to commercialise its "aesthetic" value. 

Then came the colonialists. Armed with better weaponry and better techniques, they not only turfed the natives off their ancestral land but also selected the choicest of resources for own use. 

Independence, according to one school of thought, merely perpetuated the status quo. And despite a half-hearted attempt by Kenya's first government to resettle the landless and Africanise businesses and the civil service, the economic and social landscape did not change much. For, wherever the few Europeans who chose to do so had vacated the stage, a new African elite with political connections assumed ownership, as the recent survey of Kenya’s rich in the /Daily Nation/ revealed. 

In the periphery of the country's principal forests; in the vicinity of the principal national parks and pristine springs and streams, the old colonial order still holds sway. But newer companies have come in thanks to globalisation, to give the Kenya's economic landscape a refurbished but no less exclusive look. 

Today, we are able to talk of Coca-Cola's designer water, Dasani, Brooke Bond's Green Label Tea, Kakuzi's efficient kilns, Homegrown’s multimillion dollar horticultural operations around Naivasha and in Nanyuki, or the gargantuan spread of African Safari Club's exclusive resorts on the Coast. 

But, after the post-colonial election that saw NARC take power, is there any likelihood of this scenario changing? Many in civil society feel the whole thing is dangerous for future peace in the country and is ultimately a recipe for mass anger, civil unrest and violence, given the rising hopelessness, debilitating poverty and an economy that simply refuses to grow. 

Where resources have traditionally been used communally, especially the many streams and lakes in the country, key players in the civil society have come out strongly against private businesses assuming control. The former CEO of the Karen & Langata District Association, the crusading Mike Mills, says, "The protection of communal resources is the preserve of responsible government and the interests of those traditionally benefiting from them must be paramount... this is why there are quotas for water abstraction both above and below the ground." 

Mills, who moved to Scotland late last year, says that, in the UK, The ‘rights of way' are jealously protected. 

But key players in the private sector disagree. Jake Grieves-Cook, managing director of Gamewatchers Safaris, an international tour company, says, I do not think it is inevitable that local communities will be prevented from having access to a communal resource by private companies. 

Grieves-Cook feels that conflicts can be avoided if mutually benerficial partnerships between local communities and private companies are initiated. 

This is necessary because communities often lack the capital, the management expertise, the operational experience and contacts with potential markets to develop the resource. 

Many companies justify their exploitation of communal resources on the basis of the capital they inject into the community and the employment they provide. However, This cannot just be justified by job opportunities if the utilisation is not sustainable, says Mills, adding that commerce has a nasty habit of sidelining the communal interest through unbalanced utilisation. 

Nevertheless, apart from a few companies jointly owned by the local political-cum-business elite and foreign nationals, there are few truly African companies in the country, whether one is talking of tourism, large-scale agriculture, food processing or mining. Should the government make a deliberate attempt to nurture African entrepreneurs? 

"Truly indigenous companies are an economic misnomer," says Mills, Protectionism may help local interests in the short run but ultimately prevents the input necessary to make these companies truly competitive. Market economists too say that developing countries need to be open to international investors with the skills to exploit natural resources. 

But in the many years since African countries first bought into this argument, the transfer of appropriate skills has either not taken place or, where it has occurred, has not translated into a rise in real domestic investment and economic gains for the population. 

Indeed, countries like Kenya have built up their local human capital not so much through interaction with foreign investors as through normal governmental investment in education and manpower development. 

Still, commentators say that, in the light of global trends and World Trade Organisation and World Bank thinking, Kenya has no option but to allow foreign investors to continue capitalising on the country's natural resource base. 

"The secret" says Dr Dominic Walubengo, director of the Forest Action Network (FAN), "is to enact policies that enable us get the best deal out of foreign investments." 

Best deals or no deals, the danger of inviting private foreign exploitation of such resources as Lake Naivasha is real. 

"Lake Naivasha has a special problem in the form of ownership of land surrounding the lake, access to the water and health issues related to intensive flower farming," says Dr Walubengo. 

The problem is compounded by heavy chemical usage and poverty, which forces people to agree to work in those companies at low wages and without adequate protection from chemicals. 

On his part, Mills says companies around Lake Naivasha have the nasty habit of restricting the quality and quantity of the resource available to local communities. 

The danger of usurping communal resources for private profit is most real in the water sector, where there is widespread concern that privatisation of water resources will end up making water unaffordable. 

Just because privatisation of water seems to work in developed nations does not mean that it is right for Kenya, says Mills, who believes that if not handled properly, this will eventually lead to civil war since water is life and a person is justified in using reasonable force to protect his life. 

Mills’s earlier militant activities on behalf of Karen and Langata residents encouraged them to withhold the payments of rates to the Nairobi City Council for non-deliverance of services. 

But I do not think there needs to be a conflict between the private sector and communities, says Grieves-Cook, calling for fair partnerships, where a private company can join with a community for their mutual benefit. He gives the example of the Eselenkei Conservancy near Amboseli, where the Maasai community benefits from such a partnership by gaining access to funding and the management expertise necessary to generate additional income and jobs." 

The trouble is that, over the past 40 years, Kenya has developed few instances of meaningful partnership between the private sector and local communities. The communities’ frustration, as the titanium-mining saga at the Coast revealed, arises from the fact that private companies deal directly with the central government when obtaining operating licences. 

"Almost invariably, local communities are not consulted," says Dr Walubengo. 

Kenya's past governments justified the practice of ignoring communities on the grounds that they held the country's natural resources in trust for the state and by extension for the people. But as people become more aware and informed, they are going to demand more of what they perceive as their rights. The private investors who succeed will therefore be those who play along and do business in this new climate of people’s awareness." 

Already, many companies have started giving back, in cash and kind, to communities to whom the resources they use once belonged. Over the past few years, Kenyans have witnessed the formation of several community wildlife-based businesses, of which the Lewa Downs Conservancy in Laikipia is the most famous. Many corporations have also developed a community-welfare element in their businesses while there is rising appreciation in the private sector of the need to start handling the environment with respect. 

However, some observers in civil society see this as a half-hearted attempt to placate ordinary Kenyans as companies make a killing from communal resources. The bottom line has always been paramount; many companies have initiated unco-ordinated community programmes just to be seen to be trying to put a little back. Very few of them make a difference, says Mills. 

Companies should be encouraged, to voluntarily adopt environmentally friendly policies," Mills adds, and proposes that affected community organisations should be represented at board level where they can defend their intersets. 

A US expert on forestry who has worked extensively in Taita Taveta, Gerry Hertel, concurs,"If it’s done right, all can benefit. The big question is; can it be done right? 


John Mbaria is a Nairobi-based correspondent for The EastAfrican.