One woman’s fight to save the Tana Delta from ‘development’

Monday May 9 2011

By RUPI MANGAT

Anyone could mistake Serah Munguti for a college girl in her pants and T-shirt.

But appearances can be deceptive and when she speaks, it’s clear what her mission in life is — advocating for the rights of communities and their natural resources.

In her world, watching birds is not a frivolous exercise. She says birds are easy pointers to the state of the environment.

“When a bird like a kingfisher disappears or its population dwindles, it says something about the state of the wetland — such as that the water has dried up or the wetland has been polluted,” she says. “And by conserving areas that are important to birds, many other forms of life (including humans) and the environment are protected.”

Having grown up in the harsh environment of rural Eastern Province around Ukambani, nature has always been close to Serah’s heart.

She’s concerned about the changes — mostly negative — in the past few decades, where large companies have moved in to displace local people and use land unsustainably for huge farming projects in the name of “development.”

Advertisement

Serah found her calling at Nature Kenya in 2003, where she works as the communications and advocacy manager.

“I deal with issues affecting the Important Bird Areas (IBAs),” she explains.

IBAs are sites recognised as being globally important habitats for the conservation of bird populations. Kenya has 61 IBAs.

She has also worked with local communities in the Tana Delta, who include the little known Wardei tribe who are have been displaced to pave the way for agricultural expansion.

“With advocacy, you want to see the desired outcome. In the case of the Tana Delta, our desired outcome is to see that it is conserved for wildlife and people,” says Serah.

Nature Kenya is also involved in the Dakatacha woodlands, situated a few kilometres inland from the coast of Malindi.

This little known but vast woodland is also under serious threat from “developers” out to plant jatropha, an exotic “wonder plant” for biofuel.

Under the European Union directive to invest in biofuel technology to reduce dependence on fossil fuel and lessen the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, multinational investors are flocking from Europe to plant jatropha on vast lands that are no longer available on their continents.

“Jatropha is only good as a fence from which people can harvest just enough oil to light their lanterns,” says Serah. “On huge plantations, it leaves the land unsuitable for any other farming and is water intensive. Everywhere else, it’s been a disaster save for Brazil.”

Serah gives the example of Tanzania, where thousands of acres of the threatened miombo woodland were destroyed to plant jatropha.

“It was a total failure. The developers then filed for bankruptcy and vanished, leaving the community that had leased the land poorer. They have no access to their land because it was leased to the government for the project. And now the government owns the community land.”

She says controversy reigns in such projects partly because most developers do not stay true to their word.

“You see developers promising education, schools, dispensaries, hospitals and jobs to the communities. But in many cases, they don’t live up to their promises,” explains Serah.

She adds that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the victims — who are often marginalised communities — often have no muscle. They are mostly illiterate or semi-literate.

“Many cannot even read the Environment Impact Assessment to gauge the implications of such projects,” she says.

The EIA is a document published before any project can commence for public comments.

“An EIA must never be done where the disadvantages are overwhelmingly negative,” notes Serah. “For example, in the Tana Delta it is acknowledged that sugarcane farming is water-intensive and the demand for irrigation is high, hence a water deficit, but sadly, the government endorses these projects.”

Serah says the laws need to be rewritten so that they are in harmony with the new Constitution.