Lamu port deal: Kenya to sell Tana Delta land
CAPITAL EROSION: There could be serious consequences if African governments continue to sell off valuable land at a time of growing international food shortages
Proposals to sell off around 16,200 hectares of land in the Tana River delta to Qatar to grow vegetables and fruit in return for a new port in Lamu have again raised concerns for the future of the environmentally important area.
President Mwai Kibaki recently returned from a visit to the oil-rich Middle Eastern state, where his spokesman Isaiah Kabira said that the proposal to lease Qatar 16,200 hectares of land was put forward.
“Nothing comes for free,” Mr Kabira said. “If you want people to invest in your country then you have to make concessions.”
But the Guardian newspaper said the proposed deal was only the “latest example of wealthy companies and countries trying to secure food supplies from the developing world.”
Other Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also been negotiating leases for large tracts of farmland in Sudan and Senegal.
With plans on hold for the moment for another scheme in the delta to grow biofuels and provide a sugar processing plant on 130 square kilometres of the fertile areas near the coast, environmental groups fear the area is in danger of being destroyed.
They point out that the Tana River Delta provides refuge for 350 species of birds as well as lions, elephants, rare sharks and reptiles, including the Tana writhing skink.
A report commissioned recently by Nature Kenya and the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) found that the developer’s plans for the huge sugarcane plantation overestimated profits, ignored fees for water use and pollution from the sugarcane plant, and disregarded the loss of income from wildlife tourists.
Paul Buckley, an Africa specialist with the RSPB, said that “many migrating species use the Tana Delta in internationally important numbers.”
The Tana is 700 kilometres long and is Kenya’s longest river. It rises in the Aberdare mountain range in central Kenya. The delta covers 130,000 hectares in total and is one of Kenya’s largest and most important freshwater wetlands.
It is a vast patchwork of habitats including savannah, forests, beaches, lakes, mangrove swamps and the Tana River itself.
Local people including pastoralists who regard the land as communal and rear up to 60,000 cattle to graze in the delta each dry season have adapted to the regular floods that keep the area fertile throughout the year.
The Delta is 190 kilometres from Mombasa and a popular tourist attraction for those travelling between Mombasa and Lamu.
Wildlife Extra, a UK-based conservation group, says that the 345 bird species in the delta include 22 water bird species present in internationally important numbers.
The Delta is designated an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. It is also one of Kenya’s Endemic Bird Areas. It has important mangrove forests where fish and other marine life spawn, and which soak up floodwaters.
However, despite the acknowledged environmental importance of the area, the Kenyan government knows that a deal to lease the land in return for the construction of docks in Lamu could entail considerable economic benefits, not the least of which would be opening up the possibility of an easier trade route through to Ethiopia and southern Sudan.
The Kenyan government owns nearly 500,000 hectares of uncultivated land in the delta and is keen to make economic use of it despite environmentalists’ concerns.
But the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that there could be serious consequences if African governments continue to sell off valuable land at a time of growing international food shortages.
It pointed out that a recent scheme by Gulf companies in Sudan showed limited local benefits, with much of the specialist labour and farming inputs imported.