Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Opinion: Kenyan paradise at risk over government oil port plans

By Hadija Ernst, Special to CNN
updated 6:57 AM EDT, Mon July 16, 2012
Lamu, a beautiful island located off the Kenyan coast, has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Lamu, a beautiful island located off the Kenyan coast, has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
HIDE CAPTION
Lamu, Kenya
Lamu, Kenya
LAPSSET
LAPSSET
Lamu, Kenya
Lamu, Kenya
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Kenyan government has announced plans for a new port in Lamu, a World Heritage Site
  • It is part of bigger project that includes an oil refinery, pipelines from S.Sudan and transportation hubs
  • Local civil society groups are taking the government to court over the port project
  • They ask for more information and call for an environmental impact assessment

Editor's note: Hadija Ernst is editor of Chonjo, a magazine featuring news and human stories from Kenya's north coast, and a member of Save Lamu.

(CNN) -- In March this year, Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki officially launched the new Lamu Port project, a massive infrastructure project that is expected to cost a whopping $20 billion. The red-carpet affair was attended by his South Sudanese and Ethiopian counterparts, Salva Kiir and Meles Zenawi respectively, on a stretch of leveled mangroves, flattened especially for the launch.

The new port is part of a larger project, known as LAPSSET (Lamu Port--South Sudan--Ethiopia Transport Corridor), a pearl in the crown of the Kenyan government's Vision 2030, an ambitious program to propel Kenya's economy, like those witnessed in Asia.

The LAPSSET project includes an oil refinery, pipelines from South Sudan, transportation hubs for rail, road and air, and a mega port for oil tankers, plus a number of tourist resort cities along its path.

Hadija Ernst, editor of Chonjo magazine.
Hadija Ernst, editor of Chonjo magazine.

Several months on, very little work has been done, even though President Kibaki committed the finance minister to release funds to enable construction of the first three berths. Rumors circulate that the government lacks financial backing even though the local media ascribes China as the main supporters because of their desire for South Sudan's oil.

Watch: Bringing Sudanese oil to Kenya

It is no wonder at the speculation. The Lamu Port plans have been shrouded in secrecy ever since the government began its search for capital. The lack of transparency and the dearth of information have created an aura of suspicion and mistrust of the government, particularly among affected communities.

Lamu is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The medieval stone town is the home of Swahili culture and architecture. Its rich history is linked to the Indian Ocean trade-world, connecting China, India and the Arab Peninsula from as early as the 9th century.

Early stone ruins of Swahili towns dot the area under the care of the National Museums of Kenya. Nearby, a marine reserve protects the islands dotting the Lamu Archipelago teeming with coral and mangrove and home to endangered marine animals like sea turtles and dugongs.

Will oil plans ruin an African paradise?

Inland, the Boni-Lungi Forest -- last of the coastal forests that once spread from Kenya to Mozambique -- is listed as a protected biosphere with conservationists actively trying to protect the area because of its concentration of endemic plants and animals and the fast rate at which it is disappearing.

Bringing Sudanese oil to Kenya
Kenya's future after striking oil
Kenya deals with the tourism blues

Lamu County is home to five indigenous ethnic groups: Sanye, Aweer, Bajun, Swahili and Orma, who have lived with political marginalization since Kenya's independence. Each of these communities utilize their natural resources for survival.

Traditionally the Orma are pastoralists, Bajun and Swahili are fishermen and farmers, the Sanye and Aweer are hunters and gatherers. Their livelihoods and cultural existence are at stake with the government's plan to build a mega port and transport corridor linking Lamu to South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Save Lamu, a coalition of local civil society organizations, is taking the government to court over the port project. They argue that the government is legally bound to provide an environmental impact assessment (EIA) by independent experts and consultations with the community. This, they claim, has not been done.

"We have been the stewards of this land and coastline for centuries," says Mohammed Baddi, member of the Save Lamu coalition and a legal petitioner. "How can the government begin to construct such a huge project with dire environmental hazards without consulting us and without an EIA?"

Kenya PM: Sudan conflict threatens world oil prices

Baddi's words are echoed by many in Lamu. One of the biggest community complaints is the lack of transparency on the part of the government. "Getting information about the port project is incredibly difficult," states Abubakar El-Amudy, chairperson of the Save Lamu coalition.

Save Lamu maintains that it is not against the port, but against the way it feels the government is strong-arming the community into submission. "They say we are anti-port and anti-development," states El-Amudy. "We are not. But we are demanding that the government provide us with information, otherwise it appears that the new port will only benefit a few select people."

And that is the way it looks from the ground. Land ownership is a heated point of contention here. As well it would be, for the majority of the county's land mass is categorized as Kenya government land. Lamu's indigenous communities have lacked legal land rights and, under corrupt administrations, their ancestral land has been a means of rewarding political cronies.

Many locals believe that the port project will obliterate their culture heritage. The population of the county, according to reports, is expected to increase tenfold, from 110,000 people today to 1.25 million in 10 years. The incoming migration will make the indigenous communities a minority, thus disabling any political power that they might wield.

The population increase is also expected to damage Lamu's status as a world heritage site. At the latest World Heritage Committee Meeting in St. Petersburg, in June 2012, Kenya's LAPSSET project and its effects on Lamu was discussed. The committee recommended that the Kenyan government halt the project until an Environmental and Historical Impact Assessment report is provided to UNESCO.

Whether the government will agree is not certain.

Meanwhile, Save Lamu's momentum is gathering strength and their court case is pending. The growing opposition to the LAPSSET project by local and international organizations may bring the government to the negotiating table to rethink its plans for LAPSSET.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hadija Ernst.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Marketplace Africa
updated 6:00 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Fish from the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho are served in top Tokyo sushi spots.
updated 8:23 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
The world-famous waterfall is inspiring a local tourism boom as an increasing number of people is visiting Zimbabwe.
updated 5:07 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Seychelles needed more than pristine beaches and choral reefs to boost its once troubled tourism industry.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
A general view of the Hout Bay harbour covered in mist is seen on May 8, 2010 from the Chapman's peak road on the outskirts of Cape Town. Chapman's peak road is the coastal link between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope. When following the African coastline from the equator the Cape of Good Hope marks the psychologically important point where one begins to travel more eastward than southward, thus the first rounding of the cape in 1488 by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was a major milestone in the attempts by the Portuguese to establish direct trade relations with the Far East. He called the cape Cabo Tormentoso. As one of the great capes of the South Atlantic Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope has been of special significance to sailors for many years and is widely referred to by them simply as 'the Cape'. It is a major milestone on the clipper route followed by clipper ships to the Far East and Australia, and still followed by several offshore yacht races. AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Abandoned workshops and empty warehouses are getting a new lease of life in Cape Town.
updated 6:37 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Inside a glove factory on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, busy laborers turn patches of leather into these fashionable garments.
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
The Somali capital now has its first-ever ATM bank machine -- and it dispenses U.S. dollars.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
Waves lap at the ships as they pull into the Port of Ngqura, but no swell is stopping the local economy booming.
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
In Uganda, a group of landmine victims are using banana fiber to create rope, profit and community.
updated 9:37 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
What does it mean to be Nigerian? That's the question on the lips of many in Nigeria as new national identity cards are being rolled out.
updated 7:05 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
 General view of an oil offshore platform owned by Total Fina Elf in the surroundings waters of the Angolan coast 15 October 2003. The 11 members of the OPEC oil cartel have agreed to slash output by a million barrels a day, the OPEC president said 11 October 2006, in a move aimed at shoring up sliding world crude prices.
Six of the top 10 global oil and gas discoveries last year were made in Africa -- but can these finds transform the continent?
updated 6:21 AM EST, Thu February 20, 2014
A South African app allows buyers to pay for goods using their phone, without having to worry about carrying cash or credit cards.
updated 7:27 PM EST, Thu December 12, 2013
African astronomers want world-class observatories to inspire young scientists and build a tech economy.
updated 10:23 AM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
A Zambian computer tablet -- known as the ZEduPad -- is trying to open up the country's information highway.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
South Africa may be the dominant force in Africa's wine economy, but other countries are making inroads in the industry.
updated 5:27 AM EDT, Thu October 10, 2013
Eko Atlantic city design concept
A lack of infrastructure has hindered Africa's development, but a series of megaprojects could change that.
Each week Marketplace Africa covers the continent's macro trends and interviews a major player from the region's business community.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT