Over the past 100 years, more than 60 percent of world’s wetlands have been destroyed as people search for land to settle on, farm, and establish other types of business investments. Currently, wetlands cover 6 percent of the world’s surface providing a wide array of environmental services, including soil erosion control, water storage and filtration, a buffer against flooding, biodiversity maintenance, nutrient recycling, nursery for fisheries, and carbon storage among others.
However, destruction and drainage of these ecosystems has led to large amounts of carbon emissions equivalent to 40 tons of carbon per hectare per year for degraded swamp forests as well as compromising the services they provide. Yala is one of the Swamps that has been seriously drained because of human activities.
Dominion Farms Ltd. is an American multinational organization that arrived in Yala swamp in 2003, and had initially stated its sole intentions as producing rice to reduce poverty in the area by supplying both employment and affordable food to the locals. Dominion has since been accused by locals as having had acquired their territory through unlawful methods. The latest activities of Dominion Farms Ltd. have elicited reactions from several stakeholders concerned with issues of sustainable development, the local environment and the livelihoods of its residents. Grievances have graduated into public demonstrations with increasing instances of physical confrontations between and among the locals, the employees, and the management of Dominion Farms. Numerous Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and nonprofits have embarked on individual and joint missions, like seeking the annulments of all past, unwarranted memorandum of understandings, which bestow upon Dominion sovereign reign over domain widely considered to be communal land held in Trust. This paper will analyze and disseminate the various stakeholders, their diverging motives, and agency effectiveness in strategy and implementation.
Yala Swamp Natural Resources
The Yala Swamp is the largest wetland habitat in Africa, spanning an area of approximately 45,000 hectors and serving as a catchment for Victoria Lake in western Kenya. It provides for essential hydrological and environmental functions that are critical for sustaining the livelihoods of several surrounding communities. Yala Swamp serves as a home to thousands of rare species of fish, mammals, and birds. It is recognized internationally as an Important Bird Area (IBA), providing shelter to the highest number of papyrus bird species found anywhere in the world.
Picture 1: A Papyrus Canary bird in Yala Swamp
The swamp hosts some of the rare species of birds including papyrus Gonolek, Papyrus Yellow Wabler, White Winged Warbler, Caruthers, Cistola, and Papyrus Canary, in addition to other birds. Birdlife International lists Papyrus Gonolek and Papyrus Yellow Warbler as some of the worst threatened bird species that required urgent conservation action (Birdlife International, IBAs status Report, 2004). The Yala Swamp also provides life to Lake Kanyaboli, one of the important riparian lakes around Lake Victoria, which feeds Rivers Yala and Nzoia.
The Yala Swamp area includes a section of 17,500 hectares, which is considered to be the main filtering catchment area. The Bondo and Siaya County Councils hold it in Trust on behalf of the local community. Dense plots of papyrus act as a buffer zone for filtering sediments and toxins from the rivers that would otherwise enter Victoria and Kanyaboli lakes. The lakes and surrounding wetlands provide for multitude of resources on which approximately 1 million locals directly and rely. Prior to Dominion’s arrival, thousands of families, farmers and herders directly depended on the land as a source pasture to feed their animals, gather fuel, food, and materials for building. Although human settlement within the wetlands has been virtually non-existent due to seasonal water inundation, local farmers commonly harvest crops in the dry seasons. The Yala Wetlands also constitute habitats necessary to support a diverse array of endangered animals, fish and birds. Cichlids once present in Lake Victoria can now only be found in Lake Kanyaboli. The overwhelming number of stakeholders campaigning for dominance over these wetlands indicates the significance of the stakes and the uncertain question of who should be entitled dominion.
Dominion Farm Operations
The firm started firming in the area after entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kenyan Government in 2004, which leased it 3000 hectares of the swamp. The firm has been producing large quantity of cotton, maize, rice, sunflower, and groundnuts on the already reclaimed land since then. Dominion Farms has also started fish farming and bee keeping project, which is aimed at boosting food production and the economy. Both the Kenyan government and the opposition are optimistic and happy with these developments and there are ongoing talks with the government to consider increasing the lease allocation to 17,500 hectares of the swamp. According to Mr. Burgess, Yala Swamp covers an area whose population is among the poorest in Kenya in addition to facing worse realities of Malaria, HIV/AIDS, and extreme weather conditions.
Environmental and socio-economic concerns
Much of the debate surrounding Yala Swamp centers on the methods in which land was appropriated to Dominion Farms, so a brief synopsis of the applicable laws concerning land tenure is relevant. The land tenure system operating in Kenya categorizes land as Government/State land, Trust or Private land, which are held by the Government, County Councils, or Individuals and Groups, respectively. Compulsory acquisition may occur when the State/Government proceeds to acquire property without any private negotiation or consent of the owner, yet provides just compensation. The Land Adjudication Act provides procedural legal framework for the process through which land held under customary tenure is transferred into individual holdings. Once the adjudication process is complete, it vests absolute ownership on the individual.
The Kenyan government has intended to reclaim and transform parts of the Yala swamp for agricultural production since the early 1970s. Various reports have been commissioned to realize the agricultural potential in the wetlands in hopes of transforming it into the "bread basket of Kenya". A myriad of authorities and programs were sanctioned to form a structural and legal framework in manners coinciding with Kenya’s National Development Plan (KNDP) for increasing crop production, incomes, employment and to sustain livelihoods for rural communities. At the national level the Poverty Reduction Strategy Program
(PRSP) and the Economic Recovery Strategy for wealth and employment creation was aimed at reviving the economy, creating employment and reducing poverty. Bunyala Rice Irrigation Scheme was introduced in 1972 under the National Rice Irrigation Board. Agricultural base institutions such as the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), and the National Cereals and the Produce Board (NCBB) have been sanctioned to achieve food sovereignty. The Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA) was established in 1975 as a government agency to oversee reclamation and development of 2300 hectares of the Yala wetlands, commonly cited as Area 1. The land was gazetted and development of the swamp was marginally successful. The benefits of the small scale operation were widely considered to beinadequate. After difficulties in acquiring the necessary funds, development projects eventually came to a halt. It is important to note that although Area 1 had been gazetted for government use, no fences were erected and no laws were enforced to prevent locals from using this area as commons for grazing, hunting and gathering.
In 2003, Calvin Burgess of Dominion Farms Ltd., a billionaire who privately contracted several prisons for the US government across America started expressing interest in Yala Swamp. He began expressing interests in making significant investments to turn a portion of the Yala Swamp into agricultural production land. He has subsequently employed a number of methods of legitimizing his claim to dominate over the wetlands. His stated mission in Kenya is in "the production and sale of rice, other cereal grains and tilapia fish to the markets of Kenya and surrounding countries, and to enable this country to reduce dependence on imported food, . . . serve as a demonstration of productive farming practices and . . . return a profit to Dominion". His rhetoric and employment of select agents and authorities within the local structural and legal frameworks has allowed him to acquire and develop vast tracts of land otherwise considered communal.
He is often quoted as referring to his spiritual motivation, and claims to have learned of the area from a member of his church. "God has plans for people's lives, and I thought that maybe this was part of His plan for me." He claims that upon first arrival to scope the area, two men dressed in tattered western suits begged him to help their people. "I made the decision that night." He vied to drain the swamp, purge its people of native cultural rituals and transform a place where "desperation, hunger and corruption reigned and life was hopeless" as he is quoted in the Kenya Monitor. Burgess initially claimed that Dominion would employ 1700 local people, while reserving 300 acres of land for residents to use communally. He also promised to rehabilitate at least one school and one health facility in both the Siaya district and Bondo district. A memorandum of understanding was signed between Dominion Farms and LBDA allowing Dominion to develop Area1, while the LBDA remained responsible for ensuring that the laws and regulations during project implementation. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was commissioned solely for large-scale irrigation and rice production as required by the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA).
Dominion then proceeded to negotiate an agreement with Siaya and Bondo County
Councils to bring 7,000 hectares Trust land into production. The Yala catchment area covers 17,500 hectares, meaning that Dominion Farms was to develop 40% of the catchment area in return for paying $140,000 in rent annually.
Dominion immediately began building irrigation dykes and a weir, airstrips and roads, and announced plans to build a hydroelectric plant, fish farms, a fish processing factory and a fish mill factory which by law require their own separate EIAs. A large white cross was erected on a fenced in hill behind Dominion's main facility after community members has relayed to Dominion its sacred and ancestral significance to the local people. Scores of homes where Dominion now operates were relocated to make way for a reservoir and a dam on Lake Kanyalobi. Dominion has renovated one health center, but residents say they must pass through Dominion's farm to reach the facility and are sometimes denied access. No schools have been renovated, while one school was flooded out- but Dominion claims to have donated building materials for school projects. The land that was promised to be set aside for communal farming has not been allocated. He claims to have improved life for Kenyans and plays down the idea that land formerly used for subsistence agriculture has now been endowed to Dominion. "I disagree when people say, 'Oh, you have to preserve the local culture,'" he says. "If you preserve it, people will starve, and you won't have a culture to preserve". He referred to Farms surrounding his company's property as being "unproductive gardens" and that most of the area his company now cultivates simply was not being inhabited. "No one was there," he says. Environmental oversight is weak in Kenya. Selalah Okoth, the district officer in Bondo for Kenya's National Environment Management Authority, says she has not assessed water or soil there since she took the job in 2004. Okoth cites a lack of resources, saying she fears there could be harmful pollution caused by Dominion. Burgess responds with dismay. "When you try to help these people," he says, "all they do is complain." Dominion Farms is part of the multinational Kenya National Council, which also includes Unilever, Coca Cola, Monsanto, the Kenyan phone company Safaricom and the National Oil Corporation of Kenya.
While there have indeed been several complaints on behalf of the locals, many would argue that it is not simply Domion’s “help” that they protest. There is growing and wide spread belief among locals that the agricultural methods are threatening the health and welfare of untold numbers of residents. People of Siaya County who had previously obtained freehold rights through Land Adjudication processes claim to have been forcefully evicted with no negotiation or proper compensation. Since the diversion of Yala river, people have had travel long distances to obtain standing water containing effluents from the mills. Formerly communal grazing lands have been flooded; fishermen are denied access to fishing areas, while the contaminated water is blamed for bringing sickness and causing an unusually high rate of miscarriages in the area.
Picture 3: Part of Yala Swamp
The people denounce the fact they weren’t included in any type communication regarding project implementations, but instead were dealt with by middlemen employed by Dominion. In 2007 the World Social Forum took place in Kenya, which Yala Swamp residents attended to request help from the international community in supporting their fights for their lands, their health, and their rights in participating in the development of the area. One woman called directly for then senator Obama’s attention to the matter, as his father came from Siaya County. A petition was created by community members at petitiononline.com in 2008 against unethical activities against Dominion. Regular peaceful protests outside the gates of Dominion had proven fruitless. In 2011, thousands of protesters, led by City Council member Orario, proceeded to push past the gates and storm the farms wielding pitchforks and machetes. After Burgess was chased off of the farm, local police began arresting the protesters, including Orario. Attempts to voice their transgressions on the radio have been blocked, causing many locals to assume that Dominion had bribed the radio stations. Considering the futility in the attempts by locals to participate in the development of the Yala wetlands, I will focus on the influx of NGOs who now claim to provide agency and act as a channel for the voice of local people.
The Kenya Wetlands Forum, a multi-institutional organization for the wise use of wetlands, commissioned an assessment, which revealed several issues and concerns to be addressed. These included drastic deviations from the original plan, which Dominion had adopted from the LBDA, a blatant disregard for EIA requirements, the absence of a required Environmental management plan, and the clear threat to the integrity of the wetlands as being a functional ecosystem.
Another important stakeholder in the region is Friends of Yala Swamp (FOYS), which is a network of formed by civil societies with the aim of engaging on issues related to environmental and natural resources conservation in the Yala Swamp. The organization brings together twelve organizations that have a wide civic mandate ranging from human rights, environmental governance, community mobilization, and capacity building, lobbying and advocacy. The member organizations are: Kenya Land Alliance (KLA); Institute for Law and Environmental Governance (ILEG); Ujamaa Centre; Action Aid-Kenya; Kituo Cha Sheria; Community Initiative Action Group Kenya (CIAG-K); Resources Conflict Institute (RECONCILE); Kenya Organization for Environmental Education (KOEE); Seeds of Peace Africa (SOPA); Bondo Residents Association (BORESA); Ugunja Community Resource Centre (UCRC); and Kenya Wetlands Forum (KWF). The FOYS currently has operations covering the three districts straddled by the swamp: Bondo, Siaya, and Busia.
The Friends of Yala Swamp (FOYS) is a conglomeration of civil society organizations formed in 2007 and focuses on human rights, community mobilization, advocacy and lobbying. FOYS has conducted surveys and done aerial mapping to indentify the issues, before holding trainings to build the capacity of the local community in understand their rights and participating in the ongoing negotiations between County Councils and Dominion. Their findings include the definite un-procedural and illegal compulsory acquisition of land, evidence of illegal redrawing of parcel numbers by the Director of Survey, dismal results from water and soil tests, the deaths of numerous community members as a result of Dominion’s pesticides, and several bribes ensuring the election of pro-Dominion officials. They have organized several stakeholder meetings to provide a platform of discussion for those residents who feel marginalized by Dominion’s encroachment. Some people subsequently been offered compensation for their lands which had been flooded, yet not for damaged or lost property including machinery and livestock. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) - how they at first supported the people but then sided with Dominion and plan to turn the rest of the wetlands into a wildlife reserve, banning the people from more land. They have helped arrest locals for “trespassing” on Dominion land.
This aim of this report was to analyze and disseminate the various stakeholders, their divulging motives, and effectiveness of the agencies in strategy and implementation. Drawing from the research, the project has had both positive and negatives impacts on the ecosystem of the swamp as well as the local community. The developments by the Dominion Farm has helped raise the living standards of the local community, but many issues including environmental, social, policy, and governmental have emerged from the development. The findings from the research indicate high levels of pollution with high concentrated elements of lead metal. This is attributed to the effluents from a factory discharging waste into the swamp. From the interviews, I found that it is a problem contacting the company officials to divulge information of the type of chemicals they use was impossible. As Kenya embarks on improving various environmental policies, they need to address wetland policy with urgency to help avert issues facing many of its wetlands.
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