On the fertile lands around Kenya’s longest river, a battle is raging — between farmers, conservationists and investors keen to turn the rich soil into swathes of commercial farmland.
The 800km Tana River sustains a rich biodiversity and thousands of residents who rely on it for fish and on its sedimentary deposits for farming and pasture.
In December the residents won a court injunction temporarily halting the country’s biggest sugar company, Mumias, from growing cane there for biofuel, but the case has since stumbled on legal technicalities.
With the case still unresolved, Kenya announced in December it was planning to lease 40,000 hectares of land near Tana to the Gulf state of Qatar to grow fruit and vegetables in exchange for the construction of a port, road and railway.
Despite the potential revenue that the projects can generate, residents reject the sugar firm’s plan since it will displace 22,000 people and dry up the soil.
“We can be evicted anytime ... They would have to dry the area and all. What will be left for us will be our poverty,” said local resident Bernard Onyango, a fisherman from western Kenya who relocated to a village near Tana 15 years ago.
Not only is the prospect of eviction a major worry, huge herds of cattle from the parched regions of northern Kenya that rely on the grassland around the delta will be starved of pasture during dry spells.
“In absence of all that, where will they go? They have nowhere else to go,” said Roba Albado, pointing to a small lake near his village.
Maulidi Kumbi Diwayu, who heads a local environmental watchdog, said that if the projects are allowed to go on, the loss of pasture and land will lead to dangerous conflicts between humans and wildlife.
“The cattle will have nowhere to go but the stretch of land between the river and the project,” he said. “Crocodiles will be concentrated in the river, creating danger for cattle and human lives.”
Such tussles expose the sensitive question of land tenure in Kenya, where it is categorized as either government land, freehold or trust land.
Government land is that which formerly belonged to the British colonial government and was handed to Kenya’s government after independence, while trust land is in the hands of county councils.
Trust land is communal and the council holds it in trust for the benefit of its residents.
Most of the Orma and Pokomo communities living in the Tana River delta do not have title deeds and a government agency claims ownership of the land, but locals say the land was handed to them by their ancestors.
Among the few residents who have title deeds is Worede Dela, a village elder in his seventies who said he inherited the document from his ancestors.
The deed was handed to the family in 1923 by the British colonial administrators, he said.
Little stands in the government’s way to start projects in the rich delta except a slim chance that the area could come under the regulation of the 1971 Convention on Wetlands.
The convention does not expressly ban large-scale agricultural use of wetlands but calls for the “conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.”
Judith Nyunja, an official with the state-run Kenya Wildlife Service, said the convention could bar single-crop growing in wetlands such as the Tana River delta.