Sitting on a 40 acre piece of land, Lamu Old Town is a small island town on Kenya’s coast, with white sandy beaches that are well forested by mangroves. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site established by the Arabs settlers in 1370, who had interacted with Bantu traders in the area to form the Swahili culture. Given its natural beauty and attraction to tourists, the area has seen its fair share of development projects that have disrupted residents’ livelihoods or permanently damaged and destroyed the environment.
In an effort to quickly industrialize, governments are churning out development projects that leave a trail of environmental and social destruction in their wake — negatively and permanently affecting people’s lives.
This has been the case in Kenya, as politicians want to live up to the promises they made during election campaigns. Others, however, looking to profit from these projects, have been motivated by selfish personal gain.
Organizations had formed in the past to oppose these projects and champion environmental rights, but they all fell on deaf ears. That was until projects on a far larger and more destructive scale were proposed, which made them rethink their strategies.
Today, a consortium of organizations is fighting to save the face of Lamu that is under threat by these development projects. They have come together to do this through creating public awareness and staging demonstrations — both in Lamu and in the capital, Nairobi — as well as even going abroad to talk to financiers of these projects.
The organizations have also engaged government and other development partners in court petitions, where they have argued their case and proved that the environment in the area is more important. Right now, they are engaged in a battle with one of the biggest projects in East Africa that has come to their doorsteps.
In 2009, an organization called the Lamu Environmental Protection and Conservation had embarked on an initiative to unite groups and individuals in a campaign to promote community resource rights that had been triggered by the implementation of the Lamu Port South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport, or LAPSSET, Corridor.
The LAPSSET Corridor is an ambitious infrastructure project with several components that span three countries. It would involve constructing highways, railroads and oil pipelines connecting Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia, three international airports and resort cities, as well as a dam along the Tana River.
Out of this initiative, a coalition of community members from over 40 local and national organizations came together under the banner, Save Lamu. Since they had long been ignored when they fought for their rights as individual organizations, they decided to join forces.
Raya Famau, a board member at Save Lamu, says that this strategy has borne fruit. Being a large consortium of grassroots organizations, they have drawn from pertinent organizations representing each community group and therefore have a bigger, well-balanced voice when they make demands.
“We have 12 groups represented in the management with members from women groups, youth groups, farmers, the fisherfolk, and people living with disability, human rights organizations, and many others,” Famau explained. “We did this because we saw that in the past when everyone was working on their own and there was a lack of teamwork, it was easy for the government to ignore us. But when we came together, then the government definitely has to listen.”
Save Lamu has been at the forefront of lobbying for sustainable development and has worked on several campaigns including, but not limited to, coal, oil and gas, and land rights advocacy, where they have fought for the compensation of farmers whose land has been take for construction. Apart from lawsuits, the coalition has organized forums to try and reason with government leaders and other stakeholders involved in these projects. They have also written petitions and organized and taken part in demonstrations.
The actions against these projects have taken many forms over the years, with the group talking to the community about the importance of the environment, engaging politicians, going to local radio and television stations, doing group and one-on-one advocacy, and protests.
In 2013, the government put up a spirited fight to construct a 1,050-megawatt coal-fired power plant — to be funded by a Chinese bank and built by local companies — that scientists and environmentalists advised against.
Save Lamu came out to resist the project in Kwasasi, Lamu County, saying that the plant would lead to too much environmental damage, and they had not been consulted on whether they wanted the plant in their area.
Apart from seeking an intervention from the court, which they saw as a last resort, the coalition had meetings with the government and stakeholders in the project to argue their case. When they were not listened to, they organized demonstrations both in Lamu and Nairobi, where they have taken to the streets with placards and marched to drive their messages home to the public and authorities.
In 2018, the group engaged in a major protest in Lamu while opposing the coal plant project and two of their members were arrested, and later released.
“At one point, we wrote a letter and tried to present it to the Chinese embassy in Nairobi,” Famau said. “They refused, and only took it when we got the media involved and had a demonstration outside it. Also, we traveled all the way to Ivory Coast to present our concerns at the African Development Bank that was to fund the coal plant project. They held the funds after that.”
Save Lamu became known for the fierce fight it put up against the Kenyan government’s decision to build the coal plant. In the end, the group went to court and won the case. The Environmental Tribunal issued an order stopping the construction of the coal plant, and directed the government’s National Environmental Management Authority, together with other stakeholders in the project to conduct an environmental impact assessment.
But even as they fought to stop this, something unprecedented happened. The community wanted to be compensated for the piece of land.
“There were a lot of conflicts between the organization and the community because the community wanted money from the government, and they knew it was good money because some had five or 10 acres, and each acre went for a little over $15,000,” Famau said.
Save Lamu stood their ground and told the government that they could compensate the farmers and generate electricity either with the tidal winds, sun, nuclear or wind power, but not with coal.
In 2018, the organization secured a High Court ruling in their favor, after seeking compensation for the farmers who had been displaced and fisherfolk whose livelihoods had been destroyed by the dredging that is going on at the port construction site. They had been in court for three years when the ruling was made, with the court awarding the fisherfolk of Lamu $16.7 million in compensation.
At Save Lamu, Famau represents a women’s group called Voice of Women. As she puts it, Lamu is both a religious and cultural town, and as such, it is hard for women to be heard. That informed their decision to form a group of professional women, who were educated and had jobs in different professions, back in 2005.
They have been able to represent the voice of women in the town by educating them about their rights, informing them on government plans in their area and getting their opinion. They then share their concerns with the government.
“Right now, we have been able to amplify women’s voices through this consortium and successfully advocated for their rights,” she said. “For example, the government agreed to compensate farmers for land for the LAPSSET project, but it was the men who owned land there. After getting the money, most of them ran away, leaving women stranded and poor.”
On May 20, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta presided over the opening of the first berth out of the 32 that are under construction at the Lamu Port, which will connect the LAPSSET Corridor to the Indian Ocean port. This move did not sit well with Save Lamu campaigners. They said that the president did not acknowledge that the fisherfolk in Lamu had still not been compensated as the court ordered in 2018.
The group is now pushing for this compensation, saying that the government has not followed through on the court order.
“Already three years have passed since the court awarded us this compensation, which has been owed to us since 2014 when the port project began,” said Somo M. Somo, chairman of the Lamu County Beach Management Unit.
Over the last three years, Mohamed Athman, the chairman of Save Lamu, says that the Lamu fisherfolk leadership attended stakeholder meetings. “We made concessions to find an agreeable resolution,” he said. “Just two weeks ago, we sat in meetings for a week, while observing Ramadan, to reach an agreed-upon plan, yet they have decided to launch the Lamu Port despite the promise they made last week about the fishermen’s compensation matter.”
While most of development projects involved in the LAPSSET Corridor could be beneficial, Famau says, they will not allow them to disrupt people’s way of life and destroy the environment. The organization is also engaged in many other environmental protection programs in Lamu, and is now leading a campaign in the seafront beautification program.
Now, they plant trees at the seafront, clean the beaches and plant kitchen gardens at the hospital. When COVID-19 hit, they started sensitizing people on how to stay safe, gave out masks and sanitizers, and place handwashing kits at strategic positions within the town.
“We decided to do this because we had long been perceived as anti-everything — anti-coal, anti-LAPSSET and so on,” Famau asserted. “After we won the coal plant case, we decided to re-strategize and do small projects at the community level so that they can see that at least there are some good things that we do.”
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After the opening of the port, the organization went ahead to write a letter to the Kenya Ports Authority, telling them that the fisherfolk needed full compensation. Also, they staged a demonstration and did a press release about the same. Athman has since received phone calls from government officials and had meetings with the county commissioner who promised that they will be compensated.
The organization is now waiting for that to be a reality. If that fails and nothing happens within a week, they plan to organize another demonstration to pressure the government to release the compensation to the fisherfolk.
“But if the government doesn’t want to listen,” Famau warned, “then we will do anything within our power to ensure that our livelihoods and the environment are protected for the sake of our future generations.”
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