Kenya: Indigenous maasai evicted for power plants

It has taken six months, but now the house of Jack Zooibo has been rebuilt.
The house of the Zooibo family was destroyed in the attack on Narasha. It took six months to rebuild it.

Human rights are literally going up in smoke when Kenya launches major geothermal energy projects in the indigenous Maasai areas. Part of the investments derive from UN climate projects under the Kyoto protocol (CDM), where the municipal energy company of Gothenburg (Göteborg Energi) is one of the investors. Emission reductions in Kenya are used for carbon offset (climate compensation) of Swedish district heating.

This is an english translation of a Swedish text published in Sveriges Natur #5/2014  

Text and photos Mats Hellmark

PDF of original story with photos by Håkan Lindgren: Rättigheter upp i rök – massajer och kraftverk i Kenya

It has to be said right away: Geothermal energy is probably a climate smart solution for electrifying Kenya. Significantly better than fossil alternatives. The first power plant was built 30 years ago, and with the planned new investments the complex in Olkaria, 120 km west of the capital Nairobi, will be the world’s largest.

The problem is that the exploitation causes suffering among the indigenous people who live in the area and claim traditional rights to the land. Their environment is damaged and whole villages are relocated by force.

Last summer the conflict reached new heights when the governmental Kenyan energy company KenGen tried to expel Maasai locals from the village Narasha by force. A couple of hundred thugs, supported by armed police, burned nearly 250 houses, killed livestock and assaulted several villagers. The incident became hot news material, so much that the President Uhuru Kenyatta felt compelled to personally visit the village and make promises of compensation for the affected.

Construction work on the  new power stations. Photo Mats Hellmark
Construction work in Olkaria. Photo Mats Hellmark

We are heading to the village, which is situated close to the already established power stations. As the road turns into the hills from the large lake Naivasha the typical volcanic smell resembling rotten eggs can be felt in the air. Smoke clouds are visible from afar, and just inside the gate of the National Park Hell’s Gate we drive through a large industrial park with several power stations. The emissions do not just smell unpleasantly. Sulphur hydroxide is a poisonous gas and one of the health impacts of the power plants is that diseases of the respiratory system have become the most common among the locals.

The large Olkaria geothermal industrial area is just inside the gates of the national park. Photo Mats Hellmark
The large Olkaria industrial area is just inside the gates of the national park. Photo Mats Hellmark

Some warthogs graze below one of the large pipelines carrying hot gases from boreholes a thousand meters deep. Steam hisses from valves. A network of pipelines meanders for miles and miles through the arid landscape.

The first power plant, Olkaria I, was built in the early 1980s. Combined Olkaria I, Olkaria II (funded by the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the German Development Bank KFW) and Olkaria III (operated by American-owned Orpower) deliver 150 megawatts (MW) to the Kenyan grid. Olkaria IV, which is under construction, will provide 280 MW and is launched as a new climate project for foreign investors who want to offset their own carbon emissions (CDM, clean development mechanism). KenGen is planning to expand the capacity to several thousand megawatts in the area.

The name Olkaria derives from the Maasai word for ocher, which is collected in the area. It is used to dye hair ritually. The local Maasai belong to the clan Ilkunono. Following bloody clashes with British colonial power in the late 19th century they retired to this part of their original area because it was less accessible and more easily defended. The area also holds sacred places of significance for all Maasai, among them the scenic Ol Njorowa gorge with hot springs, cliffs and waterfalls.

Just outside the village our car is held up by an old man in jeans and shuka (traditional felt cloak). 78-year-old Oseen Parsampyla is waving menacingly at us with his long rod. Four sons and a grandson follow suit.

He declares that they are prepared to fight us. As he understands that we are journalists and not part of KenGen’s foreign investors matters calm down and we can talk.

– We believe that the company will try to expel as again soon. If so, it will have to be over my dead body. We will not move!

Oseen Parsampyla's family has been relocated over and over. Now he is ready to fight. Photo Mats Hellmark
Oseen Parsampyla’s family has been relocated over and over. Now he is ready to fight. Photo Mats Hellmark

Under the drone of the high-voltage lines high over our heads, he tells how his family has been forcibly relocated from place to place. The first resettlement took place in the period of Kenya’s independence and national formation in the 60s. Initially the family lived in the area where the power plants are now. At that time the morans, the young warriors, took to arms.

– We were promised compensation at the time, but have not received any so far …

The first thing we see in the village itself is a demolished house of corrugated steel, still standing after last year’s attack.

– A group of women used to make cornmeal in there, says Rebecca Liziay, who is standing behind the counter in a small shop next door.

All is quiet and peaceful, except for children’s voices from the school across the road (which has about 400 pupils). It is hard to imagine the uproar last summer, but Daniel Mpatinga picks up his mobile and shows a video he filmed. We see burning buildings and people on the run.

A car fleet with approximately 200 hired thugs with chainsaws and machetes entered the village early morning July 26th. All were Kikuyu, Kenya’s dominant ethnic group. Along came armed police and a court decision for evacuation, which later proved to be false.

Demolished house in Narasha. Photo Mats Hellmark
Demolished house in Narasha. Photo Mats Hellmark

Land ownership is disputed, here as in many other places. The Maasai claim traditional ownership, but after independence in 1963 the government distributed title deeds to people in other parts of the country who had connections to the political elite. The official title deed holders of Narasha have already reached an agreement with KenGen.

When the thugs arrived the animals had not been taken out to graze yet, most of them remained in the village. Over 200 sheep and many goats and calves were incinerated. Buildings were burned and torn down the whole day.

– Those who tried to stop the destruction were arrested and several people were beaten. My father was one of them, says Daniel Mpatinga.

The World Bank denied involvement in a statement and when the Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta visited the village a week after the attack he promised thorough investigation and compensation for those affected. A committee was appointed, but the work hasn’t perceived as planned and is at present stalled. Nothing has happened on the issue of compensations. Daniel Mpatinga is part of the group that is trying to estimate compensation for the values that were destroyed. He figures the values amount to approximately 100 million shillings (about 8 million SEK).

Prior to the attack the villagers were offered 31 million shillings (about 2.5 million SEK) if they moved out voluntarily, he says.

Narasha. Photo Mats Hellmark
Narasha. Photo Mats Hellmark

– We were also told that the money would be used to force us out if we did not accept.

Jack Zooibo and his family lives in the house closest to the shop. It took him six months, but now he has rebuilt his burnt house from scratch. His neighbour Hannah Sencho shares the bitter experience.

– We got no chance to empty the buildings. Animals and many possessions went up in flames. It was a great suffering, she says.

The villagers we meet are worried because KenGen visited the village a few days before, measuring the land. The company is planning for a new, more powerful geothermal plant (Olkaria V) and a large industrial area with homes for tens of thousands of workers.

The area the company suggested for relocating the villagers is much smaller than their present and, according to them, with less possibilities for grazing and cultivation.

– The place is stony and eroded. And it is uncertain whether we would be allowed to remain there, says Daniel Mpatinga.

Another group in the area accepted relocation after lengthy negotiations, to make space for the power plant Olkaria IV. KenGen has built 150 new houses for them on a height. The day of our visit the Shaa family is moving in. They are the last to go.

– We waited as long as possible because the houses KenGen built are fewer than what was promised. 14 families have not been offered anywhere to stay and we wanted to fight for their rights, says village elder Daniel Shaa.

The description in KenGens resettlement plan (RAP) does not appear that bad. The goal is that all PAP (”Project Affected Persons”) should be no worse off than before the project started. The World Bank safeguards are to be followed. And the community’s wish to be resettled together has been respected.

The house of the family Shaa, bearing the sign RAP HSE 31, also appears more modern than traditional maasai huts. More space, cement walls and tin roofs. But the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, according to Daniel Shaa.

– We can not live in our traditional way here. The house feels isolated and has a fence around the small yard. There is no space for the animals and it’s difficult to be social with your neighbors. The whole relocation process is very disappointing for most of us and does not live up to expectations.

The water tanks deployed are not matching the needs, the houses are secluded and routes are difficult. Promises of bus transport have not been fulfilled. The families do not have to pay rent, but they are also not recognized as owners.

– To access the house we had to sign a paper that we have no additional claims. But the houses are still KenGen’s and may not be altered in any way. They can not be inherited or sold.

Daniel Shaa has written several letters concerning breach of contracts to the World Bank, but has so far not received any other answer than that the bank has promised to discuss matters with KenGen.

On the road from the settlements we get stuck in the muddy road, even though our car has four-wheel drive. It takes assistance from passers-by, before we can continue towards Nairobi.

The pipelines meander through the national park. Photo Mats Hellmark
The pipelines meander through the national park. Photo Mats Hellmark

Joseph Simel is director of the human rights NGO MPIDO (Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization), working for the Maasai and other nomadic pastoralist groups in Kenya. MPIDO has sued the police, several governemental departments and multinational corporations for several cases of rights abuses, including the evictions in Narasha. The first hearing will take place in Nakuru on December 23rd.

– We ask the court to suspend any activities that are detrimental to the locals until the case is settled, he says.

– The government wants to secure energy supply, but does not consider the consequences. It takes no account of a number of previous court decisions that have gone our way. Instead, the methods for expelling the Maasai are becoming increasingly violent. Narasha is not the only example.

Kenya has not ratified ILO 169 (international convention securing the rights of indigenous people), but Joseph Simel still thinks that Kenyan law does take into account the rights of indigenous people, and he is hopeful of further improvement. The problem is that the authorities do not apply the legislation. And that court processing is expensive, especially for an NGO.

The MPIDO programme officer for land, natural resources and rights, Lawrence Mbelati, adds that the mining law in the making does not include benefit sharing for local communities in the way it should according to the Kenyan constitution.

– I recommend that the government should also consider the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, UNDRIP, and its principle of free prior and informed consent (FPIC), says Lawrence Mbelati.

Joseph Simel says that it pays to mobilize the media on these issues:

– But even that has a price in Kenya. Politicians often bribe to silence the media, or threaten them with lawsuits.

Geothermal energy is not the only form of exploitation that attracts developers to the Maasai areas. Natural gas, hydro, oil exploration and mining are other threats to livelihoods.

Historically, the ethnic group has been pushed out of its original territory further and further into dry and arid areas. The British colonial rule left the feared Maasai warriors in peace until the late 19th century, when severe rinderpest and diseases weakened resistance.

Through two agreements (with conditions that were not respected) the colonial power was able to get a hold of large areas. Independence meant no improvement in terms of land rights, according to Simel.

– I usually say that the white colonists were replaced by black. The political elite redistributed the land according to their own purposes.

Nevertheless Maasai culture and traditions are heavily used for marketing Kenya as a tourist destination. In the center of the national flag Kenya boasts a Maasai shield with two crossed spears.

The big challenge of the Maasai today is climate change, according to Joseph Simel. Although they themselves hardly contribute at all (very few even access electricity grids) the greenhouse effect is heavily affecting their areas. He is also critical of the fact that Olkaria and similar projects are used in climate measures as the CDM.

– The projects are most likely positive for the climate, but they damage the Maasai livelihood and lifestyle.

Language barriers, top-down approach and lack of interest for local stakeholder views result in weak or corrupt environmental impact assessments. The difficulties and problems connected to projects are hidden behind beautiful words.

– I do not think people in Europe or the United States want to make trouble for us. But they may not know what is actually happening. There is a need for better opportunities and resources for indigenous peoples to document and disseminate information.

Link to news footage of the Narasha incident.

Text 2:

Göteborg Energi has invested in Olkaria

Swedish companies that chose to climate compensate for district heating (fjärrvärme) have also been contributing to CMD-projects in Olkaria. “A good deed for the environment” according to the web site of Göteborg Energi (The municipal energy company of Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg).

CDM, Clean Development Mechanism, are projects under the UN’s Kyoto Protocol, where industrialized countries reduce domestic carbon emissions by investing in projects in developing countries. Four different CDM projects have been registered for the geothermal power plants in Olkaria.

One that began in 2011 is about expansion of the capacity of Olkaria II. The power plant was built in 2003 on land where the Maasai had been expelled previously. 14 developed countries are listed as participants, among them Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. A closer look at the documentation shows that Göteborg Energi is the project participant and that Energimyndigheten (the Swedish Energy Agency) approved participation.

When Sveriges Natur calls Göteborg Energi it takes a while to clarify the connection. After some research their Press officer Cecilia Erdalen is able to tell that the project is one of several used for climate compensation (carbon offset) of district heating (“fjärrvärme”) and gas for business customers.

– The ownership is channeled through a fund with various projects, managed by the World Bank. We own two percent of it. The fund itself is not operating, or responsible for, the projects, but it is co-financing them through the CDM.

The Göteborg Energi web site markets carbon offset to corporate customers as ”a way to strengthen your company’s environmental profile”. It also states that the emission reduction units (CERs) are approved according to UN and EU regulations.

– We make no independent scrutiny of projects, apart from the fact that they are authorized by the UN Climate Panel and Energimyndigheten. We follow existing guidelines, but should the fund invest in questionable projects it is of course unfortunate, says Cecilia Erdalen.

It is hard to figure out how much Gothenburg Energy is investing in separate projects and how many tons of carbon emission they represent because figures from different projects are not separated in the fund.

– But carbon offsetting is a small business for us, it just concerns a few corporate clients. One problem is that the system of carbon trading is almost non-functional today, as prices have fallen radically.

Division Manager Erik Eriksson at the Swedish Energy Agency has no insight into the specific case, but explains the system:

– As the national authority we authorize the participation of Swedish companies. But it is the UN that is approving the projects. We always look at the documentation, but do not take decisions on the projects themselves. The host country’s national authority determines whether they contribute to domestic sustainable development, which is a prerequisite.

David Dabass is press officer at the UN Department of carbon trading. He refers to the comprehensive and transparent documentation on the site unfccc.int of all CDM projects:

– We can not comment on particular CDM projects, but each project is assessed and audited by accredited consultants. Their work involves consulting local stakeholders. No project can proceed without approval by the host country’s national authority.

More information on the CDM projects that the World Bank manages can be found on wbcarbonfinance.org. The projects also have social obligations, in this case expansion of an elementary school and measures to improve water supply and roads.

MPIDO (Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization) is supported by the Copenhagen-based NGO IWGIA (International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs). Read more about the situation of the Maasai and the Olkaria case on IWGIA website and MPIDO website.

The World Bank denied involvement in last year’s evictions in Narasha in a separate statement from September last year, which also welcomed the government’s decision to appoint a committee of inquiry. It also stressed that the bank’s ”safeguards”, safety mechanisms, should be applied in all resettlements.

Sveriges Natur has also been in contact with the World Bank in Nairobi. In this matter the Bank only refers to the statement from last year and does not comment further on developments regarding Narasha, other resettlement issues or the general matter of Maasai land rights in the area.

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