The original version of this article, by Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom, appeared on State-of-Affairs
In West Kenya on the Northeastern shore of Lake Victoria, the Yala swamp wetland is one of Kenya
’s biodiversity hotspots. The Yala swamp also supports several communities that utilize the wetland’s natural resources to support their families and secure their livelihoods. Even more, many people recognize the swamp’s extraordinary potential as agricultural land to significantly boost Kenya’s food security. These are three widely diverse interests, which may seem to be difficult to reconcile. Yet, with proper management, sufficient investment and effective communication, a differentiated utilization of the Yala swamp can be realized through a system of multiple land use. This will be a difficult but certainly not unrealistic objective.
A Brief History
The most recent development of the Yala swamp was undertaken by Dominion Farms, a subsidiary of a privately held company from the United States investing in agricultural development. The reclamation and development of the swamp, however, is far from a new phenomenon.
The intention of the Kenyan government to transform parts of the Yala swamp into agricultural land for food production goes back as far as the early 1970s. Around that time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands was consulted extensively by the Kenyan government for technical assistance on reclamation of the swamp and the feasibility of agricultural production.
Throughout the 1980s numerous reports were commissioned by the Kenyan Ministry for Energy and Regional Development and the Lake Basin Development Authority to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Reports like the “Yala Integrated Development Plan” and the “Yala Swamp Reclamation and Development Project” focused in depth on the potential of the development of the swamp and made recommendations on practical matters, such as drainage and irrigation, soil analysis, agriculture, marketing, environmental aspects, employment opportunities, human settlement, management, and financial planning.
As a result, small-scale reclamation and development of the swamp land was undertaken throughout the 1980s and 1990s under the supervision of the Lake Basin Development Authority. The development of the swamp was partially successful, yet its scale was small and financial benefits were too marginal. Major investment was therefore required to extend the scale of the project.
Then, in 2003, an American investor expressed interest to make significant long-term investments into bringing parts of the swamp into agricultural production. Subsequently, a lease for 45 years was negotiated between Dominion Farms and the Siaya and Bondo County Councils to bring into agricultural production some 7,000 hectares of the Yala swamp. The whole Yala swamp wetland covers 17,500 hectares, which means that Dominion Farms is allowed to reclaim and develop roughly 40 percent of the swamp.
Since the early days of the arrival of the foreign investor in 2004, there has been lingering tension and occasional flares of conflict between the communities surrounding the project site, third parties (i.e. government officials, politicians, NGOs, CBOs, environmentalists), and the investor.
The most commonly touted complaint is that Dominion Farms “grabbed” the communities’ land. While it is hard to trace back the exact procedures and individuals that were involved, there are clear contracts with the Siaya and Bondo County Councils that substantiate the transfer of land-use to Dominion Farms for a period of 45 years. Some claim, however, that the negotiation process for the lease was entrenched in bribery and corruption, yet no one has been able to show this author a single trace of evidence to substantiate these accusations. Similarly, there are complaints by local residents that they were never consulted in the negotiation process – where they should have been, as they rightly point out that the swamp is community trust land. However, the land is held in trust by the relevant county council for the community. The county council should therefore initiate consultations with the local communities and residents to get their approval to lease the land to third parties. So it appears that some of the resentment over the loss of parts of the swamp should not be directed at the foreign investor but rather target the local county council and their procedures.
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