Gone with the wind?

Zoe Cormack and Abdikadir Kurewa

Based on their fieldwork (April-May 2016) at the site of Lake Turkana Wind Power, Zoe Cormack and Abdikadir Kurewa discuss the reasons for local tensions around the project – and why the past is important for understanding the social impact of infrastructure developments.

The largest wind farm in Africa is currently under construction on the eastern shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. When installation is complete (currently estimated for June 2017) it is anticipated that the wind power generated will supply 18% of Kenya’s national energy.

The Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) concession covers an area inhabited by Rendille, Samburu and Turkana pastoralists in the south-eastern corner of Marsabit County. It is one of the poorest parts of Kenya; a region that been chronically neglected by successive governments. LTWP is part of a regional boom in infrastructure and power generation projects in parts of Kenya and Ethiopia which have previously been considered marginal. These projects promise to transforms areas historically dismissed as ‘empty’ or ‘unproductive’ into central platforms for national development.

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Turbines at the site of Lake Turkana Wind Power, April 2016

LTWP has strong support from the Kenyan government, who have endorsed it as part of the national development plan, Vision 2030 – which aims to transform Kenya into a middle-income country by 2030. LTWP assert that they are bringing investment and connectivity to a long neglected region, while providing clean, cheap energy to fuel Kenya’s growth.

Despite these strong credentials, the project has unfolded amongst considerable controversy. Human rights bodies and international media have highlighted several issues, one of which is the acquisition of land. A case is ongoing in Meru High Court contesting the legality of the lease of 150,000 acres to the project – claiming that local people were not consulted. The way that LTWP have defined ‘indigenous people’ has also been criticised: they don’t recognise any indigenous people within the project’s footprint, even though Samburu, Turkana and Rendille pastoralists are widely recognised as ‘indigenous’ by major bodies such as the ACHPR. A Turkana village called Sarima, in the centre of the development was resettled to make way for the turbines. Alongside complaints of inadequate compensation, a Danwatch investigation claims prostitution and alcoholism have become huge problems in the new village.

During our research, we also found deep local concerns about who is benefiting from the investment and whether these benefits are being shared in an equitable way. Notably, these concerns were unfolding in a context of increasingly stark inequality: some of the poorest people in Kenya watching as a multi-billion-shilling wind farm is built, complete with a transmission line to take the power to central Kenya; while they cannot afford to be connected to the grid and enjoy the clean energy that will be produced.

People are keenly aware of the disparity of their situation, and this is driving intense competition for ‘benefits’. Yet these currently appear quite limited: LTWP is very much an enclave development. Many tensions focus on competition for ‘benefits’ such as employment and ‘corporate social responsibility’ projects.

The Wind Farm has spectacularly transformed the value of land in only a few years. This has forced people living within its catchment to revaluate local history, their relationships to place and to each other. Interpretations of history have become deeply contested and the question of who are the rightful ‘owners’ of the land is at the heart of local moral disputes over who has a legitimate stake in the development. Despite representation of the land as ‘empty’ it is a historic point of interaction and significant in the history of different communities.

One consequence is the rise of exclusive ethnically based claims to the land, as Turkana, Samburu and Rendille communities have felt the need to take a position to protect their different interests. Turkana interviewees claimed a right to the land through occupation; arguing that they had been living the area for generations. Rendille interviewees claimed that it is their ancestral land; a route for their camels and a crossing point in the gaalgulame age-set ceremony which historically took place on the shores of Lake Turkana. Samburu interviewees also invoked ancestral claims; one of their clans, Longeli, has strong ties to the Sarima wells in the project concession.

All these claims are ‘true’ and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Records from the Kenyan National Archives and anthropological accounts show a history of occupation and shared use of the land dating back at least 100 years. Colonial Annual District Reports, for example, reveal that Turkana pastoralists used the wells at Sarima, some stayed and even became Rendille. There was continual movement of Samburu and Rendille herders within the project concession throughout the colonial period. These relationships have not always been harmonious, but the anxiety and disempowerment sparked by the development of LTWP has transformed ideas about land and claims of historical rights.

This is a recipe for intensified local conflict. Violence at Sarima village and a second nearby attack at the beginning of May 2015 was linked by some of our interviewees to tensions over the Wind Farm. There are fears that these tensions will be exacerbated by the general election in 2017 and competition for local political offices.

Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia are witnessing a wave of industrial and extractive projects, many in areas that have been conveniently seen as ‘empty’, but the tensions at LTWP demonstrate the complex histories of these areas – and how exclusive claims can be animated by large infrastructure projects.   One need not make a judgement about whether the project is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to see it is having an enormous effect on the way people see themselves and their neighbours.

The research discussed here was carried out for the ESRC-funded project ‘Cultural Rights and Kenya’s New Constitution’.  

2 thoughts on “Gone with the wind?

  1. Good afternoon and thank you for an interesting article.

    Here some comments:

    1. Different organisations, be it Kenyan, African or international, have different definitions for Indigenous People. What makes ACHPR the authority? Surely the discussion should not be academic, i.e. focused on definitions, but should focus on what the LTWP project actually did in the area and how they engaged with the communities and continue to do so. In some cases, NGOs and so-called ‘investigative journalists’ seem to purely focus on academic discussions, thereby fail to see the larger case. As someone from the project area, who has also worked internationally and now lives in London, I need to say that this project has been incredibly beneficial to our people and should be credited for such. For me, there are too many organisations focusing on definitions rather than real actions. It should be noted that the project company held consultations in the project area for almost ten years (!) before any construction activities started! How much talking is really needed in a region where seeing is believing?

    2. About Danwatch. Why are they so closely tied to the plaintiffs who are taking the project to court? Even as an outsider, listening to friends and family in the area, it is blatantly obvious that Danwatch has had a very subjective view and has aligned itself with the people taking the project to court. There continuous reference to alcoholism and prostitution is also a cheap attempt at making the project look bad. Can the project really control how people spend their salaries? Even in Denmark there are prostitutes and alcoholics, so perhaps Danwatch should look at its own country first, where wind energy is highly encouraged, rather than put their attention on our country which should embrace these new clean energy developments.

    3. Sarima village was not resettled to make way for turbines. This is a factual inaccuracy. If you actually visit the project, you will notice that Sarima village was resettled 800m from its previous location in order for it to not be located directly on the road, thereby be affected by increased traffic and dust. The nearest turbines are about 5 km away from the village itself.

    4. I have friends and family who work on the project. Do you know that the project pays more than Kenyan minimum wage? People up there are earning more than people in Nairobi. This needs to be recognised, rather than merely state that it is a multibillion project in an area of poverty.

    5. Indeed, the project has transformed/increased the value of money. Is this a bad thing? For centuries before, nobody showed any interest in this area until some visionary people saw the potential. Are we really saying that it was better before?

    6. Regarding security: Your report is wrong. Security has increased in this area significantly. Speak with people in the area and this will be made clear. The attach in May 2015 had nothing to do with the project being there, but is simply the continuation of an activity that has been happening for centuries. Livestock rustling is common in northern Kenya and should not be blamed on the project. In fact, we should attribute it to the project that there has been no incidence of cattle rustling in the area since almost two years now! This was previously unheard of.

    Again, thank you for the interesting article, but do take in to account the above comments. We need serious authors and serious researchers, not people who write based on hearsay and do not verify the simplest facts, which can be verified just by visiting the site and speaking with people who are objective. Unlike Danwatch, who has clearly sided itself with the court plaintiffs.

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    1. Thanks for your comment – here is a reply from one of the authors of the blog post, Dr Zoe Cormack:

      Dear Andrew Lontolio,
      Thank you very much for your reply to our blog. This research was carried out as part of an academic research project (details are in the original post). I can assure you that the wider research (of which this blog is a brief discussion point) is based on fieldwork at the project site, Sarima village, Loyangalani and South Horr (where we spoke to a cross section of people – some working for LTWP, others who supported the wind farm and others who had serious concerns). It is also based on archival research in the Kenya National Archives and thorough review of secondary material.

      My co-researcher and co-author is from the project area. I am writing to you now in my own capacity, but I can also assure you that the intention of our research is to contribute to understanding the impacts of this project in a constructive way.

      Having spent several weeks in the area conducting this research, I would agree with you that the project is impressive. But I also experienced several road blocks, made by people who were deeply unhappy about the how the project is unfolding. A key question became – why? How can we look deeper to understand why there are such conflicting opinions about this development? I’m not interested in journalism or painting a simplistic picture, but it is my opinion that there are valid concerns and important issues about power surrounding this development.

      In answer to your specific questions

      1. The definition of ‘indigenous’ and who makes that decision is important and has real world implications. Most significantly, the presence of indigenous people in a project footprint means that a comprehensive IFC performance standard 7 on indigenous people should be triggered. This is a protective measure. LTWP’s ‘Indigenous People Policy Framework’ identifies only the El Molo as indigenous people, leading to the conclusion that IFCs only need to be applied for a small sector of people within the project concession. But the LTWP ‘Framework’s definition of indigenous is controversial. This has been looked at in more detail in an IWGIA report (cited in the blog). LTWP wrote a response to this report but it did not address the issue of their definition of indigenous. This remains an issue for debate. The ACHPR was created to interpret and oversee the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.

      2. We have not spoken to Danwatch, but we have reviewed their publication as part of a wider literature review. In our own research, we recorded many concerns about alcohol and prostitution in Sarima. Even interviewees who were otherwise in support of the project raised this concern.

      3. The relocation of Sarima village was a direct result of the project construction, the road has been built to transport the turbines. LTWP’s ‘Abbreviated Resettlement Action Plan’ (2012) on the resettlement of Sarima states that ‘involuntary resettlement’ of the village was necessary because it was located in a ‘high construction impact area’ (p.4-5)

      4 and 5. The point we are making is not that it has increased the value of money, but it has transformed the value and the significance of land. As we say in the blog, this is not the same as making a judgement over whether the project is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Rather, we are exploring the how this is changing ideas about land, local history and relationships. This is something that we are covering in much more detail in the full-length publication. It is a point that I think is very important for understanding why there are tensions around the project.

      You’re right that the project has created jobs. But it should also be noted that a large proportion of local jobs are semi or unskilled positions that are being phased out as construction work is completed.

      6. Our interviews did reflect concerns about security, particularly the changing nature of conflict patterns that were evident in the May 2015 incidents. I stand by wishing to reflect these concerns.

      Thank you again for writing. I hope this has clarified some points that we could not write about in detail in the blog (because of space constraints). I’d also be interested in your opinion about the key point/assertion in this blog – that the project is making people in the area look differently at history and their relationship with each other.

      Dr Zoe Cormack

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