Centre for Contemporary African History

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.

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’.