LAMU, Kenya, Jan 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Walid
Amed Ali stands beside the only window in his tiny office, he
looks out on an almost perfect world on the Kenyan island of
Lamu where his family has lived for generations.
His view is of a tranquil sea, boats bobbing in the breeze
as fishermen back from pre-dawn catches serve waiting customers
while women in black buibuis or shawls, men in long white kanzu
robes, and donkeys bussle along the seafront.
"You see this," Ali said, pointing towards the horizon.
"They want us to lose all of this."
Lamu with its narrow, winding streets and stone buildings,
is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East
Africa and a United Nations World Heritage Site, attracting
pilgrims annually to celebrate Prophet Mohammed's birthday.
But life in the town founded in 1370 is about to change as
the government plans to build East Africa's first coal-fired
power plant, a 1,000 megawatt (MW) facility 20 kms (12 miles)
north on an agricultural 869 acre site in Kwasasi.
The $2 billion plant is part of a plan to more than double
Kenya's electricity generating capacity to about 6,700 MW by
2017, providing power for industries and much needed jobs in a
country where one in five young people are unemployed.
However the project has divided communities and
environmentalists fear the plant will destroy the marine
environment of Lamu region, a coastal area near Somalia that has
been hit several times by al Shabaab Islamist militants.
The battle over the plant highlights a challenge of
governments across the region which are seeking to beat poverty
by investing in major infrastructure projects, only to face
complaints from citizens about a lack of consultation and other
"We shall fight the coal plant," said Ali, who teaches in a
local Islamic school. "This project might just destroy us."
But it is a different story in Kwasasi village where
smallholder farmers cultivate cashew nuts and coconut trees.
There are no roads, public transport, schools or hospitals
and access is mostly by motorbike but there is an abundance of
wildlife including hippos, buffalo and zebra.
"This coal plant can be a blessing," said farmer Simon
Gathoni, peeping out from under a red baseball cap, his hands
ghostly grey from tilling his land.
"Those opposing this project are not even landowners here."
About 400 families in Kwasasi have been promised $8,000 per
acre by the government for their land, said Gathoni. He has been
waiting two years for $32,000 compensation for his four-acre
plot - a huge sum for a farmer who earns around $2,000 a year.
Gathoni said he plans to buy another plot of land for
himself, wife and two children in an area with better services.
"I'll be able to settle somewhere less wild, somewhere where
my children will not have to walk for hours to school," he said.
Grace Nyambura, who works as a casual labourer for Amu Power
Company which will run the plant, said everyone in Kwasasi wants
Amu Power is backed by a consortium that includes East
Africa's leading investment company Centum Investments and a
group of Chinese companies.
Work on the plant, that will take an estimated 30 months to
build, was due to start in December 2015 but Kenya's energy
industry regulator has delayed issuing a licence due to
Nyambura, a mother of four, stopped farming her land two
years ago when the government offered to buy it.
"There was no point in planting and labouring over crops
that you would abandon later," she said, surrounded by abandoned
homesteads and neglected farms.
"Our children are going hungry as we wait for our money."
Residents are also now demanding $15,000 per acre although
the National Land Commission, which is overseeing the process,
said it will not increase its offer and Nyambura and Gathoni,
like many Kenyans do not have title deeds to their land.
Ibrahim Mwathane, chairman of the Nairobi-based Land
Development and Governance Institute said the lack of titles
could "lead to a long compensation process".
Nyambura blames campaigners opposing the plant for delays.
"It is not their farms that will be lost. We cannot fight
the government over a project it is determined to get done."
Around the bay, residents of Lamu town want a fight.
"We're not anti-development but no one in the world has
ventured into coal mining and faced no long term consequences,"
said Ishaq Abubakar of the Lamu Youth Alliance.
"Coal is dirty energy and its effects are detrimental."
They fear the coal plant will pollute the sea, killing
marine life, coral reefs and mangroves that locals depend on.
"Our whole life revolves around water," said fisherman
Abdurahman Ali worried over his livelihood.
"We fish for a living. We do not till the land. We do not
break rocks in quarries. All we know is fishing. What will
happen to us?"
Tourism is the other mainstay of the economy, with visitors
enjoying Lamu's pristine white beaches and annual festivals.
"If anything changes and the tourism numbers are affected,
the island will die," said Francis Dyer, chairman of the Lamu
Tourism Association, in emailed comments.
Amu Power Company said nothing of the sort will happen.
"We are adhering to the highest standards," said Said
Bajaber, Amu Power's project development executive, pointing to
the company's multi-volume environmental impact assessment.
"We will not take any chances with the safety of the people
and the wildlife in the area."
Local environmental group Save Lamu believes Kwasasi
landowners have been blinded by the huge sums on offer while
other residents say the project was fast-tracked and approved
without adequate consultation - a claim the government denies.
Despite Save Lamu filing a last ditch legal bid to halt the
project in Kenya's National Environment Tribunal in November,
Amu Power still hopes to start work in March.
"All members were given time to respond," said Evans
Nyabuto, spokesman for the National Environment Management
Authority which gave the green light to the project.
"Allegations that we merely rubber-stamped the wishes of the
power company are baseless."
(Reporting by Daniel Wesangula; Editing by Katy Migiro and
Paola Totaro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate
change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)