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NAIROBI, Jul 3 2009 (IPS) - Concern is mounting in Kenya that the government has leased a big slice of agricultural land to Qatari foreign investors to produce food for export.
The area in question is fertile land, with abundant fresh water in the Tana River delta, about 150 kilometres north of Mombasa.
In exchange, the activists allege the Qatar government will construct a 2.5 billion dollar port in Lamu, which will become the country's second largest after Mombasa.
Investment… but at what price?
Some may interpret the move as one to attract vital foreign investment in line with part of Kenya's development strategy, known as Vision 2030. The port deal would be a valuable stimulus to development in a part of the country that has lagged behind.
"We have no problem if the food was being produced for Kenya. Isn’t it the height of recklessness in leadership for the government to give out land to Qatar when Kenya is food insecure and we are literally being fed? Where is the logic?" asked Odenda Lumumba, coordinator of the Kenya Land Alliance (KLA), an umbrella body of civil society groups advocating for land rights policies.
A third of Kenya's population of 34 million is facing starvation. Earlier this year, President Mwai Kibaki declared the situation a national disaster, appealing for food relief from well wishers including international donors.
Proponents of the proposed land leasing move, some in government, have defended it, saying it will create jobs and spur development, but there are fears that the local population might be displaced from the area they have lived on for years. Up to 150,000 families in farming and pastoralist communities there depend on the land which is held in trust for the people of Tana River delta by the government, according to the KLA.
"The land has always been used by the pastoralists for grazing. They have been resisting the move because they fear they might be denied a place to graze their animals and to farm," Lumumba added.
The local community, led by the Tana River County Council, has threatened to take the matter to court, claiming the people were not consulted.
"This is land held in trust of the people of that region by the government. In giving out the land, have you consulted them? By leasing out the land which they use to feed their animals, you are making them vulnerable to drought," says Nixon Otieno, the head of policy and governance for ActionAid.
Similar concerns have been expressed by analysts who state that the local population may not have power to bargain to their advantage.
"Smallholders who are being displaced from their land cannot effectively negotiate terms favourable to them when dealing with such powerful national and international actors, nor can they enforce agreements if the foreign investor fails to provide promised jobs or local facilities," write Joachim von Braun and Ruth Meinzen-Dick in a study released in April, "'Land grabbing' by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries". The two researchers from the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute assert that unequal power relations in land acquisition deals places the livelihoods of the poor at risk.
Meinzen-Dick told IPS that concerns over people being displaced were justified, especially "in Africa, where much of the land is held under customary tenure. That means that, officially, the government is the "owner" of the land, and they may not always consult with or get the consent of people who will be affected."
Not a done deal
Allegations of the Kenyan authorities leasing land to Qatari emerged following President Mwai Kibaki’s visit to Doha in November 2008, where he attended a development conference.
But Isaiah Kabira, head of the Presidential Press Service has dismissed the allegations of a land-leasing deal. "This was just a proposal, nothing has been signed yet," he told IPS, adding, "This plan is in the initial stage, and it is the first time the matter was being discussed by the two leaders."
According to Kabira, the matter is still under discussion, and details have not been finalised.
In an interview with IPS, Dorothy Angote, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Lands revealed that communication about leasing the land had not been passed on to her. "To date I have not received any official request or communication to process any lease of land to the Qatari government. I have not seen any document of any nature on any request for any land for the Qatari government. I will be happy to share such information," she stated.
It is not only the proposed deal to lease land in the Tana River Delta that has raised eyebrows. In 2004, Dominion Farms Limited, a subsidiary of Dominion Group of Companies, based in the US, was leased about 2,300 hectares of land which is part of the Yala Swamp, which covers an area approximately 21,800 hectares.
Despite a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the firm, the local council and the ministry of lands stipulating that the company would confine itself to the 2,300 hectares, the firm has since expanded its activities and is reportedly using 65 percent of the swamp's total area to conduct agricultural activities.
The deal, which granted the company a 25-year lease has seen community land submerged by water due to the hydro electric generation plant constructed by the company on the River Yala, according to community representatives. This has resulted into people’s homes and farms being flooded, and the loss livestock. The representatives allege that over 500 families are facing forced eviction by the company which seeks to expand its activities.
But the government has dismissed such allegations saying it is not aware of any complaints from communities in the Yala River area. Besides, Angote claims that the issue is a private matter where the firm entered into deals with private land owners and therefore the question of the government being involved does not arise.
Such scenarios, analysts contend, call for an investment code that would clearly state the procedures that a foreign investor should follow and penalties to be taken in case investments affect local populations. The current investment code that came into force in 2005 has been criticised for failing to adhere to these specifications.
"Most investors have found that as a loophole and as they come in, they just engage very powerful politicians in the negotiations and very soon you find activities on the ground without considering the impact on the locals," noted Otieno.
These concerns come at a time when a National Land Policy, the first in the country, is in the pipeline. The document was approved by the cabinet June 25, after which it is expected to be discussed and finally adopted by Parliament. The instrument, among other things, gives guidance on how foreigners can access land, and ensures that land use by foreign investors complies with environmental standards. In addition, it ensures that land use benefits first and foremost local citizens.
Transparency issues will also be addressed. "The policy will remove powers of land allocation from the Executive and its cronies, making the process more transparent because another agency – the National Land Commission – will now perform that duty," Lumumba stated.
With these deals, Kenya joins the growing number of developing countries that are granting their land to rich nations seeking to boost their food security following the enduring effects of the 2007-2008 food price crises.
Similar deals have been reached elsewhere in Madagascar, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana and Mali, where land ranging from 800,000 to 160,000 hectares in these countries has been allocated to foreign companies, according to a 2009 study jointly by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Food and Agriculture Organisation, and the International Institute for Environment and Development.
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