The Tana River Delta in Kenya's north coast is under unprecedented threat as corporations and foreign agencies scramble to exploit its riches for export crops, biofuels and minerals. NatureKenya (BirdLife Partner) – with support of RSPB (BirdLife in UK), Schweizer Vogelschutz SVS/BirdLife Schweiz (BirdLife in Switzerland) and DOF (BirdLife in Denmark) – are working with local communities to try and stop the proposed poorly planned developments which would result in tens of thousands of people losing their livelihoods.
The Tana Delta is a vast patchwork of palm savanna, seasonally flooded grassland, forest fragments, lakes, woodland, mangroves, beaches, sand dunes, coral reefs, seagrass beds and the river itself. Large assemblages of water birds qualify it as an Important Bird Area. A 1992–93 study recorded 22 different species of water birds occurring in significant numbers, including pelicans, storks, egrets and terns. In seasons of heavy rains, some 5,000 water birds of over 13 species nest in the Delta, and the young fly off to populate wetlands all over the country.
The Delta is of international importance for the conservation of migratory species, and is home to the Endangered Basra Reed Warbler Acrocephalus griseldis, Vulnerable Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos and Near Threatened Malindi Pipit Anthus melindae, and 13 of Kenya's 30 East African Coast biome bird species.
But Tana Delta has a history of poor environmental management and planning and failing development schemes. Attempts to grow irrigated rice, cotton, maize and shrimp on a commercial scale met with little success, although local farmers continue to grow rice, maize and other crops by traditional methods. Most recently, a rice scheme in the 1990s left a legacy of poverty and environmental damage.
"We spoke with pastoralists, farmers, fishermen and conservation groups who are very concerned" —Serah Munguti, Communication and Advocacy Coordinator NatureKenya
A number of worrying development projects are currently proposed in the Delta. This includes plans by the Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA—a government agency), and the Mumias Sugar Company, who intend to convert about 20,000 ha of the Delta into a monoculture sugar cane plantation. The project came to public knowledge in 2007, and advocacy and awareness campaigns, including a court injunction, temporarily stopped it. However, in June 2009, Kenya's High Court ruled in favour of the developers on a technicality. Now the Government has given tenure rights and ownership of 40,000 ha of Delta land to TARDA, ostensibly to grow rice and maize as a response to Kenya's recent drought and food shortage. However, more than 25,000 people living in 30 villages stand to be evicted from their ancestral land that has now been given to TARDA.
"While we support emergency actions to improve short-term food security, these must not be used as an excuse to evict local people from their land or as a smokescreen to open up the Delta to poorly conceived development schemes which would threaten the long-term future of both the people and the nature of the area", said Dr Helen Byron - Senior International Site Casework Officer RSPB. "What is needed is a long-term plan for the area which builds on the rich biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Delta to provide sustainable livelihoods for the local people and is produced with strong input from the local communities".
Other threats to the delta include:
- A second sugar company, Mat International, is acquiring over 30,000 ha of land in Tana Delta and another 90,000 ha in adjacent districts. The company has not carried out any environmental and social impact assessments.
- Bedford Biofuels Inc, a privately-held multinational company based in Canada, is in the process of acquiring land through 45-year lease agreements. Its intention is to transform over 90,000 ha of land in Tana River District into biofuel farms, mainly growing Jatropha curcas.
- Tiomin Kenya Ltd, a company incorporated in Canada, wants to mine titanium in the Tana Delta, and is in discussions with the local government authorities.
- Qatar has asked Kenya to lease it 40,000 ha of land in Tana Delta to grow crops, in exchange for support for a major new port in nearby Lamu town.
"one village has already been issued with an eviction notice" —Serah Munguti
The Tana Delta is the largest of several critical natural areas threatened by development in Kenya. NatureKenya is working with communities in the Delta who are opposed to these plans, and have positive proposals for enhancing their livelihoods through community-owned initiatives.
Recently Serah Munguti – NatureKenya's Communication and Advocacy Coordinator – visited the Tana Delta and spoke with people in the local communities. "We spoke with pastoralists, farmers, fishermen and conservation groups who are very concerned and are ready to file a new court case against the proposed plantation sugarcane", said Serah.
"We're moving forward very fast as one village has already been issued with an eviction notice", warned Serah. "Farmers in Wema and pastoralists in Dida Waride affirmed that they would die first before moving out of their land."
The Kenya Wildlife Service is spearheading efforts to get the Delta listed as a Ramsar wetland of international importance. It will take time to compile ecological, hydrological and socioeconomic data, and to map the Delta. Meanwhile, the current development proposals put the people, biodiversity and ecological functions of the Delta in great jeopardy.
An economic study has already shown that a master plan, which integrates better and more sustainable management of existing activities with a conservation-focused future development, could generate more income and better livelihoods than these large and ill thought out developments. NatureKenya hopes to facilitate production of such a plan by working closely with local communities.