Our research focuses on two sites in Kenya, Loiyangalani and Ol Karia - small rural communities inhabited mostly by pastoralists that are on the cusp of social, economic and politics-altering renewable-energy development.

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Blowing away: contestation, conflict and claims-making around the Lake Turkana Wind Power development

Wind power is the vanguard of a renewable energy investment rush across eastern Africa. The Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) consortium spearheads the largest planned investment to-date, an $800 million wind farm in Marsabit County to the east of Lake Turkana. LTWP completed construction of 365 turbines in 2017 in what is feted as the largest single private investment in Kenya’s history. Investors claim the wind farm will generate 310MW for the national grid – equivalent to approximately 18% of current demand – when transmission infrastructure is complete.

LTWP is a flagship project of Kenya’s Vision 2030, emblematic of a drive to develop northern Kenya through new large-scale infrastructure including roads, railways, pipelines, airstrips and a port facility at Lamu on Kenya’s coast. Yet, the progressive vision of green energy development and new investment in the country’s historically neglected dryland north jars with tensions and new inequalities stemming from the project. The wind farm is nestled in an expansive rangeland environment inhabited by interacting groups of Turkana, Samburu, Rendille and El Molo peoples. Our focus is the influence and impacts of LTWP on local relations, institutions and conflict.

In 2009 LTWP was granted a lease to 150,000 acres of land by the Marsabit County Council (MCC), which predates devolution and the establishment of the Marsabit County Government. The controversial lease involved the transfer of rights to ‘trust land’ – land that was held in trust by the MCC for area residents, who are predominantly pastoralist. Construction intensified in 2014 when the first turbines were erected. The company enlisted community liaison officers and administrative officials in nearby areas – namely Loiyangalani and South Horr – to consult with residents and oversee the allocation of work opportunities. A small settlement inhabited mostly by Turkana within the wind farm area, Sarima, was relocated by LTWP in 2015, ostensibly for safety reasons to a location about a ½ kilometre from its former location by the Loiyangalani-South Horr road. Yet Sarima’s inhabitants objected to the move, voicing concerns that they would miss out on opportunities to trade with passing traffic, amongst other concerns.

The greatest tensions have turned on competing claims to the rangelands around Sarima. Vying groups of Turkana, Samburu, Rendille and El Molo claim custodianship over the area based on ancestral presence, grazing patterns and seniority. A group led by the Marsabit County Senator and a group of members of the Marsabit County Assembly (MCAs) filed a case in 2014 against LTWP, the defunct MCC, Kenya’s Attorney General and the National Land Commission alleging that the land was leased illegally. While the case has not stopped construction activity, it weighs on inter-community relations and outlooks. Other tensions concern the allocation of work opportunities with LTWP and various sub-contractors, as well as compensation for the wayleave land annexed by the Kenya Electricity Company (KENTRACO) for transmission pylons that will carry the wind power to the national grid.

Demonstrations by LTWP opponents, and counter-demonstrations by pro-LTWP groups, are testament to divided local opinion around the wind farm. In 2015, several Sarima residents were killed in an attack carried out by a group of Samburu fighters, bringing attention to the conflict risks associated with the project. Rising tensions and tit-for-tat violence in nearby areas following the Sarima attack gave lie to the vision of large investment ushering in peace and prosperity for the region. Like other places in northern Kenya, large new investment entwines with the politics of devolution, raising the stakes for competitions and claims around territory, resources, jobs and, ultimately, power.  

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Geothermal meets pastoral livelihoods: power and contestation in Ol Karia

Geo-thermal power generation in Kenya is being massively expanded – funded in part by the World Bank and European Investment Bank (EIB). Political and business leaders have welcomed this investment for the benefits it will bring to the national population, and the local jobs created. It is seen as vital to the country’s future prosperity. Yet, while heralded as ‘clean development’, geo-thermal expansion has had severe environmental impacts on areas of important biodiversity and wildlife. Three of the plants built and one planned by KenGen (Kenya Electricity Generating Company), and drilling by another company, are in Hell’s Gate National Park, parts of which now resemble a sprawling industrial estate, spewing pollutants into soil and water sources.

Our interest, however, lies in the socio-cultural-economic impacts on, and conflicts involving, the former residents of this area – a Maasai community which has been forcibly evicted at various times, most recently in August 2014, to make way for new plants. Members of the Ol-Karia sub-section of Maasai (meaning ochre in the Maa language), more than 3500 have been displaced in all, 1000 of whom have been re-settled in a new purpose-built village 12 kms away. While this village appears ‘modern’, it is on land unsuitable for livestock or agriculture, and lacks basic amenities; promised water and electricity supplies have failed to materialize, and people are anxious about plans to fence them in – a move that would be disastrous for transhumant pastoralism. The displaced have lost important cultural resources including sacred sites and ancestral graves, which they can no longer access, and are struggling to sell home-made crafts to tourists – an important livelihood for women.

Expansion of geo-thermal development has spurred opposition, including street protests, a lawsuit and lobbying of the World Bank and EIB, which has been partially successful. The World Bank’s Inspection Panel found (March 2015) that the Bank had breached its own standards. Activists have argued (among other things) that the community was not adequately consulted, and international protocols including those on indigenous peoples’ rights were ignored or circumvented. The picture is complicated by divisions within the community, with some people reportedly used by KenGen as ‘community gatekeepers’.

The project explores the multifaceted local-global mobilisation and activism around this site of conflict, as well as dissonant voices in and outside the community, and the interactions between different players at every level, within the context of Kenya’s new constitution that grants cultural rights. The longer-term historical context is the land alienation and forced moves of Maasai starting in the 1900s in colonial British East Africa, sparking non-violent resistance, events that resonate to this day. There are distinct continuities in twenty-first century conflict over large-scale resource extraction on indigenous territories, though some players, and methods of resistance, have changed.