Gallery: Green dreams, local struggles
Kenya is one of the countries globally at the forefront of green energy development, ranking first in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of investment in renewable energies.
By one estimate, it receives a whopping 38 per cent of the funds OECD countries put into developing renewable energy solutions in the region.
The Kenyan government is banking on further large-scale investment in renewable energy production and transmission to help it achieve middle-income, industrialising status by 2030.
Last November, Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged that the country would attain a 100 per cent transition to green energy by 2020. It will do so while continuing to expand access to electricity, which the government claims has widened to 73 per cent from a mere 8 per cent in 2000.
Already, the country hosts the largest geothermal and wind power developments in Africa. Investment in the Ol Karia geothermal complex has expanded substantially in recent years, with construction underway on a network of pipelines, wells and plants to tap an estimated potential of 1000 megawatts of energy. In Marsabit County in the country’s north, the Lake Turkana Wind Power site – consisting of 365 turbines – was connected to the national grid in October this year.
These developments are happening in poor rural communities that were previously mostly ignored by the government in terms of improving basic services and welfare, or upholding rights. While the Kenyan government and investors have embraced renewables as an engine for development and supplying energy to a growing economy, what has been the experience of communities living at the heart of these developments? This slideshow documents the experiences of residents in two villages, RAPland in Ol Karia (in Nakuru County) and Sarima in Marsabit County, contrasting the vision of green-powered national transformation with local lives and struggles.
Steam belches from a geothermal well site in Ol Karia. Geothermal taps super-heated steam from the earth’s crust, which is piped to power generators. The first geothermal plant was commissioned in 1981 in an area long-inhabited by the Maasai in Ol Karia. Over time, geothermal development has expanded over an ever larger area, now encompassing three power plants, a series of above-ground pipelines connecting wells to power stations, as well as ongoing construction on two other plants. Kenyan government targets to expand geothermal power capacity to 5,000 megawatts by 2030 indicate further development to come of Ol Karia’s geothermal potential. In the latest expansion, in September this year the Japanese firm Fuji Electric was awarded a contract to construct the 70 megawatt Ol Karia VI plant.
This industrial complex has developed on top of rangelands and resources vital to Maasai livelihoods, culture and heritage. Some say violence, intimidation and threats have featured in attempts to displace Maasai to make way for geothermal development. In one 2013 incident, unknown arsonists razed over 200 Maasai homes in Narasha village, allegedly leaving some 2,300 homeless. Geothermal developers have been pushed to negotiate with Maasai on land takes for power infrastructure, environmental and health impacts of geothermal extraction, and access to work and jobs. Following consultations, in 2014, hundreds of Maasai households were moved to a resettlement village, so that the Kenya Electricity Generating Company, or KenGen, could build the Ol Karia IV plant.
A newly constructed road bends down the hill as it enters RAPland – derived from the company’s Resettlement Action Programme (RAP) – a village for displaced Maasai located over a ridge from Ol Karia IV. On the surface, RAPland is a model resettlement village – the red roofs of new houses poking out of a wooded hillside sweeping down to the savannah and the neighbouring Kedong Ranch. KenGen constructed a primary school, playing fields, a social hall, church, water kiosks, and the new road connecting the village to nearby centres– all presenting a picture of a prosperous new life. But what is life like for residents of this new village?
Some Maasai liken RAPland to an ‘urban estate in the savannah’. Identical four room houses constructed for Maasai settlers would not look out of place in suburban Nairobi. Displaced householders were promised title deeds to two acre plots as well as improved water access and connections to electricity. While the houses present the face of orderly settlement and modernity, many of the new homeowners lacked furnishings or knowhow to maintain the concrete structures, having before lived in traditional Maasai houses. They complain that the houses are cold and damp in the rainy season, and that the company has stopped them from making alterations, such as adding rooms to accommodate growing family size.
RAPland residents reserve some of their strongest criticism for the perimeter fence encircling the village. The company holds that the fence is necessary to designate the area for livestock-keeping and other livelihood activities. To Maasai in RAPland, the fence symbolises all that is wrong with their new lives – restriction, confinement and dispossession. Residents complain that the woody vegetation covering the hillside where RAPland is located is unpalatable for livestock, and that the animals need to move further afield for their health and fattening.
As well as being unfavourable for livestock-keeping, the hillsides where RAPland is located are susceptible to severe soil erosion. Numerous deep ravines bisect the village. These quickly fill up with fast-moving torrents during heavy rains, carrying away livestock, trees and whatever else is in their path. Gabions – cages filled with rocks, as pictured here – have done little to protect roads in the village from washing away, necessitating ever costlier repairs and reconstruction. Villagers speak of ‘the hanging house’ – a home in the village that was left ‘hanging’, or inaccessible, due to severe erosion of the road leading to it.
Hundreds of miles away, Africa’s largest wind farm sprouts from dry rangelands spreading across a vast area east of Lake Turkana along the borders of Marsabit and Samburu counties in Kenya’s north. Developed by the Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) consortium, since 2016 365 turbines were erected and connected to a new sub-station by Sarima village. The turbines were transported one-by-one by road from Mombasa port, over 1,000km away, making the final 207km stretch along a newly constructed murram road.
For generations, interacting Turkana, Samburu and Rendille herders have moved seasonally across these rangelands and to nearby Lake Turkana, to support mixed herds of camels, goats and sheep. Relations between these groups have soured since the wind farm was constructed. Competing ancestral claims to land, and thus rights to compensation and benefits, have generated conflict. Tensions also mounted around a land deal that transferred ownership rights to 150,000 acres to the developers, dividing local political leadership and public opinion. While developers stress that the LTWP facilities take up less than 100 acres, and that the public can access the remaining land, the deal sparked fears of a land grab and possible dispossessions in the future. Currently, a case brought by local political leaders in Marsabit against LTWP is making its way through Kenya’s courts, alleging that the developers acquired the land without following due process.
Sarima village located at the centre of the wind farm is where the struggles around the development come into sharpest relief. Sarima village was founded in the early 2000s by Turkana herders fleeing insecurity in nearby Turkana County. Developers relocated the village 600m back from the road to reduce the likelihood of accidents and protect villagers from the dust of passing construction vehicles and trucks. Community members were consulted in deciding the layout of the village and placement of manyattas, or traditional homes, which were constructed for residents under like-for-like terms of the resettlement plan. A community store, toilets and washrooms, an elder’s shelter, a classroom and teachers' quarters were also constructed as part of a resettlement action plan monitored by external third parties.
Yet, a look inside the lives of Sarima villagers uncovers disappointment, bitterness and a lingering sense of insecurity. Some villagers have opened small kiosks. Others have found temporary work with LTWP. Many still try to maintain livestock herds. Still, a common complaint is that work has been hard to come by. Further, in spite of the developers supporting the construction of the classroom and teachers' quarters, and providing transport for residents needing medical services further afield, villagers complain that these are inadequate compared with what they need. Attackers from neighbouring areas have also laid siege to the village a number of times, resulting in fatalities and the theft of animals. These attacks were meant to intimidate the community. They are inseparable from the wider land politics ignited by the arrival of the wind farm.
Dusk descends over the shores of Lake Turkana near Sarima. Although at opposite ends of Kenya, residents of RAPland and Sarima share the experience of being resettled to make way for the country’s green dreams. These projects are unfolding in places where community members are still deeply suspicious of the state itself, much less global energy companies and investors. They are located in communities where there are considerable tensions and divisions around land and livelihoods, cultural change, as well as the benefits and disruption associated with new large-scale projects. Even carefully thought resettlement plans involving dialogue with affected communities, the replacement of housing and provision of new infrastructure do not guarantee social acceptance. Rather, for communities at the heart of these projects, large-scale development is emblematic of longer-felt experiences of being forgotten and pushed aside.
Sarima residents review video material they have generated as part of the ‘Seeing Conflict at the Margins’ project. Needless to say, communities on the frontline of Kenya’s renewable energy push will experience and see large-scale projects differently from the state, investors and even the wider public in Kenya that is making noise for cheaper and more reliable power. Differences in ways of seeing come into sharpest focus when considering the communities that were displaced to make way for the construction of new geothermal and wind power infrastructure. Their experiences raise questions of rights, citizenship, inequality, and, ultimately, the very definition of a secure life in rapidly changing rural societies at the margins.