Kenya’s Lamu Port Was Meant to Deliver Great Things. But, As the Story of Local Fishermen Shows, It Hasn’t

For nearly two decades, successive Kenyan governments have promoted mega infrastructure projects as a pathway to development. The Lamu Port has been one of them.

In 2012, then president Mwai Kibaki – at the inauguration ceremony for a transport corridor that stretches from the Lamu Port to South Sudan and Ethiopia, and known as Lapssetstated:

I have no doubt that this day will go down in history as one of the defining moments – when we made a major stride to connect our people to the many socio-economic opportunities that lie ahead.

However, as my research shows, the reality of these mega projects is more complex than state officials acknowledge.

Instead of bringing development, a better society and a happier life, mega infrastructures result in hardship, especially for vulnerable, historically marginalised groups of people. This is vividly illustrated by Lamu’s fishermen.

The story of the fishermen provides a good lens through which to understand how vulnerable communities are affected by mega infrastructure projects. In Lamu, 70% of the local population depends on artisanal fishing. This is characterised by small-scale, low-cost and low-technology fishing practices.

In my research, I conducted interviews with representatives of the Lapsset Corridor Development Authority, officials of the Kenya Ports Authority and local government, civil society groups and key local informants. I also held interviews and informal conversations with Lamu’s fishermen while I observed and participated in boat maintenance, fishing and social gatherings.

The fishermen’s experiences illustrate how communities can challenge the way big infrastructure projects are done. The Save Lamu alliance, comprising civil society groups that focus on human rights, took the Kenyan government to court in 2014 over the port construction.

Through community-based research and mobilisation, the alliance sought to demonstrate how historically vulnerable groups of people, such as artisanal fishermen, are deliberately excluded from state development plans.

Lamu’s fishermen

The construction of the Lamu Port displaced fishermen from their traditional onshore fishing grounds in Manda Bay. This is located at the southern corner of the Lamu Archipelago on Kenya’s coast. It’s a deep and sheltered bay with a wide, navigable entrance channel.

The port’s construction began in 2012 and is expected to hold 32 berths. So far, three berths have been completed. They have claimed five square kilometres of Manda Bay. The first berth began operating in May 2021.

The port construction works – including reclaiming land from the sea, and digging and dredging – destroyed coral reefs and mangroves that are main fish breeding grounds. The works also polluted these breeding grounds by bringing up dirt and sand. This made the area unsuitable for fishing.

Fishing activities are entirely undertaken close to the shore in Manda Bay. There are fishing grounds further offshore, but local fishermen lack appropriate fishing gear to explore deep-sea areas. As a result, Lamu’s fishermen – estimated to be between 4,700 and 7,000 individuals – are witnessing a shrinking operational space for their livelihoods.

Resistance to unsustainable corridor development

These drastic effects on fishermen – and concerns about more negative impacts on the environment in the future – led to community mobilisation in Lamu.

In 2014, Save Lamu submitted a court case against the Lapsset Corridor Development Authority for not considering how the project was going to affect local people’s livelihoods.

Four years later, in an unprecedented ruling, Save Lamu won this legal battle against the national government.

A three-judge bench ruled that the construction of Lamu Port violated the rights to public participation, public information, a clean and healthy environment, and culture.

The court also found that the local county government of Lamu wasn’t involved in the planning and implementation of the port.

Regarding artisanal fishermen’s livelihoods, the judges ordered the government to recognise fishing rights as amounting to property, and pay US$170 million in compensation to 4,700 fishermen displaced by the port construction.

Kenya’s civil society celebrated the ruling as a historic win for human rights. But the national government immediately appealed it.

Local versus national

The port’s construction continues unabated.

The fishermen have not been compensated for lost livelihoods. This follows an ongoing disagreement between the national government, Lamu’s local government, Save Lamu and representatives of Lamu fishermen on how many individuals should receive this compensation, and how it should be spent.

The central government prefers state-controlled development of the local fishing industry. This would include state-supervised acquisition of boats and fishing gear for deep-sea fishing.

The government has proposed development schemes that would provide the necessary equipment to clusters of 10 fishermen. This, it says, would address the long-existing problem of overfishing and enable fishermen to exploit deep-sea resources. This position is supported by Save Lamu, which advocates for long-term sustainability and fishing cooperatives.

Fishermen’s representatives, however, have rejected these proposals. They say fishermen lack access to the infrastructure to repair or maintain new equipment provided by the central government. Instead, they prefer to use boats that can be built and maintained locally. They also deeply mistrust the central government to provide any meaningful assistance.

After years of dispute, in May 2022 the Lamu County commissioner Irungu Macharia assured Lamu fishermen of their compensation. It’s still not clear when this will begin.

Lessons about infrastructure development

The dynamics of infrastructure development in Lamu demonstrate how mega projects don’t result in the prosperity promised by the central government. Instead, they become implicated in national and local politics, and conflicts over different preferences for “development”.

In such contexts, the most vulnerable people whose livelihoods are directly affected by these developments suffer the most.

Even if civil society is successful in representing their interests, it doesn’t result in any meaningful changes.

These groups are not assisted to adapt to changing socio-economic circumstances brought by mega infrastructure. Big projects entrench existing inequalities.

Gediminas Lesutis, Marie Curie Fellow, University of Amsterdam

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