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October 03, 2011

Canadian investor gains, then loses Kenyan community's support for jatropha project

The Nairobi Start reports that Tana River councillors have asked Kenya's National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) not to revoke a biofuel project licence in the area. Led by Tana River County Council chairman Salim Golo, they said they are happy with the project to be carried out on 160,000 hectares. The jatropha plant project is supposed to start on 10,000 hectares and later be scaled up to 50,000 hectares, with the remaining land integrating agriculture and wildlife.

Golo accused Nature Kenya, an NGO, of petitioning NEMA to revoke the license.

Nature Kenya, the operating name of the East Africa Natural History Society, expresses concern on its website about the environmental impacts of the proposed investment.   

''NEMA’s approval of the cultivation of 10,000 hectares of jatropha curcas at the Tana Delta will not only see the displacement of the local community, but the destruction of a unique ecosystem that holds 345 bird species include 22 water bird species present in internationally important numbers, '' it says.

The Nairobi Star quotes council chairman Golo as saying, "We have a lease agreement with Bedford Biofuel to plant jatropha in the area. What does Nature Kenya want? They have been in the Tana delta for many years and have never assisted us."

The lease agreement will last 45 years. The councillors said that the area chosen for the project is dry and currently facing bush clearing that would in the near future leave the land bare. Kenneth Pakia, a resident who accompanied the councillors, said the jatropha plant would provide cover and assist the ecosystem sustain the environment.

Golo said the arrival of Bedford Biofuel, a Canadian investor, had enabled the six ranches where the project will be carried out to pay Sh2.6 million in rates to the Tana River County Council. "How would that have happened without this initiative?" Golo asked.

The project will employ more than 14,000 locals Golo said, adding that it resonates well with devolved county governments. The councillors denied that there are any squatters on the land to be evicted. NEMA recently announced that it has suspended two top managers for issuing the licence to Bedford Biofuels, but the company has challenged NEMA chairman Francis ole Kaparo to explain how the process was irregular.

Nature Kenya argues that jatropha cannot thrive under the area's coastal conditions, and that therefore the mooted investment is a waste of land that should instead be used for food crop agriculture. It also says that an ecological land use plan should be put in place first. 

In making its first argument Nature Kenya is taking advantage of the fact that one of the most criticized aspects of biofuel crops is that they are not being planted on 'marginal land' suited for little else as often claimed, but are actually taking up prime land which should be used for growing food. 

A report in Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper of September 6 said NEMA had since withdrawn its support for the project on environmental grounds. The same report indicated that on learning of NEMA's position, Tana River County Council had also revised its initial support, accusing Bedford Biofuel of giving them a biased report which did not include NEMA's stance.

Council chairman Golo said, ''INitially we thought  it was an environmentally friendly project. Now that we have heard of NEMA's stand, as leaders we need to support the environmental agency. The proprietors only told us of their side of the story without telling us the technical report from NEMA.''

Elder Swaleh Racha accused the investors of causing dissension within the community. He said proper consultations had not been made, and that even those who supported the project were not fully aware of all its consequences.

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