Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 17, Part 1 - Dominion Farms, Part 1

On my 17th day in Kenya, I visited Dominion Farms, a U.S.-owned enormous rice farm that sits in between Bondo and Siaya Districts in Nyanza Province. See below.

My introduction to Dominion Farms first came from a document called "Land grabbing in Kenya and Mozambique A report on two research missions – and a human rights analysis of land grabbing," published by the FIAN International Secretariat in 2010.

The Yala Swamp wetlands are located on the northeastern shoreline of Lake Victoria and are crossed by the equator. It is one of the most important riparian and floodplain wetlands around the lake, and indeed one of the largest in Kenya. The swamp forms the mouth of both the Nzoia and Yala Rivers and is a freshwater deltaic wetland arising from backflow of water from Lake Victoria as well as the rivers’ floodwaters. It provides a very important habitat for refugee populations of certain fish species which have otherwise disappeared from the lake. The wetlands cover an area commonly cited as 17,500 hectares (175 km2) and contain three freshwater lakes: Kanyaboli (1,500 hectares), Sare, and Namboyo. Other reports suggest that the swamp is much larger with a total area of 38,000 - 52,000 hectares. The swamp stretches 25 km from W-E and 15 km from N-S at the lakeshore.

This huge wetland ecosystem, third largest in the country after the Lorian Swamp and the Tana River Delta, provides major ecological and hydrological functions and is a major source of livelihoods for the neighboring communities. It is a highly productive ecosystem. According to Birdlife International, “The Yala swamp complex is by far the largest papyrus swamp in the Kenyan sector of Lake Victoria, making up more than 90% of the total area of papyrus. The swamp acts as a natural filter for a variety of biocides and other agricultural pollutants from the surrounding catchment, and also effectively removes silt before the water enters Lake Victoria. The site supports an important local fishery for the Luo and Luhya people who live to its south and north, respectively”.

Remember what malaria expert Andrew Githeko said about papyrus swamps. They don't have any malaria. Clear the swamp and turn it into a rice paddy and the malarial mosquitoes will thank you.

The Yala swampland is a trust land under the custody of the Siaya and Bondo County councils on behalf of the government. With a population of about half a million, it is densely populated. For a long time, the local people accessed it and used it in their various daily activities on a free access basis. With the entry and take over by a US based company in 2003, this came to an abrupt halt and resulted in a loss of one of the most important assets for the local community to secure their livelihoods – the land.

In 2003, Dominion Farms Ltd, a subsidiary of Dominion Group of Companies based in Edmond, Oklahoma, USA, made its appearance in the Yala swamp. The initial proposal was that Dominion would engage in rice production, in part of the swamp known as Area I, covering about 2,300 hectares. This land portion had been reclaimed by the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA) before 1970 and previously used for agricultural activity, mainly to produce cereals, pulses and horticultural crops. Later in the same year, Dominion entered into a lease agreement with both the Siaya and Bondo County Councils covering 6,900 hectares of the 17,500 hectare wetlands under the Yala Swamp Integrated Development Project for duration of 25 years, with a possibility of extension. Eventually, Dominion proposed to cover the entire swamp region of 17,500 hectares.

Dominion was ushered in by a coalition of local politicians and evangelical pastors who even organized massive demonstrations in favor of the investment. At the beginning there was much optimism among the population: Dominion had promised jobs, school, clinics and an upsurge of the local economy in general. The infrastructure left behind by LBDA was worn down and poverty was rife in the malaria-infested swamp region.

However, disillusion set in soon. According to residents of Siaya and Bondo counties, there was employment for some 200 workers for no more than six months when brushwood and undergrowth was removed in the area. For instance, a 60 year old man was hired as a subcontractor with a team of twelve. The workers were paid 200 shillings per day (approximately 2.6 USD) and the team leader received an additional 50 shillings. Today, according to the villagers in Bondo and Siaya,there is permanent employment only for a handful of watchmen (60, according to Dominion’s homepage) who are paid around 7,000 shillings (approximately 90 USD) per month. A watchman questioned by the research team at the gate of Dominion farm refused to reveal details about his contract and said that he was not allowed to speak to strangers.

In the rice fields, women can be seen armed with sticks to chase away the birds which prey on the cereal. According to villagers, they have to stand in the mud from dusk to dawn for a miserable pay and even remain there when the plantation is sprayed with pesticides. Neighbors suspect it is DDT as fowl and plants have died after the spraying. There is ample evidence of poisoned fowl and plants in the vicinity of the plantation. Villagers claim that even the cattle are destroyed by contaminated water. When interviewed, a villager replied “We took the livestock to market and found that the liver was rotten. We had to bury them, could not even allow dogs to eat them.” Dominion is indeed alleged to have sought an exemption from the worldwide ban of DDT from Kenya’s Ministry of Health supposedly to combat malaria. The incidence of malaria, however, is still high. Some claim it is higher now than before Dominion built dykes and cut off the natural flow of the swamp waters.

Charming place, huh? About the DDT, I personally saw no evidence and I heard rumors they were using carbofuran but could not get my source to give me any credible proof or way to verify that. But they certainly are spraying something - I saw it myself and took pictures. The number of people employed has grown a bit too, although not by much, and it appears that locals only get the unskilled, low wage jobs while educated outsiders get the higher paid positions. By the time I visited in February 2012, the women standing in rice paddies scaring away birds had shifted from shaking sticks at them to containers filled with rocks.

In 2003, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was commissioned by the NEMA for large-scale rice production. Authorities approved the EIA specifically for rice irrigation in a 2,300 hectare-area (about 13% of the Yala Swamp territory). Almost immediately Dominion began building irrigation dykes and a weir, airstrips and roads, and announced plans to build a hydroelectric plant and a major aquaculture venture, including fish farms, a fish processing factory and a fish mill factory, all of which could damage a fragile ecosystem far beyond the designated 2,300 hectare area.

Dominion Farm Limited operates on the basis of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Dominion directors and the chairmen of Bondo and Siaya county councils in May, 2003. According to this MoU, the councils pledge to lease to Dominion another 3,200 hectares approximately (“the Additional Area”) in addition to 3,700 hectares – in total 6,900 hectares - set aside for large scale agricultural purposes. The MoU makes no reference to those who may live on the land earmarked for lease to Dominion. A lawyer in Nairobi, who was commissioned by the Institute of Law and Environmental Governance, assumes that there must be thousands of people who have been in occupation of the land by virtue of ancestral rights. One analysis criticizes that “no mention is made of these people. It is inconceivable that 3700 hectares of arable/agricultural land in a rural area would be lying idle without even persons who may be referred to as squatters. Provision must therefore be made for the original occupants. In my view, the County Councils should have given these individuals first priority if this land was required to be allocated or leased out to anyone.”

Indeed, there are entire villages of farmers whose families had been there for generations in the “Additional Area”. The majority do not have any titles to prove their claims. Some, however, had actually purchased the land and were assigned a parcel number which was supposed to be later replaced by a formal title deed. For example, the father of a 33 year old farmer from Aduwa village bought eight acres (roughly three hectares) of land in 1975. The soil is extremely fertile which has made the family quite prosperous...

In 2004, Dominion offered to buy his land for 45,000 shillings/acre (approximately 600 USD), roughly a third of the market price. The farmer refused because he knew that for the meager compensation he would be unable to buy a plot the same size and equal quality anywhere else. One acre yields 24 bags of maize per harvest. At a price of 3,000 shillings (about 400USD) per bag of maize and two harvests a year, each acre produces around 144,000 shillings (around 1,893USD), more than thrice what Dominion offered to pay for the land. A few weeks after refusing to sell his land, the farmer found his fields flooded and his crops destroyed. He is sure that Dominion had opened the sluices of the weir to inundate the plots of stubborn farmers. When he complained, he was chased by the police “who were ferried in Dominion vehicles.”

The same happened to another farmer. Of a nine acre plot, eight acres were flooded. Dominion paid 45,000 shillings for this one acre and took the whole plot. The farmer says he accepted out of need. When he went to complain about the flooding, Dominion sent him to the county council as the owner of the land: “The county council said, the area is for government, you cool down, nothing will be done.” In another case, a 29 year old farmer, whose father possesses 15 acres in Syaia county directly adjacent to the Dominion estate, reports that an offer by Dominion to buy his parcel came immediately after six acres were flooded. The family refused. A woman 60 years of age from Yoro village, Bondo, says that the deliberate flooding of her land, inherited from her late husband who died in 1989, destroyed her crops of maize, beans, vegetables, 40 heads of cattle and five houses. Another farmer, 50 years old, who lives in the same village, lost 30 heads of cattle, 45 sheep and 60 goats in a flooding. Complaints with the local authorities were not attended. According to InterPress Service (ips) “the government has dismissed such allegations saying it is not aware of any complaints from communities in the Yala River area.”

“The idea behind the flooding is a way of pushing people away”, says a member of Siaya County Council. He alleges that Dominion controls all the local institutions: “They even managed to bribe the media. When floods occur you won’t see media.” The member, who has been campaigning against Dominion for several years, says that he was offered the post of PR officer by Dominion with a monthly salary of 120,000 shillings, airtime for the mobile phone of 7,000 shillings per week, and a car with fuel. He refused. The member, who wants to be reelected in 2011 and become chairman of the county council, accuses local politicians of having accepted bribes: “Some MPs have built their houses with Dominion money”. The mansion of a former MP stands on a hill overlooking the Southern shore of Lake Kanyaboli. It is fenced in and guarded by a watchman. The power line ends at his house. He is the man who initially brought Dominion to the swamp.

So... welcome to Dominion... My goal was to find out how much of this report I could personally verify by visiting and see what else there was to know about Dominion Farms.

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