Lamu port project angers locals.One of the biggest and most ambitious projects in Kenya, the multibillion-dollar Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor, expected to transform logistics in a host of neighbouring countries, is coming under fire from locals who say they have not been consulted. They also fear the port will ruin Lamu, a UN World Heritage Site. Wanjohi Kabukuru has the details.
Concerns are being raised over the $16bn Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor project (LAPSSET). This bold project, encompassing a futuristic modern port at the town of Lamu on the northern coast of Kenya; a standard-gauge railway line to Juba in South Sudan with a branch line to Ethiopia; an oil pipeline linking Lamu with the oil fields of South Sudan; an oil refinery; a superhighway connecting to Ethiopia and Sudan; an international airportand several resort developments within Kenya, has begun on a very sour note. In June 2010, three months after being contracted to conduct a feasibility plan, Japan Port Consultants (JPC) were paid some $6.2m of the total $48.7m as contract fees for the nine-month feasibility study work. This move was said to have angered the Chinese, who are keen to undertake the entire project.
Locally, Mohammed Sheikh of Shungwaya Welfare Association said: All we want is transparency in this project. We want it to be done right and with all concerns addressed fully."
LAPSSET is not new. The project was first conceived in 1972 and French engineering consulting firm Renardet was commissioned to undertake a viability study. Owing to the costs involved, the country--independent for just nine years--decided it could not finance it. Aanalysts are now wondering why dusting down the 39-year-old plans should cost $48.7m.
More questions were raised when the Kenyan government cancelled an international request for expressions of interest (EOI) from bidders seeking to construct the first three berths at Manda Bay that was put out to tender in September 2010.
" This is a major project and to many of us here in Lamu, it will completely redefine our lifestyles," says Mohammed Ali Baddi, a Lamu resident. "But our question is simple, why is the government afraid of involving us? As residents of Lamu we have on occasions demanded sight of the full Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) but no one in government wants to show it to us. What will happen to the rich marine life of dugongs [sea cows], turtles, dolphins and mangroves?" Baddi asks. Lamu is one of the world's most important locations of Swahili civilisation, and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1980 it was declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, due to its unmatched archaeological sites, rich marine endowments and inimitable indigenous communities--the Boni, Sanye and Bajuni. Others ethnicities include Somali, Orma, Pokomo and Miji Kenda, who have all made these islands their home. Baddi, who is the spokesman of Lamu Environmental Protection and Conservation Group (LEPAC) a community based environmental conservation entity notes: "Our heritage will be forever lost if this project is implemented without the due diligence required to protect cultural identities, environmental biodiversity, archaeological history and the basic rights of the local people. We don't want Lamu to be removed from the UNESCO World Heritage Site as they did to Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany and Oman's Arabian Oryx Antelope Sanctuary," he says. With a rich history dating from the 8 th century and globally acknowledged as East Africa's Islamic capital, complete with Islamic festivities, Lamu boasts a rich intercultural diversity in its history. The Omani Arabs, Portuguese, Germans and British have all had their flags flown here at one time in history.
Lamu was selected for the project due to its almost perfect natural location. With a berthing depth of more than 18 metres (as opposed to Mombasa's 13 metres), Lamu's developers will have only a minimum of dredging to construct a port. Whilst Mombasa's narrow entry can only allow the access of one ship at a time, Lamu's wide harbour entrance will accommodate multiple ships approaching the port at the same time.
The port phase construction alone is expected to cost around $3.5bn. Once complete, the Lamu Port will have a quay length of 3,500m, 22 berths and capacity to handle 35m tons of cargo each year and join the handful of ports around the world that can handle Super Post-Panamax vessels.
"We welcome the project, but it should be tailored to be conducive to us, blend in with our unique lifestyle and it should take into consideration our fragile marine ecosystems," Athman Bakar, the chairman of the Kenya Marine Environmental Organisation (KEMEO) says. "It would be ideal if the master plan of the entire project was openly and transparently discussed here at our town hall. Adequate preparations and the sensitisation of the population should be a key priority."
Lamu's District Commissioner, Steven Ikua, denies the claims that the government has excluded the locals and is insensitive to the environment and World Heritage status, "We have everyone on board. What we are doing now is getting all the logistics right and then we will see to it that everyone plays theirrole. It is not right to say that the cultural identity of Lamu will be lost with the coming of this port. We have taken all aspects into consideration and as the project unfolds everyone will have their stake acknowledged," Ikua says.
When the idea of LAPSSET first came into the public domain, the issue of financing proved to be thorny. In 2008, the Qatari government had expressed its willingness to finance the entire project in exchange for a lease of 100,000 acres in the fertile Tana River delta to grow food for its people. This drew sharp reactions and generated a controversy, with the Kenya government taking flak for ignoring the Tana Delta residents for decades and giving preference to Qataris. The deal finally collapsed when the Qataris pulled out in 2008. The Chinese saw the exit of the Qataris as a golden opportunity and Beijing's ambassador swiftly moved to discuss the project with the Kenya government with the view of taking the LAPSSET Corridor concept forward. In 2009, Kenya's Premier Raila Odinga visited China to lobby for the Lamu project. In early January 2010 President Mwai Kibaki met with the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Nairobi on the Lamu Port issue. Progress was made and in May 2010 President Kibaki visited China for a second time and met with President Hu Jintao, finally sealing the LAPSSET multibillion-dollar financing deal.
But environmentalists are not prepared to give the project their full backing. In 2010 the Lamu Environmental Protection and Conservation Group hosted Johanna Von Braun and Gino Cocchiaro from the international environmental legal NGO, Natural Justice.
They discussed the "development of a bio-cultural community protocol", put simply, a statement by a community or communities of their intention to self-determine their future and an explanation to specific stakeholders of how they wish to engage with them. They fully intend to use the protocol to negotiate with the government.
Dr Mutule Kilonzo, the lead consultant to LAPSSET's Inter-Ministerial committee at the Office of the President, tasked to coordinate the project, plays down the controversy that LAPSSET has caused. He says: "LAP SSET is on course. Construction will begin early next year. Within a year we expect to have finished the port and even the railways. The project will be actualised in the lifetime of the current government."