The final part of the first hand account of GCM’s ongoing training in Kenya by Shweta Narayan, Regional Trainer

Day 3 and 4 – First and Second Day at the Workshop – 28 and 29 July 2010:

About 20 representatives from four pollution impacted communities in Kenya came together to share their stories, learn from each other’s experience and also hone their skills in environmental monitoring to hold government and corporations accountable. In addition to the exchange of stories of struggles and victories, community members shared experiences on working within the existing political scenario for policy interventions. Later in the day, we went out on a toxic tour to see for ourselves the impacts of various industries on the Lake Naivasha.

Before I go on to detail the toxic tour, let me briefly explain the stories of the pollution impacted communities represented at the workshop. We had members from Naivasha, we know about their key issues, then we had folks from Webuye, who are impacted from the pollution of the Pan Paper Mill. We had members from around Yala swamps of Kenya who are affected by large scale farming activities of Domanian Farms. Finally we had members from the coastal regions of Khilifi near Mombassa who are being impacted by the stone quarrying in their region.

Pan Paper Mill and Webuye:

Pan Paper Mill is an Indian owned company that as the name suggests manufactures paper. Located in the Webuye region of Kenya, this unit is notorious for its pollution. Hydrogen Sulfide emissions from the unit have been found not one or two but several thousand times above safe limits prescribed by the US EPA.

For the last year, the plant had been shut due to the some investment and financial issues and its during this time the local residents realised what it was to live in a healthy environment again. According to Mr. Hudson Simiyu, in one year they have seen marked difference in their surroundings. Their maize crops have flourished again, their rivers have fish now and their surroundings are greener with no rotten egg type of odour.

Yesterday the residents got the news that Pan Paper Mill has been reopened and in fact has been inaugurated by some minister. I was wondering how this news will affect the local members from the region who were at the meeting. So I asked them and they told me that it was expected anyway, but this time the local group is stronger and more than ever resolute to ensure that the unit does not pollute and poison their neighbourhoods.

Domanian Farms in the Yala Swamps:

Oklahoma-based Domanian group operates its farming activity in the Yala swamps in Kenya. Yala swamps border Lake Victoria and are of immense ecological importance. Domanian began its business in 2003 with paddy cultivation. Air and water pollution from pesticide spraying was a regular complaint by the people in the region. Things went out of hand when the company proposed an expansion of its activity in 2005-06. The Environmental Impact Assessment of the unit was widely rejected by all public interest and environmental group on the grounds that the proposed project would adversely effect the environment and change the land use in the wetland area.

Despite the opposition, the unit went ahead with the expansion activities. Kevin Mugenya of Institute of Environmental Law and Governance, one of the participants at the workshop, points out that even though the EIA was for expansion in paddy cultivation by the unit, the unit currently is engaged in maize, banana and fish farming.

The unit’s land use pattern has displaced hundreds of local residents. The unit has also constructed an air strip within the wetland for private purposes. Kevin adds that apart from the series of health problems that the local community is facing due to the pesticide use by the farms, they also have to worry about being displaced from their ancestral land. The unit is keen to build a Hydroelectric Power Plant and for which it is deliberately flooding the proposed site for the plant to chase local residents out.

Stone Quarries of Khilifi:

Khilifi is about 85 km from Mombassa in the coastal region of Kenya. It is primarily known for the stones that are mined from here and used for construction purposes all over Kenya. Members from this region who were part of the workshop listed out the problems that the communities were facing due to the pollution from the stone quarries and transportation of the stones.

Noise and dust were a regular features of their lives. The stone quarries engaged in blasting activities round the clock making it difficult for the local communities. There were a very high levels of incidents of upper respiratory disorders among the residents especially the children in the area.

The members presented their dilemma about raising the issue of environmental pollution in the region since most of the community earned their livelihoods by working in the quarries.

Toxic Tour:

Participants from Naivasha took us around their community to show us the extent of pollution and damage to the Lake Naivasha. We visited Karagita, the local village in the region, the flower farms and the worker’s settlement, saw the private resorts and property around and finally went to the public beach.

It was shocking to see that flower farms workers settlement and their children’s school were located adjacent to the farms. This makes them more susceptible and vulnerable to pesticides from the farm. We also saw pesticides runoff from a few farms towards the lake.

While going to the Lake Naivasha beach our friends from the region told us that about a decade ago their used to be about 18 public access roads to the beach. Today there are only 2 left: the rest all have been privatised by the resorts in the region.

The second day of our workshop was more focused towards discussing action plans and strategies to combat pollution and make government and corporations accountable. Focused group discussions and strategy meetings were the highlights of the day. At the end of the discussions each group drew up an achievable work plan and schedule for follow ups that would be reviewed in the future.

It was a long two days but I guess the best time spent in a long was sharing our stories and struggles. At the end of these two days we came out stronger, better equipped to deal with the environmental issues and most importantly more resolute to win our struggle for a life of justice and dignity!