Geothermal Power, National Parks and Pastoralists – an inevitable conflict?

Katiba Cultural Rights are very excited to introduce another guest blogger: Deborah Nightingale has a PhD in Anthropology and is an Environmental Consultant working on various issues including human-wildlife conflict, indigenous knowledge and environment, and ecotourism.

Opinions expressed in guest blogs are those of the authors and are not endorsed by the Katiba Cultural Rights research project who seek to present views from all sides of the debate.

Ol Karia (April 2014). Brine spill down into the Cultural Village.

Ol Karia (April 2014). Brine spill down into the Cultural Village.
Image credit: Debbie Nightingale

Kenya is undergoing a massive expansion of its geothermal power generation capacity, much of which is taking place in the Rift Valley, with serious negative environmental impacts on areas of important biodiversity and cultural significance. The Rift Valley, with its volcanic history, dramatic landscapes and steam jets is an area of natural beauty. In the past, it was home to various ethnic groups, including the pastoral Maasai.   The first geothermal power plants were located in an area occupied by Hell’s Gate National Park. Over time, The Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KENGEN) has drilled more wells, and more of the park has been converted to geothermal use. The surrounding area is made up of large, privately owned ranches. There are also a number of Maasai settlements at the edge of the Park, and these communities benefit from selling crafts to Park visitors, leading guided tours, livestock keeping and occasional employment as rangers in the Park, or at the geothermal plant.

Kenya’s Vision 2030 sees it producing 20,000 MW by 2030, one quarter of that coming from geothermal sources. Kenya is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol and geothermal energy qualifies as a Clean Development Mechanism project.   Kenya sees the generation and distribution of energy as key to driving development and therefore of great benefit to Kenyans as a whole.  Stakeholders supporting this expansion are industrial businesses, energy companies, those groups who see jobs coming out of this, various contractors and politicians.   The World Bank and other international banks are providing funds.

Road in the resettlement area following a storm. The soil is ash and pumice and therefore very unstable.

Road in the resettlement area following a storm. The soil is ash and pumice and therefore very unstable.
This image was taken on the 19th of July 2015

Side view of the washed away road. Image credit: Debbie Nightingale

Side view of the washed away road.
Image credit: Debbie Nightingale


However the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the local communities are bearing the brunt of costs in this process and have serious concerns about the project. Firstly, Hell’s Gate is not only a National Park it is recognised as an Important Bird Area and is on the tentative list as a World Heritage Site, and the lake next to it is a Ramsar site. Therefore, the safeguarding of the park and its biodiversity is considered an important objective of KWS, as it benefits Kenyans as a whole — and future generations. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) exists between the geothermal company and the National Park but this has been violated, and the park has suffered loss of beauty and damage to its wildlife. This will eventually lead to a loss of revenue.   It has also dented the authority of KWS whose responsibility it is to maintain and protect the site.

Oil well in the centre of what was previously a Maasai village, it is on the site of a school.

Oil well in the centre of what was previously a Maasai village, it is on the site of a school.
Image credit: Debbie Nightingale

Secondly, it involves the displacement of communities, and arguably they are even worse off thanthe park. Some of them have been relocated to an area that is 12 km away from where they work, on land that is unsuitable for livestock or agriculture and without water. They have nice looking new houses, but are finding it difficult to live there. Other communities were simply evicted and told to move elsewhere. Although the geothermal company went through the motions of an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), it was poorly done. In particular it is not clear if communities had a real voice and whether this voice has been heeded. Responses to the ESIA were submitted, and the geothermal company agreed to follow up on the problems exposed. However, very little has actually been done and the World Bank Inspection panel has taken up complaints from the resettled community and indicates that the complaints are justified. Due Recognition of the Maasai community has been sorely lacking in this process and they are being dispossessed and marginalised. The community has graves, sacred sites, natural resources and historical links to the area. These were ignored, at first because they were not ‘documented’.   Once these sites were documented in 2014 (and included in the response to an ESIA), they were ignored again. The geothermal company at first claimed that the Maasai were ‘not an indigenous people’. When this excuse was no longer acceptable, the company then determined that they were not an indigenous people ‘for the purpose of this project’. This begs the question, who decides whether or not a community is indigenous?

View of the oil well from above. Image credit: Debbie Nightingale

View of the oil well from above. Image credit: Debbie Nightingale

Kenya has ratified a number of international agreements involving conservation and the recognition of human and cultural rights of people. There are also a number of policies and laws that protect wildlife and biodiversity as well as the environment. Kenya’s Constitution of 2010 recognizes the role of culture and protects cultural heritage while the Environmental Management and Coordination Act of 1999 protects Kenya’s environment and recognizes the importance of indigenous knowledge and attachment to areas. These conflicts between energy companies, the National Park and the local communities have arisen despite this extensive legal framework. The situation is complicated because the project is providing benefits but at a cost. How do you best balance these competing claims?

One thought on “Geothermal Power, National Parks and Pastoralists – an inevitable conflict?

  1. There has been a very interesting conversation elsewhere about the definition of indigenous and who in Kenya is indigenous. This has proved very confusing in the Kenya case because practically all ‘black’ communities, in contrast to a place like Canada where indigenous people a minority. So the attention here then turns to minority groups who are marginalised. I was informed at the last discussion that the only group recognised as a minority in Kenya are the El Molo. When we look at the World Bank definition of indigenous, it includes ties to the land, and a distinct language. The problem with the Maasai in many cases is that they have been pushed out of heir ancestral lands to give way first to European farming, then they sold most of their land to other people, and now most recently they are being pushed out of their few remaining areas by development projects.
    The biggest problem we have so far is that the government does not seem to recognize that that it has a duty to protect its citizens; that even as we develop all these fancy projects to propel Kenya into a middle income country by 2030, that there is a need to respect community rights and conserve what people have taken so long to build. That is why community concerns are not taken into consideration when large projects like these are being implemented. We may be signatories to all these international conventions, but I think we do not really understand what our obligations are. For instance, Lamu is a World Heritage Site but no attention was paid when the Lapsset project was implemented. In most of these projects, we want to assume that local concerns do not matter and that as long as it is a government sanctioned projects, peoples protests do not matter. Institutions or companies a=take advantage of this gap and go ahead without listening to the peoples voice. That is why so many have stalled because locals are complaining about how things are being done.
    It is true that the way EIAs are conducted are probably the biggest reason why all these problems arise. 1. The people carrying out these EIAs are not competent and therefore end up with shoddy reports. Such a study cannot be a one-man thing as there are so many different aspects that should be included. 2. Most of the studies do not include the cultural aspect because there is an assumption that culture is not important. Public consultations are therefore not part of the reports. This is in contravention of their own EMCA Act. 3. NEMA does not review these reports thoroughly; if they did , most of these shortcomings would be identified before he reports are approved. The question is, do they have professional who are qualified to review different parts of the report as required?
    In short all I am saying is that the government breaks its own rules in many cases, and institutions like KenGen therefore takes advantage of the weakness. There are many archaeological sites in the Rift that are well documented, in those same areas where the wells are being sunk. But nobody pays attention to that.
    The question therefore is, what is the point of developing infrastructure for a population that you are so keen on destroying? Who are you creating the structures for.

    Liked by 1 person

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