There is a dirty war on Kenya’s tropical island over a $2 billion coal plant

On numerous occasions, the office of the county commissioner has accused the activists of being funded by foreign organisations to frustrate national government projects in the region.

To capture and celebrate different aspects of its unique cultures, Lamu holds never to be missed festivals strategically spread across all year round.

But life in the old quiet town founded in 1370 is about to change as the government plans to build East Africa's first coal-fired power plant, a 1,000 megawatt (MW) facility 20 kms (12 miles) north on an agricultural 869 acre site in Kwasasi.

The Kenyan government and environmental activists are engaged in a dirty war over East Africa's first coal plant worth $2bn to be set up in Lamu County.

Anti-coal activists in the county are fighting government allegations that they are pawns used by foreign agents to scuttle the coal plant in exchange for a few shillings and that they are not sincere in their opposition.

Save Lamu, Lamu Youth Alliance and Lamu Marine Forum organization have especially been vocal in their opposition to the proposed Sh200 billion Lamu coal fired power plant.

County Commissioner Joseph Kanyiri has not shied away from labeling the anti-coal campaigners who are majorly activists and a select few local leaders as enemies of progress.

“This is a project between the investor and the government of Kenya and it is being conducted according to all stipulated laws. There is enough research that this isn’t the first project of its kind in the world. Such projects are in America, China, India, Australia and Germany. We understand that some individuals here including activists have been paid to oppose the project. We even know some went as far as asking for bribes in order to support the project but their plans didn’t work,” he said.

Save Lamu Chairman Mohamed Abubakar, however, refutes this and says the government seems to have an ulterior motive by insisting on having a harmful project at Kenya’s tropical island.

Mr Abubakar defended their anti-coal calls saying theirs was pure activism for the good of the people of Lamu.

“I am not happy with the fact that the county commissioner has been moving round claiming activists here are funded by international bodies in order to oppose the coal plant. We are fighting for the rights of the Lamu community. Coal project is known worldwide to be harmful to the environment and human health. Lamu people are not after the project and we will not tire to fight and ensure justice prevails to our people no matter what,” said Mr Abubakar.

The project, which is being undertaken by the Amu Power Company, a consortium of Gulf Energy and Centum Investment, is set to be established at Kwasasi Village in Hindi division, Lamu West.

A total of 975 acres of land have been set aside for the establishment of the project, which is expected to generate 1,050 megawatts of power upon completion.

The Lamu marine environment contains a diversity of land and seascapes including mangroves, mudflats, lagoons, sand dunes, beaches, sand islands, raised reef islands, sea-grass beds and coral reefs.

Among the most impressive marine species are Green, Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Leatherback turtles, Dugongs, Dolphins and Whales. The Greater Lamu Eco-region also accommodates the largest breeding colony of white-cheeked, bridled, and roseate terns in the world.

It is feared all these Lamu’s diverse marine life may be disappear and go up in smoke with the establishing of the coal plant.

The activists want the government to instead focus on setting up of clean energy projects in line with the ban on plastics if it is serious with safeguarding the environment.

“We urge the government to focus more on green energy and any other renewable sources of energy rather than coal. Coal is dangerous and as activists we will not allow such a harmful project to be established in the county. We will use all means possible including legal redress to have the Lamu coal plant stopped,” said Mr Walid Ahmed, the secretary-general of Save Lamu and who doubles as Lamu Youth Alliance Chairman.

Mr Walid termed the bribery claims as malicious and added that in recent times the country has portrayed itself as an environmental champion even going ahead to impose the nationwide plastic bag and logging ban across the country,  and setting up the coal plant would reverse all that and more.

In May Walid and Is’haq Abubakar Khatib, a member of Lamu Youth Alliance  were arrested for what police termed as conducting an illegal assembly and detained at the Lamu West police station, raising fear the war may turn ugly very easily.

Lamu Marine Forum Chairman Mohamed Athman questioned the criteria used by the National Environment and Management Authority to approve and issue license to the Lamu coal plant.

Mr Athman insisted on the need by the national government and the investor to fully engage the locals on issues concerning the coal plant instead of forcing the project on locals.

Is’haq Khatib, a member of Lamu Youth Alliance said Kenya cannot preach water and drink wine in the environmental preservation.

“They must practice what they preach in as far as environmental protection is concerned. The government should resist the urge to gamble with the lives of the Lamu people through the coal plant,”

Proponents of Lamu coal plant cite the numerous economical benefits the plant promises to usher in such as jobs for the locals and business opportunities that will mushroom around the plant while critics of the plant argue that the town's decade old history together with its delicate and diverse ecosystem risk going up in smoke and be lost forever. There is no easy answer in this prosperity verses  preservation debate but one thing is for certain though, the two sides need to look inwards and draw inspiration from Lamu's century long narrow streets and reach a delicate balance so that both sides can prosper without feeling like locked up in a filthy prison.

Things for certain are going to heat up even more as days go by and it remains to be seen who will be the last man standing.


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