What does “progress” look like? The answer depends on who’s doing the looking and who’s benefiting. For multinational corporations and many national governments, progress means foreign investment, industrialization and wage labor jobs. But for many rural communities and indigenous peoples, progress means land rights, formation of cooperatives, fair trade partnerships, and protection of communal resources like forests, rivers and wetlands.
The two competing and conflicting views of progress come into focus each year in January, when the richest corporations and governments meet at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. At the same time, an alternative gathering called the World Social Forum brings as many as 100,000 people together, representing civic organizations and social justice movements under the banner, “Another World is Possible.”
In January 2007, the World Social Forum took place in Kenya, where many communities are challenging the corporate definition of “progress.” One embattled community sent representatives to the Forum from their villages on the shores of Africa’s Lake Victoria, in a wetlands region called the Yala Swamp. At a people’s tribunal, Yala Swamp residents asked the international community to support their fight for their lands, their health and their right to decide what is progress and what is not.
A “Living Museum” of Biodiversity
The Yala Swamp is a vast wetland region (over 200 square km) which cleans and filters waters that flow into Lake Victoria from two major rivers. It has been called a “Living Museum” because it provides critical habitat for endangered fish species that have disappeared from Lake Victoria itself. The critically endangered Sitatunga Antelope finds refuge among the swamps’ papyrus. BirdLife International classifies the Yala Swamp among Kenya’s 60 “Important Bird Areas,” and a 2005 World Bank report concluded that the significance of the region’s biological diversity “cannot be stressed strongly enough.”
For centuries, thousands of families have depended on the wetland for clean water, fishing, grazing and agricultural land, and the papyrus that they weave into mats, baskets and thatch roofs. “We worked hard growing maize and bananas, raising cows and bees. I inherited my farm from my father and my forefathers. I have lived here all my life,” said John Ayila who testified at the World Social Forum. “One day I saw surveyors taking measurements on my land, then came the bulldozers. They slashed all my crops and they fenced me out of the lake where we used to fish. They built a dam and now the reservoir has submerged all my land, my beasts, my houses. When I protested to my MP (Member of Parliament), he said I should take the money and move away. I will not take their money. I want my home back.”
The Yala Swamp conflict started in 2003 when regional government authorities granted a 25-year lease for rice cultivation to Dominion Farms Ltd, a subsidiary of Dominion Group of Companies based in Edmond, Oklahoma USA. Authorities approved the company’s Environmental Impact Assessment specifically for rice irrigation in a 2,300 hectare-area (about 12% of the Yala Swamp territory). But almost immediately Dominion began building irrigation dikes 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.
According to a report by the Kenya Wetlands Forum, Dominion wants control over 65% of Yala Swamp for its expanded “integrated project.” Some of this area is privately owned by hundreds of families. Some of it is used communally, including the species-rich waters of Lake Kanyaboli which is critical for food security in the region. Action Aid Kenya and the Kenya Land Alliance say the company has in effect privatized the lake and public roads, blocking lake access to over 200 fishermen and impeding access to schools, markets and health clinics. Residents say their protests have been met forcibly with arrests and teargas.
Although no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had been approved for these additional Dominion enterprises, they were well underway in early 2006 when scientists in the Kenya Wetlands Forum undertook a “Rapid Assessment of the Yala Swamp Wetlands.” The scientists’ report raises hundreds of unanswered questions about Dominion Farms’ potential impacts on human health and the environment. Likely impacts cited in the report include altering the flow of Yala River, contamination of soils through oil leakages and spillage, pollution of the wetland ecosystem, loss of grazing land, lost of pristine fauna and flora through chemical use and aerial spraying, rising incidences of water- and vector-borne diseases, and social unrest. The report urges Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority to immediately close down all Dominion Farms activities and require new and independent EIAs to be conducted for each separate project proposed by the company.
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