In the last decade, Kenya has seen an expansion of large infrastructure projects and other large-scale land-based investments. The result has been rising pressure over land and the environment, often pitting the government, multinational companies, and local private sector actors against communities who depend on their customary lands and forests for daily survival.
In northern Kenya, oil exploration is just one driver of large-scale infrastructure projects. Oil exploration activities have expanded in the Kerio Valley in the Rift Valley region, where Kerio Valley Community Organization (KVCO), an RRI Collaborator, is based. The Rift is one of Kenya’s most populous regions with close to 13 million residents and is comprised of more than five distinct communities practicing diverse livelihoods: pastoralism, agro-pastoralism, farming, fishing, and hunting and gathering.
Local communities are resisting the oil exploration projects, attesting that the government and associated multinational corporations are violating their land rights. Seismic surveys and exploratory drilling have been conducted in the area without Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from the communities and without their requisite participation as enshrined in Kenya’s constitution.
The communities are accusing Tullow Oil and Delonex Energy of a host of rights violations, including: 1) ignoring their concerns; 2) failing to conduct an environmental impact assessment in good faith, resulting in findings that favored the company; 3) an inadequate land restoration policy; 4) destruction of local property; 5) contamination of environmental resources; and 6) the use of government administrative machinery to either coerce communities into accepting company demands or make unilateral decisions without consulting the communities who own the land.
Community consultation is an integral part of effective implementation of the 2016 Community Land Act and the Kenyan constitution. KVCO began engaging with these oil companies in 2013, and tried several strategies including dialogue, engagement with Kenyan oversight authorities, and legal action. However, none of these efforts resulted in any change. KVCO subsequently sought support from lawyers working pro bono at the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP), who later introduced them to the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP). With legal support from JCAP, KVCO then approached the International Finance Corporation Compliance Advisory Ombudsman (CAO) to address the communities’ grievances against the oil companies.
With RRI’s support throughout this process, KVCO has been laying the foundation for a mediation process that will be overseen by the CAO. Communities in Rift Valley are also demanding proper engagement with all key industry players before the further commencement of additional oil exploration activities in their territory.
In 2020, KVCO conducted meetings with its steering committee and with communities in five localities within the Kerio Valley region. Along with the local communities, it was able to identify mediators and observers, build understanding about the dynamics of oil exploration, and deliberate on the mediation process. They have now developed a mediation strategy paper which includes a plan for community engagement and a proposal for a Memorandum of Understanding between the communities and two oil companies.
The work has been well received by community members:
“As a member of this community and an advocate for just practices within communities, I want to appreciate the CAO for taking up this dispute which had dragged for over 7 years now. We as a community had been rendered hopeless with no one to listen to our grievances. Decisions have been imposed on us, our lands trampled on and our livelihoods affected. Some of us have had a resolve to speak for the voiceless, poor of the poor, the oppressed, those living [excluded] – we want to do our part of service to humanity.”
Lawrence Kiplagat, Community member & Projects Coordinator – KVCO
The long-term goal of the project is to establish a more meaningful and long-lasting relationship between the oil companies and local communities by enshrining community rights that allow both parties to avoid conflict, environmental problems, destruction of community resources, and resolve past grievances. This project also provides an excellent case study of pursuit of community self-determination for other communities engaged in the quest for sustainable land rights and justice.
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