A village in the way of progress

Poverty, alcoholism and prostitution are part of everyday life in a small, impoverished Northern Kenyan village that was resettled to pave the way for the Lake Turkana Wind Power project. The community expected jobs and benefits, but 10 years after the project’s inception, it is shadowed by frustration over unemployment, alcoholism, prostitution and alledged illegal land acquisition. Danwatch went to Sarima.

The cradle of humankind along the shores of Lake Turkana looks like a dump. Beer, soda and liquor bottles have plastered the entrance along with other garbage: the first tangible sign of thriving social protest in the village Sarima. A barbed wire fence is the second sign. The fence was allegedly built to keep wild animals and hostile tribes away, not to keep people in. The entrance is wide open, but still a few child-sized gaps in the fence show the route for children playing with their siblings amidst garbage and boulders in the whirling dust.

Fences or boundaries of any kind are not part of the traditional culture of the Turkana and Samburu tribes who inhabit the corridor between Mt Kulal and Lake Turkana, not always in peaceful coexistence. The first evidence of tribal conflicts between hunter/gatherer communities stems from the early Holocene period, more than 12,000 years ago.

The story in brief

  • The village of Sarima was resettled by the Kenyan government and the multimillion-euro Lake Turkana Wind Power project to make way for 365 wind turbines constructed by Danish company Vestas
  • Danwatch has conducted 24 interviews with ethnic groups in Sarima and the catchment area, Gatab, Loiyangalani, Kargi and Marsabit. Most communities approve of the wind power project, but allegations about lack of public consultations before their land was leased to Lake Turkana Wind Power project has been raised. The land rights issue is now in court
  • An influx of people with expectations for jobs have led to unemployment, prostitution, alcoholism in Sarima
  • The consortium does not recognize 3 out of 4 tribes as indigenous peoples, and therefore they are not given rights as such in the project. The tribes, Turkanas, Samburus, Rendille and El Molo are however recognised as indigenous peoples by The African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights as well as experts interviewed by Danwatch
  • Experts in IFC Standards, indigenous peoples rights and land rights in Kenya say to Danwatch that the wind power project is not in compliance with neither IFC Performance Standards, nor international human rights standards

Together with the tribes, Rendille and El Molo, the Turkanas and Samburus use the land for their livelihoods, cultural, ceremonial and spiritual purposes. This area is used by the tribes as a traditional site for performing a rite of passage ceremony and for confirmation of the warriors one year after circumcision, but primarily it is used for grazing during dry season. The tribes are nomads who live wherever their cattle are pastured. Their houses, manyattas, are carefully woven with sticks, and are light enough to pack onto a donkey and leave a place within a few days.

In many ways, the windy shoreline of Lake Turkana is an unrivaled archive of human history, containing the longest and most complete record of over 27 million years of human ancestry, according to the National Museum of Kenya. These tribes have always struggled to survive and the present is no exception.

Living conditions are harsh in Northern Kenya, where nomadic communities are supported by international and governmental aid and have the very few possibilities for education and jobs. The area is institutionally weak and people are marginalized, so poverty has prevailed for decades and until now.

In this corridor, the wind blows more than anywhere in Europe, which is why the wind turbines are about to be built here, where they are expected to produce an estimated 15-20% more power for all Kenyans. This is why an international consortium, connected to a number of European, American and African investors, has decided to construct 365 wind turbines and thereby significantly increase the production of power in Kenya. In order to set up the wind turbines, approximately 1180 Turkanas living in Sarima, had to be resettled 1,5 km away from the project site – at least for a while. Once the wind power project is operational, grazing will be possible around the clusters of turbines, the consortium say. This is contested by the ngo CORDAID that works in the area:

”The livestock activities are likely to be disturbed by both construction, presence of wind turbines and operations in the area”, says Alba Espinoza Rocca, Programme Officer in CORDAID.

”Communities have much more to lose than to win from this project. Due to the aridity of this area, vegetation is scanty, but the existing sparse vegetation plays an important role in maintenance of life in the project area and its surroundings. This is the resource upon which the pastoralist and their livestock population depend on for their survival”, she says.

Danish wind power company Vestas is a part of the Lake Turkana Wind Power project, which came to the area in 2006, promising jobs, education and health care. But the expectations of wage employment in very poor Northern Kenya led to an influx of people, mainly Turkanas, so today, approximately 2000 Turkana people live in Sarima. Today, as the wind turbines are being constructed day by day, the consortium is in court over illegal land acquisition, and the village of Sarima, resettled to pave the way for sustainable development, is flooded with newcomers looking for employment, and the community is suffering from negative impacts such as alcoholism and prostitution. What happens to traditional pastoralists communities, when opportunities knocks? How does an international consortium handle social and environmental impacts, which Kenya’s biggest private investment ever might cause?

Map of the project area and the region used by the tribes for grazing area and
ceremonial purposes, they say.

An idea is born

The burning heat of the early afternoon sun matches the intensity of the blowing winds in this barren landscape on which nothing grows except the countably few stunted trees. Surrounded by dark grey volcanic earth, the turquoise water of Lake Turkana – the world’s largest permanent desert lake and Kenya’s biggest salt water lake – reflects the sky and provides a backdrop for hundreds of camels herded by young boys.

The land, the sun and the wind. Natural resources represent what little currency there is in this part of Kenya, and this is the reason foreign direct investors saw opportunities in Lake Turkana in 2005.

In the windy corridors between Lake Turkana and Mt Kulal, a Dutch entrepreneur in wind power projects, Harry Wassenaar, and his acquaintance, Willem Dolleman, had an idea. They ran pre-feasibility studies and found out that wind turbines on the shores of the lake could generate enough clean energy to increase Kenya’s total production of energy by 15 to 20 percent. This means enough renewable energy to power over 900,000 homes annually in a country, where 35 million people have no access to electricity, the consortium says to Danwatch.

The next year, the Lake Turkana Wind Power project was founded, and a few years later, investments worth hundreds of millions of euros started rolling in. The timing was perfect. For decades, green energy plans for Kenya, known as the Vision 2030 strategy, had been on the agendas of several presidents. As political stability and economic growth increased, foreign direct investors began to pay attention to infrastructure projects in Kenya. In 2012, the LAPSSET plan “for a just and prosperous Kenya” was launched by Mwai Kibaki, the former Kenyan president.

This infrastructure plan includes a new transport corridor connecting the Kenyan port of Lamu with Ethiopia and South Sudan (LAPSSET) via railways and roads, and an oil pipeline, as well as the establishment of three resort cities. One of them, the Lake Turkana Resort, will be built within the next few years.

In this political context, the Lake Turkana Wind Power project was a natural flagship project for the Kenyan government, says Amina Hashi, a land rights expert and lawyer. We meet in her office in Nairobi, where Hashi and Roger Sagana are working to represent the plaintiffs in the case of Laisamis Constituency and Karare Ward vs. Lake Turkana Wind Power project, Marsabit County Council and the Kenyan government. This court case, filed years after the project’s inception, is shadowing the great wind energy plan with allegations of illegal land acquisition.

“We are all moving towards green energy and we know of course that means large-scale acquisition of land,” Hashi says.

“In Kenya as we speak right now, the only land available to host large scale land based investments is on community land (former trust land), since this land is about 60 percent of the land in Kenya. This land is largely held under customary tenure system, and ownership of this land is communal, rights to this land are ancestral and no formal titling has happened to a substantial chunk of this land since independent Kenya. Furthermore, the irony is that now the land is endowed with abundance in resources on the land, under the land and over the land, yet it lags behind in development and provision of basic services by government. Lawyers representing communities are not ”getting in the way of development” or objecting these development agendas, all we ask is sobriety and legal compliance in the acquisition of land and qualitative involvement of the communities as they are”.

“Trust land” or “community land” is land held in trust by local counties on behalf of the communities living there. The only way to get your hands on trust land is to begin a formal process of setting the land apart – in short by privatising it, Hashi explains.

”In community land, the way to acquire this land is through conversion of this land from community land to either private land by setting apart or to public land through compulsory acquisition. We must understand that community land is akin private land to the members of that community”.

This brings us back to Wassenaar and Dollemann’s great idea. On November 20, 2006, the Lake Turkana Wind Power project sent an application for the lease of 100,000 acres of land to Marsabit County Council. The year after, on August 13, 2007, the land lease was approved by Marsabit County Council and needed only final approval from The National Land Commission before it was ready to go.

But not everyone from the affected communities agreed or were even consulted about the deal, says a vocal member of Marsabit County Council Assembly and Chair of the Lands, Energy and Urban Development Committee.

“There was no consultation in the communities before the land was set apart”, he says. This technicality could prove to be critical a decade later.

High hopes for jobs

In the village of Sarima, the process of how the communities gave up their land is old news and almost forgotten. A reggae tune comes from one of the manyattas, over which a small sign says “Nightclub and hotel”. Along with manyattas covered in vodka and beer carton boxes. It is noon and already young men are drinking beer and hanging out. There is little else to do here, they say.

”Why are the young men hanging around here all day, drinking alcohol and fighting?” a young man asks rhetorically.

Night club and hotel, a new thing in Samira village.

For hundreds of years, pastoralist men in Northern Kenya have been raising cattle to sustain the family from a very young age. The women take care of their siblings and housework, fetching water and firewood from miles away until they get married often at quite a young age to an older man with one or more wives and have their own family.

Today about 60% of the tribes have an income, where 55% keep livestock and only 5% have wage employment. The remaining 40% do not have a source of income according to the consortium Resettlement Action Plan from 2015, which is why the settlement is listed on the government’s ‘Relief Food Register’ as well as USAID and Red Cross and receives aid every month.

This was life along the shores of Lake Turkana until the wind power project came along. Many of the Turkanas now living in Sarima are immigrants, who have come here from far away to apply for jobs with the wind power project.

In many ways, pastoralists are vulnerable to influx from other communities, says Birgitte Feiring, adviser on sustainable development at the Institute for Human Rights in Copenhagen:

“Pastoralists have developed a way of life that is adapted to extreme conditions. Especially in vulnerable areas like Northern Kenya, which is very dry and where climate change is exacerbating a situation that is difficult already. They are nomadic, and they move around with the animal live off, to exploit the scarce resources in a flexible manner”, Feiring says.

This situation was anticipated by LTWP in a stakeholder engagement plan: “Uncontrolled influx may include: Vulnerable unemployed people, particularly young adults, who are already disadvantaged and whose condition worsens as a result of moving into the area,” the plan says. Around 183 families, which is approximately 1180 people, were scheduled to resettle to the new location for Sarima 1.5 km away according to the consortium’s Resettlement Action Plan from 2014.

A couple of children from the village of Samira look through the fence around the village

The tribes are still allowed to pass the land, which now belongs to Lake Turkana Wind Power project and when construction of the turbines are done in 2017, they can use it for grazing their cattle. But a lot of the Turkanas living in Sarima today don’t raise cattle; they came here for employment and their expectations collide with the consortium’s ability to absorb all job seekers. To many of the Turkanas the situation is getting desperate.

“Michael”, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: ”I applied for a job three times last year. If I don’t get one, my daughter will soon have to go to sleep without food. But they don’t give feedback. They just say, we’ll come back if there is a job.”

Ekomwa Benedict, a 20-year-old student at South Eastern Kenya University, now living in Sarima, says:

“They told the community that they would provide them with jobs, but as of now more than 200 youths are languishing in poverty in the village, without any means to get food.” Today, approximately 2000 men, women and children live here, and as of March 2016, 92 persons from Sarima are employed by Lake Turkana Wind Power project, mainly in security or construction according to the consortium’s job database.

The pastoralists still survive from what little cattle they have, but the influx from other villages has made it increasingly difficult for both newcomers and original residents to make a living. Frustration is understandable, if you are young and live in rural areas in Kenya a job is hard to get. In these areas wage employment is almost non-existent, according to a 2013 UN Development Programme report. Ironically, frustration over unemployment came with the project, which is the largest employer in the region, they say:

“The number of staff working on a construction project will vary over the course of a project’s implementation. LTWP is the largest employer in the region and has to date employed more than 2,000 people, a substantial portion of whom have come from local communities in the area”, the consortium say to Danwatch.

But the project cannot employ everyone, and as a result new ways of getting food on the table has found its way to Sarima.

“This already vulnerable region and communities will never recover from such a violent intervention”, says Alba Espinoza Rocca from CORDAID, a Dutch ngo working in 43 countries, in Northern Kenya specifically with the pastoralist program and the process of self determination. CORDAID has been following the Lake Turkana Wind Power project for years.

”The influx of people in the project area and the environs is likely to increase the incidences of diseases between Marsabit and Lolyangalai. The entry of commercial sex workers into the project area is creating a risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS of project activities, which will devastate the already fragile communities”, Rocca says.

“Prostitution is here now”

Only a few rays of sunlight pass through the ceiling of the carefully woven manyatta. In the dim light, two women are sitting on a bench made of shipping pallets. They are waiting for us in here, hiding from curious eyes and ears. One of the women slowly nods her head.

“Prostitution is here now,” she says.

She looks surprised when asked whether she has heard about a HIV/AIDS awareness campaign sponsored by the wind power project.

“I have never heard about any education in HIV/AIDS or protection … and so many people are coming from outside, what will happen?”

Lake Turkana Wind Power project anticipated this years ago:

“Sex trade workers are not identified currently within the Project area of influence but may migrate or be trafficked into the area once construction works commence,” a Stakeholder Engagement Plan states.

And this is what had happened. The men that have jobs now, they have money to pay for sex, and the women with no jobs or cattle have to make a living for themselves and their children.


The second young woman on the bench is ”Violet”, who wishes to be anonymous. She is wrapped in orange cloth and wears no beads around her neck or jewelry flashing from her ears, as Turkana woman traditionally do. Violet is 30 years old and the mother of four children. She came here about a year ago, encouraged by the prospects of a job but haven’t been employed yet.

“Yes, there is prostitution here, and I don’t blame the people who engage in that,” she says.

“There are a lot reasons why people would do that. I am a parent to four children. My husband was a police officer, but he left me for another woman, so I live by myself. I came here because the wind power project promised jobs. When I came, they were living in another village, and when they were resettled, I moved with them. Many people here are from other places as far away as Mombasa and Nairobi; they have come here for jobs. Now I have applied three times, but I still haven’t got a job. I would do anything, waitress, cleaning, whatever comes up,” she says, fiddling her hands.

She speaks in hushed tones, clearly affected by her desperate situation. Then her voice becomes stronger and her words toughen as she describes the unbearable aspects of parenthood and poverty.

“Every day is survival. The stress you get, when you know that every call is about a child that needs something to eat. Some people deal with it with alcohol, some with prostitution, so at least you get some money. That is the stress young people are facing. Some people don’t care about their life anymore, you see them just lying on the ground.”

In a statement to Danwatch, the consortium write: “LTWP acknowledges that alcoholism and prostitution also impact the community negatively. We are committed to working with the government and the local community to address them. To date LTWP has supported the provision of HIV awareness training and testing within the communities and the workplace. Discussions are also underway with the county to increase access to health services”.