Their solution. Grow lots of sugar cane, which would help reduce their need to import over 200 thousand tonnes of sugar a year, and relieve their dependency on oil by producing considerable amounts of sugar cane bio fuel for Kenya’s vehicles.
The Government of Kenya wants to convert 20 thousand hectares in the vast Tana River wetland delta on the Indian Ocean coast into sugar cane plantations.
The 350 million dollar plan has pitted ancient tradition against development, environment against big business and traditional nomads up against large scale agriculture.
The government of Kenya has partnered with one the countries largest millers, Mumias, into changing the delta to plantations and refineries that would produce sugar at the rate of 8 thousand tonnes a day and distill 23 million liters of ethanol a year from the sugar cane by-product molasses.
The government and Mumias offer a promise that the project will be beneficial to one the nation’s poorest regions, creating 20 thousand direct and indirect jobs while reducing the price of sugar and fuel.
Some of the locals are not impressed.
“If the delta is planted with sugar, we will run out of grazing land for our cattle.” said Bile Bundit, a local leader. Bundit and others made their pleas to the Nairobi government officials sent to sell the concept of sugar cane plantations to the local communities.
As the government officials sat under makeshift sack cloth awnings they nervously watched the crowd in front of them waving placards protesting their plans.
Critics and some local leaders say that the government’s concept to implement sugar cane plantations into the Tana Delta, one the world’s most pristine and bio-diverse wetlands, could have serious consequences on both local traditions and global warming.
“We cannot just start messing around with the wetland because we need bio fuel and sugar,” said Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan Nobel Laureate and environmentalist.
Globally wetlands account for less than 5 percent of the Earth’s land mass, but they contain over 25 percent of the world’s carbon, as much carbon that is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere.
As the Kenyan sugar cane project sales force moved into the northern reaches of the delta they had a more receptive welcome.
The people of Pokomo region are crop farmers, unlike their southern cattle raising neighbors, they were cheering the arrival of sugar cane plantations.
“There are a few people protesting, but the majority want the project,” said Fred Guma, Kenya’s Minister of Regional Development.
Minister Guma is committed to seeing that the sugar cane project in the Tana River delta succeeds.
He had a receptive audience among the people of Pokomo. They greeted the government delegation with dances and songs that urged the government delegation to hurry with the sugar cane project.
The Tana River population has one of the lowest literacy rates in Kenya, according to 2006 government survey. The region is also one of the poorest in the nation.
The Delta people may not have the advantage of formal education but they have extensive traditional knowledge about their local eco systems.
“Irrigation will interfere with the natural flow of water of the water in the delta and it will affect fish breeding sites,” said a local resident, Mualidi Diwayu.
“The project will catapult the area into the era of modern society,”said Evans Kidero, the CEO of the milling company Mumias, the major private partner in the Kenya sugar plantation plan
Kenya’s High Court could perhaps rule otherwise. The Court has issued a temporary halt to the project pending a judicial review.
The government has stated that the Tana sugar cane project will proceed and help bring the people of the delta closer to the living standard of the rest of nation.
“Life is changing. You either change or life will change you,” said Evans Kidero, CEO of Mumias.