Impresions From A Sojourn In Maasai Territory In Kenya

The morning was filled with much excitement as we plan to visit a Maasai community, not far away from Nairobi City in Kenya. For long, I heard Maasai leaders intervening in several indigenous peoples’ forums at the United Nations, but have not visited Maasai territories before. Members of the Working Group on Conflict and Fragility of CSO partnership for Development Effectiveness were able to visit the Maasai community members of Olkaria area on 8th March 2018 and to orient on pattern of conflict persisting among the Maasai people of Kenya and persisting challenges to their survival as peoples. The Maasai are one of the major indigenous peoples of Kenya, also inhabiting the Serengeti region of Tanzania. The traditional territories of the Maasai people are abundant with diversified wildlife and their way of life and cultures centered on their protracted affinity with nature and wildlife.

After crossing the highlands overlooking the Rift Valley, we entered into a territory close to the Naivasha Lake, where multiple agribusiness farms lined up, several with rose and other exotic flowers farms. As we reached the Hell’s Gate National Park managed by the Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS), an ominous sign warns us, “Those entering the park enter at their own risk and whatever happen, the WFS will not be responsible”. Why should a place on earth be referred to a hell? The Park located close to the Great Rift Valley spreading over 64 Sq. Km provokes a peculiar curiosity on the nomenclature.

As one drive through the park shortly, one will be greeted by the Giraffes, with the young ones curiously gazing on by-passers, a playful Impala fleeing to safety, zebras unwary of passing vehicles. Entering further in the park, close to an imposing landscape in the form of a massive Canyon, we reached the Maasai Olkaria Cultural Centre, a spot close to the National park with few make shift stall with Maasai artifacts and craft on display for sale. A team of Maasai, comprising several women, youths and elders greeted us. The traditional Maasai dark Red, green and blue striped attires worn by Maasai elderly men and woman presents a charming contrast to the lucid colors of the forest, the sky and the imposing landscape and gorges. The Maasai village settlement, which I wish to witness, is missing.


Maasai women walking past the fencing created by the Kenya Wildlife Services in their territory

As we interacted with the community leaders, the shrill roaring sound originating from various sites of the Geothermal Energy Projects, almost a kilometer from the Maasai Cultural Center, but within the Hell’s Gate National Park, is too loud and deafening. The loud sound is almost akin to the sound of a Jet Airplane booming in the sky continuously and disturbs our interaction with the Maasai elders.

Mr. Daniel Shaa, one of the elderly Maasai shared that long before, the Maasai people seek their livelihood and survival over a huge area of land and the Maasai had community ownership of land without any land titles. The British forcibly took land from the Maasai and pushed them to small areas of land to survive. Land taken from the Maasai are never returned even after Kenya’s independence from British. Land surrendered by Britishers was then grabbed by powerful elites who imposed land titles and continued with grabbing Maasai peoples land. Again, the remaining lands of the Maasai in Olkaria region near the Great Rift Valley are again converted into national parks and as sites for Geothermal Power Plants. Massive agribusiness, for instance, rose and other flower gardens for exports are also established by rich Kenyans and Dutch agribusiness farms units, leading to further alienation of land.  The Kenya Wildlife Services while seeking land from the Maasai for the Park, falsely promised them to share revenue from the National Park, but now after all their land are taken away by the park, KWS only imposed restrictions on their free access to the Park and prosecuted them for being in the park, a land that rightfully belonged to them for generations. The ongoing processes of fencing of the park area by the KWS that cuts through the Maasai Culture Centre, a small remnant of Fourteen (14) Acres is against their will and bereft of seeking their consent. This will further restricts their access to their land and disturb the small economic activity of Maasai women by trading their traditional crafts and artifact to park visitors. With their land alienated and their only survival sources extinguished, the Maasai people of Olkaria will further be impoverished and pushed to brink of survival.

Fumes emerging from the Geothermal Power Plant

Indeed, the geothermal energy projects, Olkaria I, Olkaria II, Olkaria III, commissioned in 2000, Olkaria IV, commissioned in 2014 are introduced inside the Maasai territory, now located within the Hell’s Gate National Park. In 2010, the European Investment Bank, together with the World Bank, Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW, Germany’s development bank), the French Development Agency and Japan International Cooperation Agency invested in the Olkaria V in further extension of the geothermal energy projects, Olkaria I and IV, involving the construction of additional 280 MW geothermal generation capacity. The African Development Bank, International Finance Corporation, USAID, Power Africa, US Overseas Private Investment Corporation also financed portion of the project. By 2016, Kenya was producing 544 MW of geothermal energy and the Government is embarking on initiatives to increase geothermal energy generation up to 1,110 MW by 2020.  With additional plans to set up and commission more geothermal projects in the area, the area will simply be inhabitable, not just due to the increased and deafening sounds but also due the multifaceted environmental impacts.

Ms. Esther Silom, a Maasai elderly woman from Olkaria also shared the suffering of Maasai people aggravated since the creation of Hell’s Gate National park and efforts to produce geothermal energy from Olkaria area in 1980s. She shared the entire land now covered by the National Park and the energy project belonged to them and protested the setting of the park and energy projects since 1971 for failing to respect their customary rights over land, their traditional institutions, failed to seek their consent and uprooted them to new relocation sites with no survival means and options.   She spoke of her long experience of struggle for land rights and survival of her family and retorted, “We are really oppressed”. Those who oppressed others need be considerate of other peoples’ survival rights. Maasai children go to school, but because of poverty and survival challenges, cannot attend higher education. As such, most continue to remain without employment and the loss of land only makes the survival options much more difficult. The women, elderly, disabled, the widows suffered most. She continued that the Maasai people are moved from good, flat, productive land to a place, barren, rocky and hard to survive, in the name of development. The world needs to listen to our realities, how difficult it is for us to survive. The single word ‘oppressed’, Ms. Esther mentioned, speaks volume of the oppression, state hegemony and collusion with neo-liberal forces to plunder peoples land and resources with sheer unaccountability. With limited representation in the Kenyan political arena, local and national politicians have no interest to attend to the issues, the rights concerns and expectations of the Maasai of Olkaria region.

Mr. Rasto Merige, another Maasai community member shared the commissioning of Olkaria Stage I to V has led to forced displacement of four indigenous Maasai villages and areas resettled in 1700 acre resettlement site, known as “RAP land”. The titles which had been offered in RAP land turned out to be leaseholds and therefore, do not constitute affected peoples’ ownership. The relocated Maasai people are required to payment of approximately 1700 US Dollars for the rehabilitation site in RAP land and Cultural Centre. The Maasai people lose their land and can no longer graze their cattle and thus directly affected their livelihood. Difficulty with access to water source, lack of infrastructure and school remains a challenge in RAP land. Women, elderly, widows and disabled suffered most.

Communities expressed concerns that the leasehold rather than community ownership of land titles will leave them in a precarious situation – requiring payment of an annual, revisable rent, and requiring permission for any significant changes to the land. The RAPland now represents a symbol of systematic destruction of the Maasai people’s way of life. The residents of Olkaria Maasai Cultural Centre, one of the villages that were relocated to RAP land are now restricted to only 14 acres of land and largely depended on cultural tourism, tour guide and sale of a variety of Maasai beads and artifacts. The Government and the company insisted on divide and rule policy to break the unity and social fabric of the Maasai, making it more conducive to seek alienation of their land. Indigenous way of life, culture and traditions has been disturbed completely in the forced rehabilitation at RAP land.

Community response and harassment: In addition to impacts on Maasai people livelihood, the Geothermal Energy projects led to environmental impacts, primarily on the wildlife in the park due to its location in a fragile ecosystem. The excavation for the project structures led to loss of habitat and interfered with bird breeding sites and the use of heavy equipment during geothermal development emitted uncontrolled noise. The discharge of brine from production wells have contaminated water and soil, increasing demand for water used for drilling geothermal wells, thus leading to over extraction of water from nearby Lake Naivasha, a Ramsar Site, for domestic and industrial purposes.

The International Financial Institutions (IFIs) investing in the project failed to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights and to implement safeguard policies to mitigate multifaceted impacts.  Representatives of the affected Villages filed a complaint with the World Bank Inspection Panel and the EIB Complaints Mechanism on project implications from failures to comply their safeguard policies in the resettlement process. The affected people raised social and environmental concern due to the development of Olkaria V with financing by JICA. On 8 February 2017, community members raised these concerns in a protest outside the Nairobi offices of JICA and KenGen. In response, on 15 February 2017, KenGen filed charges to the High Court of Kenya in Nakuru against members of Four Maasai villages.

Observation and commentaries:   After listening to Ms. Esther and other Maasai leaders in Olkaria area, the fascination of the wildlife and the landscape one witnessed while entering the park, now unraveled a reality that increasingly pressed the Maasai in the periphery of survival and that propagate the Maasai as the offender and enemy in their own land. The true meaning of the nomenclature as Hell’s Gate Park, seems fully revealed, after the Maasai peoples prosperous land now been transformed into an inhabitable, hostile place riddled with inhumane, merciless, greedy, undemocratic practices unleashed by the corporate with State oppression of Maasai people. It is highly unfortunate that the Maasai people are completely driven out from their traditional territory by Agri-Business farming companies, National Park, Geothermal Power Plants, with such processes facilitated by financial institutions.

The tensions and conflict among the indigenous peoples of Olkaria and the Kenyan State that deepens its collusion with multinational companies and IFIs is deepening. The overwhelming focus to advance the business interest of the latter while conscripting the community rights space is a clear testimony as to how development effectiveness principles, encompassing human rights, ecological sustainability, gender equality, accountability etc are all undermined. What’s happening in Olkaria region is just a repeat of the European colonial exploitation of Africa centuries back, but this time with a modus operandi of clearly established principles of free market under World Trade Organization by neoliberal forces, legitimizing the loot and plunder of resources from the developing countries like Kenya. Developing States like Kenya are just reduced to an instrument and mechanism to cater to the interest of developed countries and their corporations. But, the ultimate question is can a nation gain progress by pauperizing its own people, like the Maasai in Kenya? How can such exploitative process be projected as development?

Most unfortunately, the ones involved in the controversial Olkaria Geo-thermal Energy projects are also the ones increasingly involved in the financing of extractive industries, hydropower projects, infrastructures projects etc in Manipur and across India’s North East. JICA is preparing to finance the 66 MW Loktak Downstream Project and the Imphal Water Supply Project from Mapithel dam and also other road projects, such as the Imphal Moreh road project etc that will also facilitate building more controversial dams to aggravate land loss and violation of indigenous peoples rights in Manipur. The liming mining by Lafarge in Meghalaya with financing by European Investment Bank, the International Financial Corporation, Asian Development Bank etc has led to multifaceted violations of indigenous peoples rights. The German financial arm, the KFW is also preparing to finance protection of Forest and Wetlands in Manipur for climate change adaptation. But there’s concern the move will insist on conversation measures and introducing false climate change solutions, like the REDD+ which has proved controversial across the world. The collusion of Indian State, Developed countries, Corporations and IFIs to facilitate plunder indigenous peoples land and resources while suppressing their rights has become an alarming concern across India’s North East region.

With focus on private sector development and increased liberalization of economy, Manipur will be just reduced to another African State, fragile, afflicted with multiple conflicts, neck deep in corruption and indebtedness arising out of increased loan for development projects. The increase case of authoritarian regime, instability, fragility seems to be a deliberate creation to foster an enabling environment, political, legal etc for multinational companies to promote their market and profit. The question is whether the EIB, KFW, JICA, USAID, AFD funds projects in NE really care for development of people in the region or for very different reasons, including for commercial gains. The testimonies of the realities of conflict and fragility, rights violation, environment destruction, unaccountability of states & correlations with IFI financings, widening gap of inequality simply testified the development intervention, politics and strategies of development countries and facilitation of States is simply problematic. While situation aggravates and complicates and survival challenges gets worsened such as in Olkaria Area among Maasai, rich developed gets more and more developed. The dominant system becomes too exploitative leading to an increased impoverishment and inequality among communities.

Another question is as the economy, societies and political power of developed countries grow, will the situation of indigenous peoples like Maasai, whose survival is increasingly conscripted and forced out by the global unjust system and State’s hegemony and corruptive practices, ever improve? Should we allow the flourishing of people from rich countries at the cost of extinction of marginalized, indigenous peoples of Kenya or in Manipur for that matter? The same question is pertinent for Manipur, where the neoliberal forces and the Government of India unleashed politics of economic and political domination, expropriation of resources with militarism. Should we allow the indigenous peoples to cease to exist as peoples? There’s an inherent problem with this development model pursued.

For Kenya’s indigenous peoples, colonialism and imperialist practices finds much relevance even after the British left the Kenyan hinterlands. Even after Kenya’s independence. Maasai peoples’ land is consolidated and only possesses by the new political class, which indigenous peoples have no space. Only consolidating and continuing the British policies of domination, dispossession, oppression and human rights violations is antithesis to the development of indigenous peoples. How is the Kenyan state different from the colonial powers, the British? The same question is also an issue one need to be raised in Manipur, again a British territory before? Colonial policies pursued today, security and development, is simply continued, worsening with more capitalist countries, teaming up for collective raids and plunder in far flung frontiers, cordoned off from the practice of democracy, justice and human rights.

Despite the challenges, the Maasai Peoples standing up for their rights, taking the case to the Government challenging them in courts and challenging the unaccountability and exploitative financing by financial institutions, multilateral banks etc, present much hope. Especially the persistence and consistent efforts to reclaim their land to seek justice and to correct the arbitrations by IFIs and developed countries, despite the threats and harassment presents much hope for the Maasai and similarly for many other politically and economically disposed and struggling peoples. This is also an opportunity for IFIs, donor countries, MNCs and the State itself to reflect on their flaws of development model propagated within Indigenous territories and to improve in terms of recognition of rights of Indigenous peoples, full-fledged compliance to human rights standards and compliance with development effectiveness principles. Gone are the days when power and might rule the roost where the rights regime is nonexistent. In the world of so called democracy, any inhumane practices and those propagating undemocratic practices are simply a bane of the society.

States should ensure the full respect for indigenous peoples’ way of life, their survival relationship with their land and their right to free, prior and informed consent for any development decision affecting their land, resources, rights and future. Any intimidation or reprisal against development challenged people seeking rights and justice from corporate bodies, the IFIs and the State should be withdrawn. Decimation  and complete annihilation of indigenous peoples, alienating from their land and survival sources and pushing them to brink of survival, extinguishing the future of their generations can never be considered as true development, as hence must be rescinded.


Article and Photos by Jiten Yumnam |