Impressions 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’ (IPs) forums at the United Nations, but have not visited Maasai territories before. Members of the Working Group on Conflict and Fragility of CPDE were able to visit the Maasai community members of Olkaria area on 8th March 2018 and to orient on pattern of conflict and challenges persisting among the Maasai people of Kenya and their story to survive. The Maasai is one of the major IP 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.

We have reached an imposing canyon leading to the Maasai Olkaria Cultural Centre, a spot close to the national park with few make shift stalls 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. 

As we interacted with the community leaders, a shrill roaring sound akin to the sound of a jet 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 disturbs our interaction with the Maasai elders.

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 the British was then grabbed by power 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 project sites for geothermal power plants.

Massive agribusiness, for instance, flowers for export are also established by rich Kenyans and Dutch agribusinesses, leading to further alienation of land.  The Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) while seeking land from the Maasai for the park, falsely promised them to share revenue from the national park. 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 14  acres is against their will and bereft of seeking their consent. This will further restrict their access to their land and disturb small economic activities of traditional crafts done by Maasai women. 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.

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, 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 the 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.

Esther Silom, a Maasai elderly woman from Olkaria also shared the suffering of Maasai people that 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 and for the failure of their traditional institutions to seek their consent and for uprooting them to new relocation sites with no means of survival means and alternative livelihoods.  

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 lamented that the Maasai people are moved from good, flat, productive land to a barren and rocky land in the name of development. “The world needs to listen to our realities, how difficult it is for us to survive”, says Esther. The single word ‘oppressed’, she says, speaks volume of the oppression, state hegemony and collusion with neo-liberal forces to plunder peoples land and resources without accountabilities. With limited representation in the Kenyan political arena, local and national politicians have no interest to attend to the issues of the Maasai of Olkaria region.

The commissioning of Olkaria Stage I to V has led to forced displacement of four indigenous Maasai villages and areas resettled site, known as “RAP land”, a 1700 acre resettlement which turned out to be leaseholds and therefore, do not constitute affected peoples’ ownership. The relocated Maasai people are required to payment of approximately $US 1,700 for the rehabilitation site. The Maasai people lost their land and can no longer graze their cattle and other forms of 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.

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 IP 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.

The tensions and conflict among the IPs of Olkaria and the Kenyan State that deepens its collusion with multinational companies and IFIs are 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, and accountability 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 neoliberal principles and mechanisms that legitimizes the loot and plunder of resources from the developing countries like Kenya that are simply 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 geothermal energy projects are also the ones increasingly involved in the financing of extractive industries, hydropower projects, infrastructures projects in Manipur and across India’s north east.

 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 present 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 IPs, full-fledged compliance to human rights standards and compliance with development effectiveness principles. 

States should ensure the full respect for IPs 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. Corporate bodies, the IFIs and the State must stop supporting development projects Any intimidation or reprisal against people challenging so-called development projects seeking rights and justice from should be withdrawn. Decimation and complete annihilation of IPs, 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.


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