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In Kenya, A Push for Land Rights That Benefit All Citizens

On a recent trip to Kenya, I reflected on the meaning of power and the impact of powerlessness when a Kenyan environmental activist shared the following insight: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. And if you’re on the menu, someone will eat you up.”

As president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS)—an international development and human rights organization—I’ve traveled to Kenya many times. It is among the world’s 30 poorest countries, with 46 percent of the population living below the poverty line. The majority of Kenya’s rural population relies on farming, fishing, or grazing, with villages and nomadic tribes clustering around the arid country’s few natural water sources. Many of these people are subsisting on the same crops and livestock that have fed their families for generations. But in the last several decades, a new threat to their livelihood has emerged—modern industry, and its hunger for salt, titanium, and oil.


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For more than 60 years, the Kenyan government has allowed development projects and mining companies to seize the land and water that Kenyans depend on for food in order to profit from minerals and oil beneath the surface. Some Kenyans have been entirely displaced from their homes. Others have had their farmlands ravaged and their livelihoods destroyed without receiving a penny of the mining companies’ profits. The government’s assumption is that Kenyan citizens—particularly the most vulnerable—have no right to know what’s going on. Or, if they do, they should just keep quiet.
These people are not at the table. But the resources that their lives depend upon are definitely on the menu.
In 2010, Kenya ratified a progressive constitution, which articulates that land and natural resources must benefit Kenyan citizens—not private developers or corporations. But there is no legislation to back this claim, and most Kenyans don’t know their own rights.
Despite these injustices, many Kenyan groups are organizing and stepping up to educate their communities about their land rights and to advocate for changes in government policies.

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Ikal Angelei, a young activist from northern Kenya who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, successfully halted the building of a hydroelectric dam that would have blocked the flow of water into a lake that sustains half a million indigenous people. To champion this cause, Ikal founded a grassroots organization called Friends of Lake Turkana, and her advocacy led several major corporations, including The World Bank, to withdraw their support for the dam.
Another organization known as the Kenya National Resources Alliance (KeNRA) came together in early 2012 to advocate for changes to a new mining policy that was being discussed in Parliament. The proposed policy stated that some revenue from Kenya’s mining industry would now go to local communities—but it failed to say which communities and how much. Advocates feared that the poor populations that lived on the land wouldn’t be compensated fairly.

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To try to improve this law, KeNRA convened a three-day meeting of representatives of community groups from 42 of Kenya’s 47 counties. Together, they drafted recommendations for strengthening the legislation and held a day of coordinated public demonstrations. With so many communities working together, the issue received news and TV coverage and became a matter of national interest.
It’s our job to listen to these activists and make sure that corporate interests do not take over people’s land. In pursuit of natural resources, human resources cannot be expendable. What’s more, citizens must be part of the conversations in which decisions get made; they must have seats at the table. Only then will the menu include the respect for human rights that Kenya sorely needs.
Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.\n
Top photograph courtesy Kenya Natural Resources Alliance, which advocates for the land rights of rural Kenyans; additional photographs of activist Ikal Angelei of AJWS grantee Friends of Lake Turkana speaks to local villagers about their struggle against the Gibe III dam courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.\n
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