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Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Real estate developers V. small farmers.
Spinach, carrots, kale, cabbages, tomatoes, maize, legumes and tubers are plentiful in the village of Ngangarithi, a landscape awash in green, intersected by clean, clear streams that local children play in. Ngangarithi, home to just over 25,000 people, is part of Nyeri County located in the Central Highlands, nestled between the eastern foothills of the Abadare mountain range and the western hillsides of Mount Kenya. Farmers who have lived here for generations not only grow enough food to sustain their families, they also feed the entire community, and comprise a vital link in the nation’s food supply chain. Taking away their land, they say, will have far-reaching consequences: central Kenya is considered one of the country’s two breadbaskets – the other being the Rift Valley – largely for its ability to produce plentiful maize harvests.
The community’s worst fears came to pass this January, when several smallholder families “awoke to find markers demarcating land that we had neither sold nor had intentions to sell.” The markers, in the form of concrete blocks, had been erected at intervals around communal farmland, fields that able-bodied young men in the village had to use machetes and hoes to dig them out. Now a powerful real estate developer in Nyeri County had placed these markers on the perimeters of the land it intended to convert into commercial buildings. Kenya’s real estate market has witnessed a massive boom in the last seven years. Kenya is now the fifth largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa behind Nigeria, South Africa, Angola and Sudan.”
The villagers took to the streets to demonstrate against what they perceived to be a grab of their ancestral land. The developers had attempted to cordon off a stream that the village relied on for fresh water. The villagers’ determination to resist developers has caught the attention of experts closer to the policy-making nucleus in Nairobi, many of whom are adding their voices to a growing debate on the meaning of sustainability.
“We cannot have people coming here and driving us off our land,” a resident named Paul Njogu told IPS. “We will show others that they too can refuse to be shoved aside by powerful forces.” “I was given this land by my grandmother some 20 years ago,” he added. “This is my ancestral home and it is also my source of livelihood – by growing crops, we are protecting our heritage, ensuring food security, and creating jobs.” He continued “I am not fighting for myself but for my children. I am 85 years old, I have lived my life, but my great-grandchildren need a place to call home.”
Big business are currently on a spree of identifying and acquiring whatever lands possible, by whatever means possible. It is a lucrative industry, with many winners. The biggest losers, however, are humble farmers who comprise the bulk of this country of 44 million people – according to the Ministry of Agriculture, an estimated five million out of about eight million Kenyan households depend directly on agriculture for their livelihoods. The land rush also represents a threat to an ancient way of life.
David Owiro, programme officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a local think tank, told IPS, “Kenya’s land and property market is growing exponentially.” His analysis finds echo in a report by HassConsult and Stanlib Investments released in January this year, which found that the scramble for land in this East African nation is due to the fact that land has delivered the highest return of all asset classes in the last seven years, up 98 percent since 2007. Land prices in the last four years have risen at twice the rate of cattle and four times the rate of property, while oil and gold prices have fallen over the same period, researches added. Advertised land prices have risen 535 percent, from an average of 330,000 dollars per acre in 2007 to about 1.8 million dollars per acre today. According to Owiro of the IEA, a growing demand for commercial enterprises and high-density housing in the capital and its surrounding suburban and rural areas is largely responsible for the price rise. The resident population of Nairobi is two million, it swells during the workday to three million, as workers from neighbouring areas flood the capital. This commuter workforce is a major driver of demand for additional housing.
In a country where 1.5 million people experience food insecurity every year, according to statistics pushing farmers further to the margins by separating them from their land makes little economic sense. Furthermore, encroachment by real estate developers into Kenya’s wetlands flies in the face of sustainable development, given that the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) has identified Kenya’s wetlands as ‘vital’ to its agriculture and tourism sectors, and has urged the country to protect these areas, rich in biodiversity, as part of its international conservation obligations. Already the impacts of real estate development are becoming plain: the difference between Ngangarithi village and the village directly opposite, separated only a by a road, has the villagers on edge. “On our side you will see it is all green: spinach, kale, carrots, everything grows here,” Njogu said. “But the land overlooking ours is now a town.”
Wilfred Subbo, an expert on sustainable development and a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, told IPS that a strong GDP is not synonymous with sustainability. “But a community being able to meet its needs of today, without compromising the ability of its children to meet their own needs tomorrow, [that] is sustainable development,” he asserted. According to Subbo, when a community understands that they can “resist and set the development agenda, they are already in the ‘future’ – because they have shown us that there is an alternative way of doing business.” Subbo concluded “Land is a finite resource. We cannot turn all of it into skyscrapers.”
The attempt to seize farmers’ land in Ngangarithi village reveals, in microcosm, the pitfalls of an economic model that is based on valuing the profits of a few over the well-being of many.