Text by Carlo Manalansan
Photos by Tom Weerachat
“When people participate, they know what they want and take charge of the development process.” — Chrisphine Owalla, Community Initiative and Action Group (CIAG) Kenya
For years, the Luo tribe, the 4th largest tribe in Kenya, has been practicing subsistence living in their natural environment in Yala Swamp. The wetland does not only serve as home for the Luo Tribe, but also as a sacred shrine where they hold cultural activities and praying rituals. It also serves as a pharmacy where Luo people get local herbal medicines. Rare species of animals and fish could be found in the swamp making it a museum for community members. As a significant habitat for endangered fish and birds, the swamp is recognized by environmentalists as one of the richest and biologically essential ecosystems in East Africa.
To support their livelihood, Luo people are commonly involved in agriculture, fishery, animal husbandry, and handicrafts. They grow maize, beans, sorghum, and millet. Women and children take part in harvesting papyrus and sisal which they transform into rough mats and baskets.
The unabated human and environmental rights challenges
Over the past two decades, the people in Yala swamp were confronted with serious challenges affecting their lives and livelihood. In 2003, Dominion Farms Ltd. entered the Yala swamp by virtue of a 25-year lease contract granted by the Kenyan government. The contract covers rice farming and irrigation in 2,300 hectares or about 12 percent of the total area of the wetland. Immediately after the contract was awarded, the company began building irrigation dikes, weirs, airstrips, and road systems. According to the villagers, the construction has disrupted the natural flow of water causing flooding, particularly in the community’s farmlands.
Soon after, Dominion Farms Ltd. expanded its operations to almost 65 percent of the wetland. The expansion of the company’s operations has greatly damaged the fragile ecosystem, communal areas, and privately owned lands. Communities complained about the company’s use of aerial spraying on rice farms and fish cages which negatively impacted the environment and health of the people. Chicken and other animals died, grass and soil were damaged, and people caught skin diseases and other illnesses. The villagers believed that the aerial spraying was responsible for the pollution of the community’s source of water.
Furthermore, the presence and actual operations of the company have enforced rights violations, particularly on people’s access to sources of subsistence, livelihood, and sacred sites. When the company eventually privatized the wetland and roads, over 200 fishermen were denied and had limited access to social services such as markets, health clinics, and schools for their children. “They prohibited our access to the lake. We became refugees in our home and farmland,” said a villager from Kadenge. This resulted in conflict between the people and the company that led to the withdrawal of Dominion Farms Ltd in 2018 which was later declared insolvent.
When Dominion Farms Ltd pulled out from the community, hundreds of thousands of residents thought and were hopeful that the government would restore the livelihoods of the people, unblock access to water by redesigning the dam, reclaim submerged farmlands, and address the spreading of water-borne diseases. Unfortunately, none of these came into reality. Worst, the company charged the property to a bank that later transferred the balance of a total of 99 years — 8 remaining years from the previous contract and an additional 91 years — to Lake Agro company which intended to grow sugarcane and rear beef. This has sparked a new controversy and conflict.
From Dominion Farms Ltd to Lake Agro, both have foreign investments, many have been displaced as the conflict arising from transferring the management of the land to another company at the expense of the community. The project has not benefited the communities, especially the poorest segments. Rather, the poor communities have had to shoulder the adverse effects of environmental degradation caused by the operations of Dominion Farms Ltd and Lake Agro. Community members who opposed the project were threatened with a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
Diversified arsenal for community-led development planning
For years, Chrisphine Owalla and the Community Initiative Action Group (CIAG) Kenya have been working closely with communities in Yala swamp and across the country in promoting social justice, inclusive society, and upholding the rule of law. The deep-seated issues confronting the community are exacerbated by the entry of Dominion Farms Ltd and Lake Agro. This underscores the need to employ various strategies hitting different fronts. Apart from the existing efforts to provide capacity-building activities, knowledge-sharing, and institutional support for local communities, Chrisphine and CIAG Kenya thought of strengthening its movement-building approach to ensure that communities are able to collectively assert their voice and vision of development in decision-making processes.
However, movement building requires an extensive understanding of the situation in the community — local dynamics, political-economic context, and actors mapping. The opportunities that the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) presents to human rights defenders like Chrisphine are a great chance to strengthen their work in Yala swamp towards movement building and community-led development. The GAT’s community-led research is viewed as a method to understand the condition of local people impacted by the investment of Dominion Farms and Lake Agro. “We almost lose hope in our struggle but working with Chrisphine and GAT, we believe that what we are fighting for will be achieved,” said Frederik Okumu, chairman of the community collective in Yala Swamp.
In the conduct of their community-led research, CIAG found interesting results that would help them better strategize for community organizing, mobilization, and community-led development advocacy. They maximized the survey tool as well as focus group discussion and community dialogues in collecting information and data analysis. The research team looked into the health condition of the people and their access to necessary facilities and services. Malaria is among the prevailing diseases in the community. However the dams being built by the company only resulted in stagnant water that has become a breeding place for mosquitoes, Tsetse flies, and other insects. Villagers raised issues in relation to access to water and livelihood when the company started its operation. For instance, Dominion Farms Ltd claimed that fencing of its land including water pools was for security purposes only. However, the fencing prevented the community from accessing water pools to graze their cattles.
Research findings also touched on the impacts of the entry of Dominion Farms Ltd with regard to the increased number of peasant families dependent on Yala swamp who are living below the poverty line. Interestingly, the team unpacked the situation of the employees in the company who have been suffering from unfair labor practices as well as occupational health and safety. The research reveals the vulnerabilities of casual and contractual workers especially when the company stops its operations because they will not get any benefit or compensation.
“Community-led research strengthens my work through additional skills, knowledge, and networks. It has expanded my world view on the importance of community in development. The process has contributed to the struggle of the Yala community towards self-determination.” — Chrisphine Owalla, Community Initiative and Action Group (CIAG) Kenya
For Chrisphine and CIAG, there is so much work to be done to get the community's land rights secured and recognized. Moreover, CIAG hopes to raise the voices of the impacted people in Yala swamp and make it an integral part of any decision-making process in Kenya. This has been the inspiration of Chrisphine in joining the Global Advocacy Team. Training and learning conversations have been valuable and beneficial for Chrisphine and CIAG to diversify and improve their work methods and approaches in dealing with community challenges. Also, through the GAT, it has opened up space to meet and learn from community organizers, and activists from different countries who have unique experiences in conducting community organizing, capacity development, and movement building.
Lessons to keep and nurture
Chrisphines’s experience in joining the GAT collective has been rewarding at the personal and organizational levels. Gaining new information and feeling solidarity from other activists in other countries are invaluable with great impacts on the ground. Organizationally, it helps them better understand the community they have been working with because of the participatory nature of the community-led research.
As part of their collective reflection, community-led research is a way to build the community’s capacities and civic education. It allows people to discuss issues with respect and understand the collective risks and challenges they face. The research tools empowered the community and gave them the confidence to own the development they wanted for their village.
“Belonging to a big family of advocates across the world with rich knowledge and experiences is the biggest asset I have as a part of the Global Advocacy Team” — Chrisphine Owalla, Community Initiative and Action Group (CIAG) Kenya
This article is part of a series that features stories from the 8 community organizers from 8 countries who are part of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team. The Global Advocacy Team initiative brings together incredible community organizers from around the world to conduct community-led research and mobilize their communities to change how development is designed, funded, and implemented. Learn more about the Global Advocacy Team focused on community-led development planning.
IAP’s training materials on community-led research are available in 14 languages.
Carlo Manalansan is the Southeast Asia Community Organizer at the International Accountability Project (IAP). He is also a photojournalist for Bulatlat.com — an alternative media organization in the Philippines.