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November 19, 2018

The coal resistance: Why Lamu says no

Save Lamu secretary General Walid Ahmed leads other activists and residents in anti-coal demos in lamu town.
Save Lamu secretary General Walid Ahmed leads other activists and residents in anti-coal demos in lamu town.

Activists in Lamu have risen up fiercely to oppose the establishment of a Sh200 billion coal plant in Kwasasi, Lamu West. They say it is poisonous not just to the environment but to the health of people.

Some 975 acres have already been acquired for the project. The plant is expected to generate 1,050MW of power upon completion.

Despite the perceived benefits, the activists believe the project is a curse in disguise. They have christened their campaign: deCoalonise Lamu.

The coal resistance began in late 2013, when rumour went round that there were plans to establish a coal plant. It involves activists including Lamu Youth Alliance and Lamu Marine Forum, all under the umbrella body of Save Lamu.

Save Lamu secretary general Walid Ahmed says investors are trying to brainwash the community into allowing the project, using promises of hefty compensation packages for those whose lands have been acquired.

“We are the voices of our people, who have said they do not wish to have this project here,” he says.

The investor, Amu power, has already received approval from the National Environment Management Authority to proceed. Amu Power is a consortium of Gulf Energy and Centum Investment.

NOT HAZARDOUS?

The National Assembly Energy Committee pledged that the project would use advanced technology, which has been tested and proven to be safe to the environment and human health.

Committee chairperson David Gikaria implored activists and leaders opposed to the coal plant to rest easy, as the plant will use highly placed technology borrowed from countries such as the US, Germany, Israel and South Africa, which have proved beyond doubt that coal production can be safe.

“Initially, even America didn’t want anything to do with coal production, but with technological advancements, they now have a huge plant in California,” Gikaria says.

“This means coal plants are safer now than ever before since they use a high degree of technology, which makes them safe to humans and the environment. That’s the kind of plant we want to set up here. People have absolutely nothing to worry about.”

The activists, however, insist the government is bent on making money, without having the slightest care of what the host community wants or feels.

“Is it by force that the coal plant must be set up in Lamu? If it’s really that good, why can’t they put it up in Nairobi, Kisumu, Machakos, Nakuru or any other place? They are doing this to us because they know no one else can accept it due to its hazardous nature,” Walid says.

Save Lamu chairperson Mohamed Abubakar says the energy committee is trying to mislead the public by claiming the project is safe based on the mode of production.

“We did our homework and are ware of what the coal plant can do to people. We know what such a project can do to marine life and all other surrounding environments,” he says.

Abubakar says the government is gambling with the lives of the local community. “As activists, we are disappointed that people prefer money over lives. We believe our government wants to sell us to the highest bidder, as long as it’s making money. We shall defend our people,” he says.

The activists have urged the government to change tack. “If they really must do this here, then let them go green. Otherwise, any other form of energy production here, especially the coal plant, will never be, and we shall see to it,” Is’haq Khatib of Lamu Youth Alliance says.

MARINE LIFE AT RISK

Lamu Marine Forum chairperson Mohamed Athman says the amount of toxins produced from any coal plant will always end up in the nearest water sources, and in Lamu’s case, in the Indian Ocean.

He says the fishing sector, which remains a major source of livelihood to many locals, will be greatly affected, not to mention the numerous number of marine species.

Athman accuses Nema of issuing a license for the project without considering the feelings of the community.

“There is just a lot going wrong, in as far as this project is concerned. Even the government knows it’s a bad one. Even the investor knows that, and that’s why they chose Lamu to be their experimental ground. We are talking of loss of fishing grounds, decimation of marine life and so forth,” Athman says.

All these activists insist the coal project is not environmentally sustainable, and call for alternative renewable source of energy.

Kenya banned plastic bags last year, but these activists want the state to extend the war on harmful products to banning the coal plant.

“Coal is far much worse than plastics, over and over. The project emits poison directly into the air, water and on land. People have died in numbers where such projects happened,” Walid says.

Former Lamu woman representative Shakilla Abdalla has been vocal in spearheading anti-coal campaigns. Together with the activists, Shakilla is appealing to Unesco to intervene and stop the establishment of the coal plant.

Lamu Old Town is the sixth World Heritage Site, according to Unesco, which enlisted it in 2001 in recognition of its unique cultural value.

Shakilla says the establishment of a coal plant in Lamu will hurt the ecosystem, including irreversibly changing the local community’s way of life, and in turn sweep away the irreplaceable heritage.

She called on the National Lands Commission to cancel the title deed allocated to Amu power.

“Establishing a coal plant in Lamu will do a lot of damage not just to our health and environment, but also to the culture and heritage of this place, which will be eroded. If this happens, Lamu will be banished from being a World Heritage Site. We can’t let that happen,” Shakilla says.

TROUBLE WITH AUTHORITIES

The coal resistance has not always been rosy. On May 25, Walid Ahmed and Khatib were arrested by plainclothes policemen in Lamu town as they led hundreds of demonstrators to protest the coal plant. Police said the demos were unlawful.

The two spent a night at the Lamu police station before they were bailed out by yet another activist body, Muhuri.

Shakilla says the arrests are a witch-hunt. She condemned what she termed the government’s continued targeting of anti-coal crusaders in Lamu.

“It’s crude that police are now being used to arrest anti-coal crusaders, but that shall not dent our efforts. We shall do everything within the confines of the law to stop the coal plant. Police arrests and even prosecutions shall not dampen our spirits. The coal plant must never become,” Shakilla says.

And as Walid stresses, “The coal resistance continues until Lamu is deCoalonised.”

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