MAATHAI HEIRS

In Kenya the environmentalists always win

She lit the flame of environmental activism that burns to this day.

In Summary

• The next environmentally challenged project that will be at the centre of a raging controversy is the Palm Exotjca Project.

• Once again we are promised “the tallest building in Africa”, this time to be located on the pristine beachfront of Watamu.

Kenyans are in general so quick to forget their heroic benefactors, that I believe the day will come when some young Kenyan will ask me who on earth Wangari Maathai was, and why the late MP for Tetu was so famous in her lifetime.

Well, anticipating the day when I will hear that question, I would first mention that Prof Wangari Maathai’s single term as an MP was actually the least of her accomplishments.

First, she was a pioneering research scientist, who got a PhD at a time when very few Kenyan women studied science. But even more significantly, she was the founder of Kenya’s environmental movement.

For at a time when any attempts to oppose government “development projects” carried grave personal risk, she more or less single-handedly stopped the carving up of two iconic open spaces in Nairobi.

First Uhuru Park, a good portion of which was set aside in 1989, for what was to have been “the tallest building in Africa” and co-owned by the ruling party Kanu and a British media tycoon, Robert Maxwell, who was later revealed to have all along been a world-class fraudster.

So, when it comes to environmentally challenged “development projects”, remember that there is always some other alternative to whatever is being presented to us as an indispensable step on the road to prosperity.

And then Karura Forest, which had – by the time of her intervention, in 1998 – already been surveyed for degazetting and the subsequent carving out of high-value residential plots.

Through these historic (and victorious) interventions, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner lit the flame of environmental activism, that burns in Kenya to this day.

So, I was not at all surprised when the Lamu coal power plant, which we had been assured would “bring development” to that neglected corner of the country suffered a huge defeat in the courtrooms at the hands of environmental activists, a few weeks back.

The promoters of this project, of course, proclaim the great economic opportunity that this coal power plant represents.

But these were much the same kind of arguments used by the Kanu apparatchiks who fought Prof Wangari Maathai.

We were told then that it was “unpatriotic” to oppose the construction of such a grand building, which would create jobs while taking up only a portion of Uhuru Park.

The proposed conversion of Karura Forest into a vast upmarket residential estate was supposedly in response to the shortage of appropriately luxurious housing for the VIP foreigners working at the UNEP Gigiri complex.

But even now, decades later, there is no shortage of such housing in the Gigiri area, despite the preservation of Karura Forest. And as for skyscrapers located just outside the CBD, we now know that the proper place for such commercial buildings was precisely where you find several of them now: in the Upper Hill area, just a short walk from the still-intact Uhuru Park.

So, when it comes to environmentally challenged “development projects”, remember that there is always some other alternative to whatever is being presented to us as an indispensable step on the road to prosperity.

From a purely environmental and aesthetic point of view, the developers might as well be proposing to put up their 61-storey Palm Exotjca building in the Masai Mara, right next to the location where the annual wildebeest migration takes place.

Even the controversial Lamu power plant is not without alternatives.

In the same week that the courts put a halt to the development of this power generation project, we also saw the launching of the Lake Turkana wind-power plant, which supplies not only clean energy with no negative environmental impact, but also cheaper costs.

The next environmentally challenged project that will be at the centre of a raging controversy is the Palm Exotjca Project, which is straight out of the Robert Maxwell playbook—and already being opposed by grassroots environmental activists.

Once again we are promised “the tallest building in Africa”, this time to be located on the pristine beachfront of Watamu in Kilifi county and consisting of “an ultra-luxury, 61-storey mixed-use building with a residential complex, hotels, business offices and other amenities”.

From a purely environmental and aesthetic point of view, the developers might as well be proposing to put up their 61-storey Palm Exotjca building in the Masai Mara, right next to the location where the annual wildebeest migration takes place.

But if history is any guide, the heirs of Prof Wangari Maathai – our home-grown environmental activists – will win this one too. And the heirs of Robert Maxwell will lose.