A lode of conflict in Kenya

Canadian plans to mine titanium have angered farmers who will be displaced, and ecologists.

Abdullah Suleiman picks up a handful of soil and sieves the grains of sand through fingers calloused by a lifetime of labor. "This is the same soil that has given me and my family our livelihood for many years," says the farmer. "Now it will be the end of us."

Buried within the soil of Mr. Suleiman's farm and others along Kenya's palm-fringed Indian Ocean coastline lies a vast deposit of titanium.

As early as next year, a Canadian mining company, Tiomin Resources, will launch a venture to mine millions of dollars worth of the material, used in pigment manufacture, the aerospace industry, and production of items ranging from golf clubs to pacemakers.

More than 4,000 people will be moved to make way for the operation, which has provoked protests and allegations of corruption, multinational arrogance, and insensitivity to the ecology of one of Africa's leading tourist areas.

"This whole thing is being rushed through without proper care to the rights of the people who live here and without enough thought to what the consequences will be," says Frank Mutua, whose 40-acre farm is one of many that will soon disappear under a bulldozer.

While Tiomin has signed compensation agreements with about 20 percent of the residents - those holding title to their land - squatters on the titanium-rich earth worry that they will end up with nothing. "I have lived here since 1959," says Mr. Mutua. "We didn't even know what a title deed was then.... Now we will lose our land and our income so that some Canadians can become rich."

"We cannot sign agreements with people who have no documents confirming their ownership of the land," counters Francoise Goutier, Tiomin's resident manager in Kenya.

Tiomin president and CEO, J.C. Potvin, says that the company is discussing with the Kenyan government a deal in which the government would expropriate land occupied by the squatters and the company would lease nearby property to which the squatters would be relocated. "We will strive to give them an equivalent parcel," Mr. Potvin says. Those with land deeds are being compensated above market value, Potvin says. "We have made a point that nobody affected by the project will be worse off by the project than they are today."

Critics counter that the mineral value does not figure in the compensation. "I wonder how it is possible to compensate people when you don't know what the real consequences of the project will be," says Elphas Ojiambo, policy research coordinator for the British NGO Action Aid.

Potvin says that Kenyans are being compensated for Kwale's mineral wealth through the 2.5 percent of gross revenues that will go to the government as royalties, plus income taxes.

The project has also drawn fire from environmentalists worried that the mining operation, in a region now suffering from severe drought, will overextend water supplies and make the land unusable once extraction has ceased.

But, according to Potvin, "There's more than enough water. We have quantified that."

Potvin says that after the 14 to 19 years of mining, the land would be returned to its former residents. He describes the mineral sands extraction process as ecologically friendly, "basically a large-scale, earth-moving operation" which ends with rehabilitation of the land.

Potvin says the project will create about 1,000 jobs in the two-year construction phase, 200-300 long-term jobs, and up to 1,000 jobs indirectly. Critics call this scant benefit to Kenya and note that most of the $150 million it will cost Tiomin to get the project going will be spent outside the country.

One of the ecological bones of contention is the port Tiomin has chosen for shipping the titanium. Shimoni, selected for its natural deep channel, is located on a quiet fishing bay in the area of some of Kenya's finest coral and marine life. Potvin says there is no coral in the channel and that the marine park is 35 kilometers away.

As required under Kenyan law, Tiomin carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment. But, according to The World Conservation Union, the evaluation was not independent and overlooks many environmental concerns. The conservation union's report disputes Tiomin's claim that the risk of a shipping accident at Shimoni is "very unlikely."

The project has also drawn accusations of corruption and pay-offs to senior Kenyan government officials. According to a local newspaper report, investigators hired by a group of Islamic leaders on the coast claim that they unearthed evidence of millions of shillings paid to top government officials to ensure that the project goes ahead.

Potvin rejects that allegation, saying, "There were no bribes."

Some local residents say they are offended by the mining company's manner. "What annoys me most," says Mr. Mutua, "is the arrogant way in which they are dealing with us. This whole project is just an exercise in making other people rich. We call it new colonialism."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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