Kenyan fishermen fight for livelihoods as Lamu port nears completion

The construction of a Chinese-built port has led to legal action and conflict among fishing communities over compensation
<p>Chinese dredger ship &#8220;Tianji&#8221; at the Chinese-built port on Lamu island, Kenya. (Image: Alamy)</p>

Chinese dredger ship “Tianji” at the Chinese-built port on Lamu island, Kenya. (Image: Alamy)




At a police station on Lamu Island in Kenya, 47-year-old Somo Mohamed Somo is nursing his injuries.

The chairman of the Beach Management Unit, a local group representing Lamu’s fishermen, Somo has come to lodge a complaint. He says his attacker unfairly accused him of pocketing money meant to compensate fishermen hit by dredging for a new 32-berth port.

The Lamu port is being funded by the Development Bank of South Africa and built by the China Communications Construction Company. It is meant to ease congestion at Mombasa, more than 300 kilometres south, and better connect Kenya to its landlocked northern neighbours, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Construction having begun in 2012, the first ship is expected to dock there in November 2019, according to Silvester Kasuku, chair of the Lamu-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) development authority.

The case for compensation

In 2017, Somo testified at a hearing in the Malindi high court. He said that dredging for the port was violating the Lamu community’s cultural, fishing and health rights.

The petitioners also argued they were entitled to financial relief as their right to information and to be involved in the planning process had been violated.

Somo acted as the communication link between the fishermen and their lawyers.

A view of Lamu Island, a Unesco world heritage site (Image: Janet Njunge)
A view of Lamu Island, a Unesco world heritage site (Image: Janet Njunge)

The court battle had been running for six years when, last year, the fishermen were awarded US$17 million in compensation, to be shared between them.

“The evidence tendered in this case is that more than 4,600 fishermen will be affected by the LAPSSET project,” the court ruled in 2018. “Murky waters due to [the] effects of dredging… and the destruction of the coral reefs and mangrove forests, have already affected the population and location of the fish.”

The money was supposed to cater for the purchase of boats and engines capable of fishing in the deep sea, the development of new fish landing sites, training, cooling services and a loan scheme.

The payment was supposed to be made within a year, but six months later, after the Kenya Ports Authority had appealed the ruling, the Kenyan court of appeal suspended the compensation and court proceedings.

The suspension has pitted Somo against some of the people he represents. “Most fishermen had put April 2019 as the deadline when they were supposed to have been compensated. Now a section of them are already threatening me, claiming I was bribed and colluded with the lawyers to siphon the money meant for their compensation,” Somo said.

Although ocean fishing only accounts for around 7% of fish caught in the wild in Kenya each year (the rest comes from rivers and lakes) it is of special importance to Lamu county. There are more than 20 fish landing sites there, some used by as many as 300 fishermen.

Fish from the deep sea and China

If Lamu fishermen must increasingly go out to deeper waters, what will they find when they get there? Deep-sea fishing was dominated by foreign fishing trawlers until 2017, when President Uhuru Kenyatta cancelled their licences. Last year, the coastguard authority launched an operation to fight illegal fishing, a practice which costs Kenya $100 million a year according to the Kenya Institute of Policy Research Analysis.

In May, coastguards detained two Chinese vessels fishing in Kenyan waters, before later claiming they were licensed correctly.

But such policing has not stopped the entry of foreign fish into the market. In February 2019, the Kenyan government lifted a ban on imported fish barely three months after its implementation.

Mombasa fish market near Lamu port, a Chinese port in Kenya
A trader at the Likoni fish market in Mombasa stocking tilapia and mackerel imported from China (Image: Janet Njunge)

Each year, China exports fish worth approximately $17 million to Kenya. Though Chinese imports are uncommon in Lamu, they have been blamed for producing unhealthy competition in Kenyan fish markets.

One such is the Likoni fish market in Mombasa, where imported mackerel and tilapia sell for as little as $2 a kilogram; while a kilogram of locally caught fish such as red snapper goes for $5.

Fishers claim the popularity of Chinese fish in the market has been fuelled by the inability of local fishermen to meet demand, due to the disruption of fish-breeding sites by a sand-harvesting exercise in nearby Tiwi beach.

The sand is for the construction of an oil terminal at the port of Mombasa, another project being constructed by the China Communications Construction Company.

“I used to get 40 kilogrammes in one catch but since the exercise started I cannot get even 15 kg. The fishmongers don’t want to understand when you raise the price because they will tell you they have the option of buying Chinese fish,” 46-year-old Ali Jarumani says. The 200 fishermen have since sought compensation for the sand exercise in court.

While the fishermen put up a spirited battle to ensure they are compensated for the loss of their livelihoods, residents who make their living from the ocean in other ways also claim to have been badly affected.

Tourism and mangroves hit

The people of Lamu, which is a Unesco world heritage site, rely on tourism as well as fishing. Young men learn fishing and making traditional “dhow” ships from their fathers.

Faraj Mohamed, a 47-year-old dhow maker and snorkelling guide, said he has had to quit tourism and concentrate on dhow building.

“The water around where we used to take tourists for snorkelling started becoming dusty after the dredging started and the coloured fish species disappeared,” he said. “You either take them deeper in the ocean, which is very dangerous, so most of them opt not to snorkel in Lamu.”

Once the port is completed, a 16-kilometre strip of mangrove forest will have been cleared, according to the Social and Environment Assessment report. As a mitigation measure, the study recommended the inclusion of a fishing berth at the port to help the community practise deep-sea fishing.

Mawlid festival, a dhow boat race at Lamu, a Chinese-built port in Kenya
A dhow race at Lamu during the Mawlid festival (Image: FredD)

What next?

Questions have been raised on the viability of the whole project since Ethiopia made peace with its neighbour Eritrea, which has a coastline and ports. Ethiopia was expected to use the Lamu port, which it is hoped will open up the largely underdeveloped northern part of Kenya.

This is the third multi-million dollar project being constructed by a consortium of companies led by China Communications Construction. As well as the oil terminal in Mombasa, the company also built a 485-kilometre railway line which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In June, fishermen like Somo were relieved when an environment tribunal cancelled the licence of a coal-fired power plant on Lamu that was partly intended to power the port and was majority-financed by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Even though the appellate judges have not yet set the hearing date for the case, the eyes of Somo and his fellow fishermen are now firmly on the court of appeal, where the fate of their compensation will be decided.