Controversy continues to dog Mumias Sugar even after the State's environment watchdog gave it the licence to embark on a multibillion-shiling project in the Tana Delta.
Area residents and civil society groups are concerned that various issues arising from an environmental impact assessment study of the project are being ignored, and in recent days, they have mounted spirited protests against the project.
National Environment Management Authority (Nema) director-general Muusya Mwinzi has confirmed granting a conditional licence to the sugar firm to embark on Phase One of the project amid demonstrations by local pastoralists, who want the project halted.
Environmentalists, too, have joined the fray, with Nature Kenya challenging Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (Tarda) and Mumias Sugar -- the co-owners of the project -- "to take the brilliant opportunity to create a truly 'Green' development by supporting the gazettement and management of large parts of the delta as conservation areas, and tailoring development activities to small schemes that will directly benefit the local people, and maintain the hydrological and ecological integrity of one of Kenya's most important natural assets."
Recently, residents expressed their frustration over the apparent disregard of their views on the Sh24 billion project and demonstrated against Regional Development minister Fred Gumo, who was touring the area to drum up support for the Tana Integrated Sugar Project (Tisp).
A news report published in the Nation (July 9) quoted Mr Gumo as criticising the pastoralists, who have been the most vocal, for opposing the project. In the same report, Medical Services assistant minister Danson Mungatana blamed opposition to the project on "political influence".
His remarks were in apparent response to a nominated councillor, Mr Abaloni Racha, who had accused the Garsen MP of sidelining pastoralists during awareness campaigns about the project.
Pastoralists are against a plan to move them to the 200,000-acre tsetse fly-infested Galana ranch and feel the project is being forced on them.
In the recent protests, the Nation quoted former ambassador Hussein Dadho as saying: "The community doubts the sincerity of the Government, Mumias Sugar and Tarda and the way the project is being brought here."
He called for "binding agreements between the community and the company".
A community leader, Dr Mohammed Bute, said the pastoralists were victims of historical injustices and would not allow the project to go on.
It is instructive that even as Mr Mungatana blamed politics for pastoralists' opposition to the project, he was also reported to have insisted that the Government "addresses the concerns raised by those opposing the project".
Tana River county council chairman Salim Kolo had complained that the pastoralists were not involved in the project.
"Tarda acquired the land illegally and they are now forcing a project on the community. They should leave the pastoralists alone," he said.
Mr Kolo is among leaders, academicians and experts who have expressed opposition to the sugar project, especially its location.
According to a document made available to the Nation by an environment lecturer at Kenyatta University, Mr Peter Kenya, NGOs and community groups in the area claim the proposed site is government trust land.
Tarda never paid Sh3 million needed by the Lands commissioner to transfer the land, rendering the transfer null and void.
The report claims that pastoralists were not involved in the project, contrary to Regulation 17 of the Environment Management and Coordination Act No 8. The regulation views public participation as a prerequisite for an environmental impact assessment.
Nema has denied irregularities in approving what it calls the "non-controversial Phase I of the project" totalling about 5,000 hectares out of the 28,500ha earmarked for the project.
"Implementation of the second and third phases will depend on the success of the first phase", Dr Mwinzi says in a statement made available to this writer.
The Nation was told that like any other project, the sugar project would be implemented under Nema's oversight, and every year, the project holders must file an audit report, which will determine whether or not the project continues into the second and third phases.
There was no specific time frame for the first phase, the Nation was told.
The grassroots groups claim that no public meetings were held in the area with the communities the project is likely to affect. They say the meetings held in Ngao, Garsen, Witu and Kipini were outside the project area.
But Nema says it held three public hearings to give the local community an opportunity to air their views regarding the project.
A major bone of contention regarding the environment impact assessment study is its apparent failure to factor in an alternative project site.
The groups claim that communities which attended some of the public meetings proposed that the project consider other sites, including Bura and Hola irrigation schemes or any other sites outside the heart of the delta.
Conservationists also fear that wildlife in the Tana Delta will be seriously affected by the project.
Mr Paul Matiku, the executive director of Nature Kenya, points out that the Tana River Delta is a designated Important Bird Area, meaning that it was critical for bird conservation.
Mr Matiku also says that the project will create severe competition for water between Tisp, another sugar project proposed by Mat International, the National Irrigation Board projects, other development projects and downstream domestic, livestock, wildlife, fisheries and ecosystem needs.
Nature Kenya also says the project will have significant negative environmental, economic and social impacts whose mitigation will be difficult and complicated, and there is no indication that the project proponents are modifying its design to avoid or compensate for these negative impacts.
Among the unanswered questions, it says, are: Since Galana Ranch is in a dryland habitat, how will it be able to replace the dry season grazing and access to river water provided by the delta?
How will local communities actually benefit? And, even if forests and lakes within the project area are protected, how will they continue their ecological roles if they are surrounded by vast fields of sugarcane?
According to Nema, phases II and III of the project, which are located in an area neighbouring pastoralists, will be developed in consultation with the local community, and based on the success of Phase One.
Efforts to get comments from Mumias Sugar CEO Evans Kidero failed.
He referred this writer to his corporate affairs manager, who asked for a questionnaire to guide their response. Persistent calls and follow-up had not yielded any fruit by the time we went to press.