Grassroots campaign halts Kenya coal project

“We’re now old, but we inherited a healthy and clean environment from our fathers and it’s our duty to give our children a clean and healthy environment as well.” Alan Story reports on the victory of a group of Kenyan grassroots activists over a Chinese-backed coal power project, showing resistance is possible.

Lamu protest
Lamu protest
Alan Story

It is a David versus Goliath victory worth savouring.

The ‘Goliath’ is a Chinese-owned, coal-fired power plant project that was given a license in September 2016 for construction near to a touristic sandy island in the Indian Ocean, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If it comes into operation, this (US)$2 billion (£1.57 billion) generating station – a first for both Kenya and the entire East African region – would hike that country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by a reported 700 per cent. This Kenya project is one of more than 300 coal plants China is building or planning all across the global South.

The ‘Davids’ are the fishers, women and other mainly Swahili people from Old Lamu, Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town (established in 1370) who decided that living next to a coal power plant was a not a good idea for their health or livelihoods, nor the planet.

Lamu protest

Their slogan: “Yes to coral, no to coal.” As one Kenyan tv report pithily summed up the views of these coastal people: “The project is ecologically disastrous, economically unviable, socially unfair and morally unjustifiable.”

This week the ‘Davids’ won. It’s been called “a huge victory for the climate movement, environmental rights, for the Lamu community and for our planet." 

On 26 June, a Kenyan environmental court stopped the controversial Lamu coal project and revoked the 2016 power plant license. In words that could have come out of an environmental tribunal in many parts of the world, the court found the planning process was “unfair”, “confused”, “hurried” and “unreasonable”, stating the environmental agency granting the original licence had “ignored” its own procedures and had not taken account of the potential adverse effects on local farmlands and fishing grounds. As well, public participation had often been “non-existent.”

One tribunal member added: “The people who are affected by the project must have a say, even the most feeble voice they may have.”

In another conclusion we've often heard before, a recent research study found that Lamu-produced power "could cost [consumers] 10 times more than had previously been estimated.

Coal is a dirty fuel everywhere

In a June 27 phone interview with Green World from Nairobi, lawyer Mark Odaga of the non-profit group Natural Justice gave much of the credit for the victory to the climate campaign group deCOALonize Kenya and local Lamu residents.

“Right from the start, they were very proactive and alert to what was happening. They recognised coal is a dirty fuel, that people elsewhere in the world did not want it and they did not want it either,” Odaga explained. Over the three years, they educated themselves about the issues, held numerous rallies and made sure local officials were activated, he said.

“I think the words of an older man in the Save Lamu group expresses most humanely what motivated them,” concluded Odaga. The older man said: “We’re now old, but we inherited a healthy and clean environment from our fathers and it’s our duty to give our children a clean and healthy environment as well.”

Lamu coast
The Lamu waterfront.

Amu Power, the government-backed consortium behind the planned 1,050-megawatt Lamu Coal Power plant, has a month to decide whether to appeal the National Environmental Tribunal decision.  

This news from Kenya comes in a week when mainland Europe is sweltering under a record heatwave – parts of France are expected to hit 45ºC in an emergency red alert as I write this article – and G20 leaders are meeting in Osaka, Japan.  

Not much on climate change is expected from Trump and Putin and co. A Financial Times report says the G20 “draft document omits the phrases ‘global warming’ and ‘decarbonisation’ and downplays the Paris climate accord compared with previous G20 communiqués” as the Japanese seek to placate the US Government. Both the US and Chinese governments are fixated on trade talks/wars and competing capitalist growth models.

‘Climate apartheid’ predicted

The news from Kenya also comes in the same week as a UN report warned, again, that global inaction on the climate emergency is creating a catastrophic ‘climate apartheid’. 

A report by Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned that we “risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

The entire 21-page report, linked here as an advance unedited version, is worth studying in detail.

Just down the Indian Ocean coast from Kenya in Mozambique, the effects of global warming are already being felt. Within a two-month period in March and April, it was hit by two very destructive cyclones with the first one, intense Cyclone Idai, recognised as “the second-deadliest tropical cyclones on record.”

As a 20 March 2019 press release on impressive online organising website, 350Africa, said: "For a continent already wracked by its severe impacts, Cyclone Idai is just another chilling reminder of the reality of the climate crisis. Whilst the most vulnerable communities are facing the real impacts of climate change on the ground, government authorities are yet to come up with real and strong commitments.

"The government's inertia and lack of concrete actions to solve global warming are an insult to people facing untold suffering in every corner of the continent, whereas new coal and mining infrastructure and carbon commodification continue to be allowed."  

The cancelling – unless reversed – of the Lamu coal plant is a clear set-back for China. At home, China is making great strides in producing and promoting green technologies such as wind and solar power. But it also remains the world’s largest coal consumer and 70 per cent of its electricity comes from coal-powered plants.

Perhaps surprisingly, the coal to burn at Lamu was expected to come from South African mines.

Global warming already causing devastation

Challenging the global climate emergency will require a new international consciousness. In many parts of South America, Africa and Asia, it is already causing widespread devastation. Temperatures of 45Cº in Pakistan are commonplace. 

It will no longer work to somehow “forget” the relationship between carbon emissions from, say, traffic in Birmingham and climate-induced droughts in other parts of the world such as the global South. 

Or to announce one week a 50 per cent expansion of Heathrow airport, including a third runway, and for the Tory government to roll out the next week its so-called ‘zero emissions’ plan.

The Tory airport/aviation expansion plan makes a mockery of fighting climate change. In a well-argued, but blistering, recent comment piece, the Green Party’s only MP, Caroline Lucas, noted that “Heathrow is already the largest single source of carbon emissions in the UK.”

“The truth is that aviation growth and our expectation of cheap flights cannot continue,” she continued, while explaining that “about 70 per cent of flights are taken by just 15 per cent of the population, and most people don’t fly at all in any given year. It’s not families taking an occasional holiday or business travellers who are fuelling the growth in demand for flying – it’s a small minority of wealthy individuals taking multiple flights a year.”

In other words, taking one holiday flight every few years – if you can afford it – to a location such as Kenya’s scenic Lamu area is still okay. Lamu has a distinct culture, seems a very welcoming place and, if you are an anti-climate change activist, you might want to take along solidarity greetings and find out how they won this victory. I know I am tempted.

The aviation issue and climate change are global class issues. On the former, it is the expansion of existing airports, the fleets of jets flying to and from Osaka for the G20 summit this week, the 750-person Trump entourage, which flew into London in early June (with, of course, military cargo planes in advance carrying ‘the Beast’, Trump’s heavyweight limo) and numerous vacation flights taken by jet-setters like Richard Branson that are the real priority issues.  

Or better still: they could just stay home.

The Lamu coal plant issue is not yet completely sorted and more funds are needed. Visit the National Justice website and put ‘Kenya’ in your donation.

Alan Story is a member of the Sheffield Green Party and a regular Green World contributor