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Community rights dominate renewal of land leases talks

Mixed reactions continue to dominate public hearings organised by a task force appointed to address the explosive issue of land leases and renewals. Communities are pitted on one hand against large-scale landowners of multi-national firms allocated the property in colonial days and whose leases have since come to an end.

Most of these companies are involved in tea, coffee, sisal and livestock farming while others are conservancies, which combine livestock and wildlife management. Heated debate characterise the forums at county level meetings.

Most communities say the land should revert to the rightful owners and that the investors should just pack and leave. On the other hand, large-scale landowners argue they won’t let go for the sake of the economy given the large number of people they employ and the foreign exchange earnings they bring in.

On the spot and walking on a tight rope is the chairman of the Task Force on Land Leases and Renewals, Ibrahim Mwathane, who is also a director at Land and Governance Development Institute.

He continues to appeal for sobriety. His stand has been that the debate should focus on land rights issues and the welfare of the nation as opposed to dwelling on the matter with opinion loaded with political rhetoric.

“Let the views focus on how land can be used to promote development. This is a season for politics. Debate should be focusing on the right polices in place, legislation and putting institutional frameworks on land management which is more important,” says Mwathane. “Let’s not fight over land in an election period.

Demands by communities opposing extension of leases continue to dominate our forums. The current landowners are resisting this position,” he adds. But the head of the Kenya Land Alliance (KLA), Odede Lumumba insists community participation is paramount, dismissing the theory that land belongs to the State as a fallacy.

“The government is not a landowner. It’s just a trustee. Renewal of land leases should not be automatic. In Kenya, the squatter problem is a reality,” says Lumumba. KLA is a Nakuru-based non-governmental organisation that pushes for land rights of communities.

KLA is partnering with Oxfam and Namati to support communities to gain legal protection for their community lands and through an action-research approach will carefully track how this process affects local conflict and gender dynamics.

The project plans to provide technical legal support to strengthen community land and resource rights and then rigorously test the extent to which this mitigates and resolves local conflict KLA is piloting in Tana River and Turkana counties.

Namati is a coalition of NGOS building a global movement of grassroots legal advocates who help put the power of law in the hands of people. According to a National Land Commission (NLC) commissioner, Dr Clement Lenachuru, the economic benefits of a community accrued from utilisation of land for economic benefits needs to be taken into consideration.

“Some county governments have extended land leases without the knowledge of the commission,” he says. But Lumumba blames the commission for the mess.

“To argue that the country lacks data on expired leases is an excuse for the status quo to be maintained. To say that there is no data means that we should abandon the exercise the task force was appointed to carry out,” said Lumumba.

John Saitoti from Magadi, Kajiado county supports Lumumba. Saitoti said he feared large tracts of land owned by Magadi Soda Company might be grabbed unless the firm lease is reverted to the community. “Renewal in some cases have been carried out in very unclear circumstances. It has been dubious in some cases how the land changed hands.”

According to the Executive Director of Kenya Human Rights Commission, George Kegoro, the matter is being investigated as a political one in nature that needs a political approach to fix.

“Commitment from the political leadership is key,” he told a public hearing at Sarova Panafric Hotel. Public hearings have also brought forward the problems Kenya Power has faced at the county level where the issue of reverting land at the expiry of leases by local communities will impact on its mandate.

Muriuki Njehia of Kenya Power describes efforts to connect power in some instances as being equal to chasing a chicken without success. “We don’t know where to go. It’s like an endless chase of a chicken.

We have written severally,” Njehia says in desperation. According to him, of the 500 parcels of land meant for development of electricity infrastructure owned by the State and leased from private property owners, leases of about 100 land parcels have expired.

“Others allocated at the county level to build substations are faced with legal disputes. The property value runs into billions of shillings, yet electricity is key in driving the economy of the country,” he said.

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