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Tea plantations on edge as hostility spreads

James Momanyi @jamomanyi

Multinational tea firms in the North and South Rift are standing on the edge, literally looking over into the abyss.

In the past few months, strong winds of resentment have been blowing threateningly in the tea ranges of Kericho, Bomet and Nandi in the former Rift Valley province, leaving in their wake a suffocating feeling of fear among the international companies that have been harvesting the cash crop since pre-independence days.

In the latest development, two Senate committees — Land, Environment and Natural Resources and Justice and Legal Affairs — last week heard how communities in Kericho and Bomet counties suffered, including being evicted from their ancestral land to make way for tea plantations.

The communities, through three claimants — Samwel Rugut, Robert Langat and Victor Bor — tabled a petition before the two committees sitting in Eldoret appealing  for their help to get back  the ancestral land estimated to be over 63,000 acres.

They said the land was later allocated to tea companies including James Finlay and Brooke Bond (now Unilever Tea) and George Williamson, that have been making huge profits from the sale of tea while landless locals continue to languish in poverty.

The trio also sought Senate’s help to get compensation for atrocities and inhuman treatment allegedly meted out  on their people by colonialists when they were being forcibly evicted from their land.

However, this is just one of the many specks in the eyes of the tea companies. Last year, the companies lost close to Sh1 billion after workers went on strike and paralysed picking and selling of tea at the Mombasa auction demanding for 30 per cent wage increase awarded by the court in 2014. The issue has not been conclusively settled.

In the advent of devolved system of government in 2013, the leadership in the three former Rift Valley province counties and other political leaders asked the government not to renew leases of multinational companies operating in the area, especially following changes in the land tenure system which led to reduction of 999-year leases to 99 years.

In fact, most of the governors and other elected leaders in the three counties were elected on the premise that they will ensure the tea farms held by foreign companies are returned to the locals.

It is on this premise that Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony used the county resources to file a landmark case against the British Government for crimes committed against Talai and Kipsigis communities during the colonial era. The governors have been unequivocal in their demand to repossess the tea firms after expiry of the leases.

Three months ago, Nandi Governor Stephen Sang and his Kericho counterpart called for the establishment of a public company to manage these tea farms for the benefit of the local communities after exit of the multinationals.

Land rates

“Apart from the compensation issue, the multinational tea companies whose leases have been terminated need to be handed over to the county for proper management,” Sang was quoted as saying. There is also the nagging issue of land rates which the counties want increased from the current Sh94 per acre per year to a higher rate that should be evaluated on the value of the land in terms of renting based on the current market rates. The contribution of the tea sector to Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP) cannot be gainsaid.  Tea is the leading industrial crop in terms of its contribution to the economy.

Last year, tea accounted for about 40 per cent of Kenya’s marketed agricultural production and contributed 25 per cent of total export earnings. In addition, tea provides livelihoods to more than 600,000 smallholders who contribute about 60 per cent of tea production. Multinationals in Kenya account for 40 per cent of the tea available for export at the Mombasa auction and they employ more than 100,000 people who are involved in different operations in the value chain.

Currently, Kenya is the third largest producer of tea in the world after India and China, but it is the largest global exporter in terms of volume. When the petitioners presented their case before the Senate standing committees most of the Senators were sympathetic to their cause. Siaya Senator James Orengo asked his colleagues to give the petition a fair hearing when it is handled by the relevant committee so that they can get solutions to the issues raised in the petition because Parliament has the legislative authority to manage such issues.

“The petitioners may have chosen to go to court if the issues raised are legal but chose to come to Parliament because we have legislative authority. However, the petitioners need to gather more evidence and bring documentary evidence from government agencies like National Land Commission (NLC) so as to build a proper dossier for their case,” he said.

Senator Halake Abshiro also asked the petitioners to engage with county governments to find more evidence on the land leases agreement and levies charged on the land to firm up their case.

“We need also to put the burden of proof on constitutional commissions like NLC and Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNHCR) so that they can also provide the necessary information on the issue, so that we can also get to know the actual acreage of the land owned by the multinationals and the human rights violations,” she said.

However, there was a dissenting voice. Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata pointed out a number of pitfalls that may render the petition dead on arrival. For instance, he told the petitioners their claim to ownership of the land cannot be pegged alone on the name of places. The trio had annexed letters written by the colonialists to the petition that referred to places using the Kipsigis names.

“Furthermore, if the prayers are granted, it will set a precedent and open a Pandora’s Box whereby other communities will start seeking to reclaim their land,” Kang’ata argued.

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