A recent photograph of Kwale residents dancing in joy and voicing “total support’’ to the mining of a rare mineral, niobium, in the Mrima area, was astonishing.
Coming soon after the announcement by President Kibaki that oil had been struck in the Turkana region and a demand for transparent consultations by the county’s leaders, there are reasons to wonder about the reactions.
Why should the people celebrate? Prospecting for niobium has been going on for several years, the contract having changed ownership twice.
Mr Ibrahim Mwathane, a director of the Land Development and Governance Institute, was the first to raise the alarm over the jubilation, saying the whole issue was suspect. He cautioned the media to take care while reporting on sensitive matters with far-reaching ramifications.
There has been consistent opposition to the exploitation of the mineral which has ranged from environmental considerations due to its perceived high radioactivity, to the issue of compensation, as well as community shareholding.
How can a foreign extractor of minerals unilaterally declare how much he is going to pay the resident community without consulting them?
How was the figure arrived at and what was the criteria used?
The celebrations could be as a result of the final resolution of similar issues that have dogged the mining of another rare mineral in the same area, titanium, which dragged on for years due to opposition by civil society and community representatives.
Alternatively, the celebrations could be another public relations exercise by the interested parties to show a convergence of interests and divert attention from the simmering tensions.
For a country which has just passed a seemingly revolutionary Constitution, one would have thought the sharing of natural resources would have been clearly covered in the document.
Chapter 5 of the Constitution dealing with Land and Environment, article 69 (1) says that the State shall “utilise the environment and natural resources for the benefit of the people of Kenya”, indicating the primacy of communities’ rights to any exploitation of its wealth.
In the same chapter, the document proclaims that all transactions for the exploitation of such natural resources must be sanctioned by the Legislature.
The argument by the Turkana leaders who met shortly after the government’s historic announcement on oil was that nobody should enter into agreement for the expropriation of resources in their county without consulting them.
This makes sense in a devolved style of government, and it is hoped that the oil find will set the pace for future negotiations on our apparently abundant natural resources which have been kept from us for decades.
Kwale, for example, is reported to be rich in rare minerals which are only being exploited now. The government must move speedily to ensure our latest claim to wealth does not lead us to conflict like has happened in other countries.
We should look afresh at cases of exploitative arrangements that have been entered into before. A good example is the iron and gemstone mines of Taita Taveta where local voices have been silenced with the complicity of the State.
Mr Mutonya, a former journalist, is a businessman in Mombasa (email@example.com).