Yala Swamp communities in Siaya County have a reason to smile after winning a protracted land battle against the giant Dominion Farms Ltd.
Residents had petitioned the National Land Commission (NLC) to right a historical injustice in which their farms were allegedly grabbed by the American firm.
In a March 1 gazette notice, the commission approved their complaints and called for a survey of the land.
“The claim is allowed. The Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning and County Government of Siaya should re-survey the swamp to determine the acreage under Dominion Farms. The commission further recommends that if there is excess land, it should be restored to the affected communities,” the NLC said.
Central Alego MCA Leonard Oriaro, who has led the fight for the land to be given back to the communities, said the verdict was long overdue.
According to the International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR), the battle for reclamation of the swamp dates back to 1954 when the colonial government assigned Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners to investigate the potential of wetland reclamation in the region.
The study recognised the high productive potential of Yala Swamp. In 1963 the government requested the United Nations for assistance to execute recommendations of the Gibb report and went ahead to reclaim Yala Swamp, apparently for development activities.
The land was later allocated to Dominion Farms. Mr Oriaro said that returning the property to communities was not enough.
“We need compensation because our community has lost livelihoods. Several acres of land have been submerged in water while aerial spraying of the vast rice farms has caused massive destruction of crops,” he said.
The IJSR report backed this view. “Chemicals used in aerial spraying of rice fields pause a threat to water purity in Lake Kanyaboli and River Yala as well as other streams in the neighbourhood,” the report published in October 2014 said.
In the same year Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga formed a taskforce to look into issues of concern for people living around the swamp.
After the team’s report was tabled in county assembly, Speaker George Okode directed that a joint committee be formed to scrutinise it and come up with recommendations.
The committee recommended a fresh survey of Yala Swamp, empowerment of local communities and review of the Dominion MoU and lease documents, among other issues.
One of the key findings of the joint committee, according to Mr Oriaro, who was a member, was the “glaring absence of a land demarcation plan that delineates the varied land uses within the swamp, especially the area under Dominion Farms and the community land boundaries”.
The lack of clarity on where Dominion Farms starts and ends and where the community land begins was mentioned as a major cause of conflict between the two.
“This scenario provides justification for the committee’s strong recommendation that a comprehensive survey of Yala Swamp should be undertaken to map out the extent of community land against the land that has been leased to Dominion Farms.
“The committee further recommends that the MoU and the lease agreement be revisited to become instruments for peaceful co-existence between the investor and the community.”
After analysing financial records presented to the committee by Dominion Farms manager Philip Abbir, the team concluded that, “It is clear that Dominion is not up to date with payments for the land leased to them as per the MoU.
“The total payments made so far in favour of Siaya County Council/County Government from 2009 to 2015 are Sh29,731,219. Out of this Sh2,050,000 was paid to the county government in 2014 and 2015.”
The committee noted that at the time it met with Mr Abbir in 2015, Dominion Farms owed the county government Sh7,098,600. This is a violation of the MoU, the committee said.