How did a ‘powerless community’ win a case against large businesses and public plans? Why is this important for those outside the community?
The new precedents set
On 26th June Kenya’s National Environment Tribunal (NET) revoked the licence granted to Amu Power Company to build a coal power plant in Lamu, on the Kenyan coast. The planned $2 billion coal plant in close proximity to the UNESCO World Heritage site has faced various economic, environmental, health and cultural arguments against it. This case represents a win for the public participation of locals in environmental governance, for environmental law enforcement and for ensuring that businesses and governments are answerable to communities.
“It has stamped the authority of tribunals in courts to ensure compliance with the rule of law,” Ochiel Dudley, a lawyer with Katiba Institute
The tribunal ruled that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) failed to do a thorough environment and social impact assessment (ESIA) that met the requirements of the law. Aspects missing included detailed insights into how much pollution from coal, dust and ash the plant would produce, and how this would affect people, plants, animals and marine life. This ruling has set a crucial standard for environmental and social impact assessments in East Africa.
The National Environment Tribunal additionally ruled that the public participation done was insufficient. Whilst there were meetings with the community, appropriate information was not shared. The Tribunal stated “Would the members have supported the projects if they know about effects on human health, damage of flora and fauna, immature deaths and even caused adverse effects on forests? There might be ways to mitigate the same. However, the residents ought to have been notified of these before a licence was issued”. The ruling underlined that public engagement cannot be mechanical but should be meaningful.
How were campaign successes achieved?
Small community campaigns often don’t have their requests met. The Lamu court case is a novel and remarkable win, particularly as the region has lagged in development indicators and is one of Kenya’s most marginalised counties with residents complaining of a lack of information and decision-making on what happens in their area. Campaign groups also encountered misinformation (sometimes deliberate), arrests, branding as terrorists, raided offices and further forms of harassment and intimidation. All these are characteristics similar to many other community rights movements. Whilst there were numerous factors that enabled the win in spite of these issues, this article will focus on 5 reasons.
Firstly, these efforts and movements were organised and directed through the deCOALanize campaign. This was a collection of local as well as environmental and social groups who banded together and presented a joint public face, social media, website, voice, information source and resource portal. Coordinating and combining efforts greatly supported the power and reach of the message.
Secondly, the community campaign worked with groups across various sectors and outside their locale. Local and foreign environmental and human rights organisations were actively involved, and included Save Lamu, Katiba Institute, Natural Justice, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 350 Africa, Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education, Sauti Ya Wanjiku, Muhuri – Muslims for Human Rights, Natural Resources Alliance of Kenya, American Jewish World Service and the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action. These connections and networks provided legal, financial and other resources to the local activists whilst facilitating an exchange of information- which provided the homegrown campaign with the tools and influence to fulfil their goal.
Moreover, garnering public support was crucial. A developed, highly informative and transparent media campaign was effective in raising awareness and gathering support for the Lamu community’s demands. The campaign leaders: were interviewed on Kenyan and international radio and television; published interesting facts and updates on social media; and created a website populated with news, court proceedings, letters to parliament, reports, statements of support and other similar resources.
“…residents of Lamu were both vocal and visible throughout the campaign”. East African Review
It was important that the voice of the community was not lost, minimised or misrepresented. This is a risk when appealing to a wider audience and in large coalitions. Despite this, locals were deeply engaged in and responsible for the campaign - coordinating and participating in public protests, holding public forums in Lamu, Nairobi, and other regions, and even a photography exhibition. Campaign leaders ensured information passed to residents by holding public meetings, sharing information in more accessible places and in simpler shorter language, providing updates and using local languages. Concurrently, the community shared its knowledge with the groups representing them. This information included their concerns and tracking of construction (which on occasion local government offices were unaware of). Essentially, there was a collaborative process where information was continuously passed on and reacted to between locals and the groups representing them.
Communication and information sharing with those on the other side of the argument facilitated change. deCOALonize lobbied various members and levels of government and this included sending county officials to areas that had coal plants. Illustratively, the former Minister of Environment, Judy Wakhungu, publicly opposed the plant after conversations with the anti-coal coalition.
The homegrown Lamu anti-coal plant campaign gives hope, gives strength and provides learnings to other community groups fighting to get involved in and transform their local environmental governance.