Conservation Versus Investment: The Case of Yala Swamp, Kenya’s Largest Freshwater Wetland

A swamp at sunset
Nakuru Times
Siaya, Kenya
Conservation Versus Investment: The Case of Yala Swamp, Kenya’s Largest Freshwater Wetland

About 24 kilometers from Siaya town, Kenya, lies Otuto “beach” as the locals call it, an area within Alego-Usonga Sub-County which hosts a portion of the Yala swamp that borders Lake Kanyaboli.

It’s a beautiful scenery with lush green crops and vegetation dotting the terrain making it resemble an Astroturf carpet, with the cool breeze from the lake minimizing the effects of the scorching sun.

Two fishermen engage in banter as they rinse their fishing nets in the waters of lake Kanyaboli in preparation for another sail later in the evening using their small canoe, which can only accommodate two people at a time.

Nearby, an elderly woman and her son chat heartily as they weed their farm with the hopes of a better harvest this year encouraged by the heavy current rains. But one man whose gaze is fixated on something in front of him stands out from the rest.

Ibrahim Onyango seems to be lost in thought as he stares at the horrific scene in front of him through his binoculars. Burnt papyri hang precariously on the muddy waters as other smoldering papyri indicate the presence of a freshly lit fire that ravaged in its wake a large chunk of land.

A man in an orange tshirt stares into the distance
Ibrahim Onyango, an ornithologist and tour guide cites encroachment, population pressure and over-exploitation of natural resources as the main threats to the swamp’s survival / Credit: Rastor Otieno.

Onyango, an ornithologist and tour guide, is a member of the Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group. The members come from across the 51,300-acre Yala swamp in Kenya’s far west on the northeastern shore of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake.

The group boasts of 1,126 members and brings together four grassroots conservation groups in Siaya and Busia Counties which traverse the swamp. The operational areas where the groups work are Upper Yala, Kanyaboli, Yimbo and Bunyala. The members are conservationists and community tour guides.

The swamp, Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland, is an internationally recognized Key Biodiversity Area as it is home to the endangered Sitatunga antelope and other mammals like the Vervet monkey, wild pig and the Genet cat. It has numerous wetland birds including the vulnerable Papyrus Yellow Warbler and Papyrus Gonolek.

Moreover, the wetland is a refuge for Cichlids, fish species endemic to Lake Victoria, but which has since been declared extinct in the larger water body. In addition, Yala Wetland acts as a filter for waters that flow into Lake Victoria from two major rivers, the Yala River and Nzoia River, arresting pollutants.

The two rivers’ floodwater coupled up with rainfall and backflow from Lake Victoria supply the swamp and its satellite lakes with water. The satellite lakes include Lake Kanyaboli, Lake Namboyo and Lake Sare.

A view of the lake
An overeview of Lake Kanyaboli which borders the swamp / Credit: Rastor Otieno.

However, the swamp faces multiple threats despite the key roles it plays in the environment and in sustaining the livelihoods of over 250,000 residents living around and within it. “The major threats facing the swamp include encroachment by residents, over-exploitation of its resources and increasing population,” said Onyango.

Degradation of the swamp

Burning papyrus leaves
Burning of papyrus is a common practice among some of the locals as a means of clearing land for agriculture and before harvesting them for domestic use / Credit: Rastor Otieno.

According to Bunyala Yala Ecosytem Site Support Group Chairman (BYESSG), Edwin Ochieng, competition for land in the swamp has led to bird and fish poisoning: “There are specific areas in the swamp where fish breed and some bird species prefer to stay. People use chemicals in illegal fishing to catch more fish while others use agrochemicals in cultivating their farmlands near the swamp which has seen the death of these animals,” said Ochieng.

Further studies have shown that the usage of farm fertilizers that contain excess nitrogen on farms near the swamp may contribute to eutrophication in the wetland. This can in turn lead to harmful algae blooms and reduction of oxygen levels that create conditions in which organisms can’t survive.

Elijah Odhiambo, a resident of Kanyaboli, Siaya County also attributes the decline in the population of the endangered Sitatunga antelopes to the destruction of their natural habitat: “Years back, it was very easy to spot these marsh antelopes that are often shy, however this is no longer the case because of habitat loss and illegal poaching that has seen their reduction in unprecedented numbers.”

Odhiambo added that some of the locals believe the meat of the antelope has medicinal value with the ability to cure gout and ulcers, hence the craving for the endangered animal.

Furthermore, wanton burning of the swamp vegetation for agricultural production presents another challenge altogether. The papyrus reeds which provide a home for several species of birds are the most affected by the fires since they can also be used in the form of biofuel for domestic purposes like cooking.

Climate change and its impact

A shopping centre that has been flooded
Picture of Mau Mau shopping center in Bunyala sub-county after floods forced the area residents out of their homes / Credit: Rastor Otieno.

Chairman Ochieng noted that the swamp played a key role in controlling the intensity of flooding from Lake Victoria albeit things are now different. “We are feeling the effects of climate change as the floods are becoming more frequent and intense here in Bunyala. Since 2020, over 18,000 families have been displaced,” he said. “There were some who came back after the water subsided but there are also those who still stay in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps to date.”

This is because in Bunyala area, Busia County, residents stay inside the swamp and you can only access the 50 villages spread across the area by means of a canoe, the trusted means of transport in the region.

Facilities like health centers and schools are the most affected by the recurring floods that render the facilities inaccessible forcing the residents to travel for miles to nearby towns in order to access health services, as the flooding usually leads to a surge in malarial infections and cholera.

Ezekiel Obayi, a former resident of Mau Mau town in Budalangi, Busia, recalls how he had to count losses after floods resulting from backflow of Lake Victoria forced him, his family of five and other residents out of their homes. “Last year the floods hit our town hard at a time when we were least expecting it, submerging our houses and other property and even livestock.” He adds that although the water levels have significantly gone down since then, the locals are still wary of going back there because of the fear of another flooding.

Many have opted to stay with their relatives and friends while others have made the IDP camps their temporary homes, with most of them struggling to make ends meet leaving them on the brink of abject poverty.

The former residents have now urged the county authorities to build dykes to prevent more flooding before they make their way back to their beloved home-turned-ghost town.

Population pressure and urban development

A young man herds cattle
A young man herds livestock near the swamp in Bunyala, Busia / Credit: Rastor Otieno.

Population pressure is another setback that is posing a challenge to the wetland’s survival. In Bunyala Sub-County alone there are over 50 villages which provide homes to thousands of people.

Where there are people then small businesses like shopping centers are bound to spring out. The traders working in the shops will definitely need ablution blocks or toilets for their bathroom breaks. The lack of these facilities can lead to water pollution especially if the said centers are near a waterbody. This is the case in Bunyala South as narrated by one Lucy Amondi, an area resident.

“Some villages still lack toilets for proper waste disposal while in other villages the toilets are often overflooded during heavy downpours, mixing human waste and surface runoff that drains into the swamp, polluting the water,” Amondi said.

The water from the wetland is heavily relied on for domestic purposes, feeding livestock and fishing, hence its pollution poses a health risk to people and livestock alike.

Private investors

Rice silos in a field
Currently, the rice silos and sugarcane processing plant left behind by private investor Dominion Farms remain empty with no activity going on / Credit: Rastor Otieno.

Before the American investor Calvin Burgess of Dominion Farms Limited came calling, part of the land within the swamp was controlled by the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA), an oversight government agency in the Lake Victoria Basin. At the time, LBDA used to occupy the left-hand side of the swamp, while the community worked the land on the right side.

In a past statement to the press, Philip Oloo the then-manager in charge of agriculture and natural resources at LBDA, cited the need for partnership with other stakeholders in order to fully maximize the potential of the marshland.

Eventually, the idea of Dominion Farms Limited was born, with Burgess granted a 25-year lease to initiate agricultural projects, which included rice, banana, maize, sugarcane as well as cotton production. Residents were also set to benefit from the projects in terms of employment.

A maize farm near a swamp
Maize farming thriving near the swamp. Farming is one of the main income-generating activities for the locals / Credit: Rastor Otieno.

At the time, LBDA managed to reclaim 2,300 hectares in phase I of the joint initiative. Meanwhile, Phase II of the land reclamation project was to be undertaken in conjunction with Dominion Farms Limited but it was never fully implemented, given that the exercise required heavy funding.

But in order to start its operations, Dominion had to navigate the often-time challenging land acquisition hurdles. The company failed in doing that leading to bitter disputes between the management and community.

Members of the community whose land had been taken up by the project complained that they were being sidelined and their voices ignored. The sidelining was evident after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the then-County Council of Bondo and that of Siaya, with no community input being considered.

“There was no program for information sharing by Dominion Farms with the community or LBDA,” Oloo explained.

The land having been taken by the company meant that the people had no means of livelihood which forced them into survival mode by any means necessary. So, community members would force their way back into the swamp, clearing papyrus reeds in readiness for planting, but they would be driven away soon after, with approximately 6,000 people being displaced as a result, according to Oloo.

But there are some benefits that were accrued from Dominion Farms: the rice mill offered employment to over 300 people.

A number of schools like Kanyaboli, Nyaluta and Obambo primary schools became beneficiaries of the corporate social responsibility programs initiated by the Farm. Two classrooms were also constructed at Gendro Primary School in addition to having its playground rehabilitated.

In 2018, Dominion Farms Limited left the region, 12 years earlier than the lease agreement period, citing political interference. Moreover, the company which had managed to acquire 6000 hectares of the marshland wished to transfer their lease to a new investor, Lake Agro Limited, which bargained for more land. The company expressed its interest to convert 50% of the wetland to large-scale agricultural production.

Through the National Lands Commission (NLC) a notice was issued on October 14 last year indicating that Siaya County had agreed to lease out 50% of the swamp to Lake Agro Limited for commercial use after successful talks. This was met by fierce opposition from some local leaders, conservationists, activists and community members who moved to court and filed a petition.

The petition argued that no environmental impact assessment had been done and no public participation was involved in the decision making since the land is still public property though in the custody of the county governments of Siaya and Busia. The process was barred.

Meanwhile, Lake Agro Limited has opted for commercial sugarcane farming on the land formerly occupied by Dominion Farms Limited. However, the towering rice silos and sugarcane processing plant that had been constructed by the latter are sitting idle and slowly falling into disrepair as there are no ongoing activities.

The locals who worked with Dominion and were slapped in the face with job loss are still trying to shake off the impacts of the misfortune as they are forced to do odd jobs to make a living.

However, there are a few locals who have managed to secure casual jobs with Lake Agro Limited. Abraham Otieno, who works as a security guard at the company explains that even though he is grateful for the opportunity that has been accorded to him, he is not sure how long it will last.

“I have to keep an eye out for other opportunities and work other jobs because I am not certain of when they might let me go,” he confessed. He adds that although the job is not permanent and pensionable, the salary he gets helps in sustaining the needs of his family.

Another resident who refused to be named called out the company for failing to give the local residents the same sought-after, few and far between job opportunities as laborers on the sugarcane plantations. “They bring people from other areas like Mumias to work on the plantations and harvest sugarcane while we are sidelined.”

He claims that it is believed that the locals who are majorly from the Luo ethnic community lack the expertise required for cutting sugarcane and harvesting and that is why their counterparts from the Luhya ethnic community are preferred.

The residents are still hopeful that the activities of the company including the sugarcane processing plant will resume in full swing while others are skeptical about the impact the plant and other agricultural activities may have on the ecosystem.

Back then, Dominion Farms were accused of polluting the environment by their aerial spraying of pesticides and herbicides on their rice paddies against pests, weeds and destructive birds.

The result of this practice is that fish would be found dead in the feeder canal connecting River Yala and Lake Kanyaboli which is part of the swamp. The seriousness of the issue even compelled the local administration in conjunction with the Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) and the Fisheries Department to call for a study to ascertain these claims in 2010 but nothing came of it.

According to Emily Mateche, a Policy and Advocacy Manager at Nature Kenya, an environmental organization working with the two counties on matters of conservation, said private investors should not be allowed purchase parcels.

“Parcels should not be leased to private investors as so many benefits can be accrued from the protection of this wetland,” noted Mateche.

A woman in a white shirt smiles at the camera
Emily Mateche, a Policy and Advocacy Manager at Nature Kenya- an environmental society / Credit: Rastor Otieno

Yala land use plan

To salvage the swamp, a plan by Nature Kenya seeking to balance the various interests among the communities, investors and conservationists is being adopted by Siaya and Busia counties. The Plan, dubbed Yala Land Use Plan, was formulated between 2014-2018 to bring about sustainable development in the area while preserving the ecosystem.

The main aim of the plan was to take key steps to secure the future of the Yala Delta, recognizing both development and conservation needs. The project had four objectives: to develop an evidence-based ‘business case’ for the sustainable management of the Yala Delta; to create, restore and protect wildlife habitat in and upstream from the delta; to improve the livelihoods of local people in sustainable ways; and to ensure that lessons learned inform delta policy and practice throughout Kenya.

The plan involved all the relevant stakeholders from private investors to county and national governments down to members of the community through the Yala Planning Advisory Committee (YPAC). Specialist agencies such as the Department of Fisheries, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA), National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and Kenya Forest Service (KFS) were consulted .

In addition YPAC consisted of 47 community representatives from the swamp drawn from Busia and Siaya Counties like the clergy, area chiefs, government extension officers, beach management and community forest associations who provided technical information to be included in the project .

“The plan is informed by a lot of studies and science as a holistic approach has been applied in the process. Including studying the catchment areas upstream like Nandi and Kakamega counties,” said Mateche.

In regards to the Land Use Plan, Busia County has already made some strides towards implementation of the policy which has already been passed by its county assembly with Siaya County expected to follow suit. However, this legal process will take time as funds must be allocated in the two counties’ budgets to facilitate the entire process.

Edwin Ochieng of BYESSG credited aggressive sensitization and advocacy as factors that facilitated the faster adoption of the Land Use Plan in Busia. He adds that they collaborated with community media stations to create awareness. “We had a program in our local community radio Bulala FM that ran for three months courtesy of Nature Kenya. In the program, we educated the residents about the importance of conservation and the effects of vile practices like illegal poaching and illegal fishing,” disclosed Ochieng.

In Siaya, the County Government under the Ministry of Lands, Survey and Planning is in the process of conducting a survey to determine the most affected areas of the swamp that need immediate intervention. “The completion of this survey will help us know where to direct more conservation efforts in order to restore the swamp to its pristine state,” said Director George Obare.

Residents are hopeful that the implementation of the plan will bring positive changes in their lives. “I have lived in this swamp for more than 40 years and I know the adverse effects that have been brought due to degradation, said 70-year-old Mary Anyango, a local of Otuto beach in Kanyaboli.

"I am happy about the plans to protect it because we must strike a balance between development and conservation for nature to thrive,” she added. 

A woman weeds plants
70-year-old Mary Anyango weeds her small farm.She expresses her concern at the alarming rate of degradation taking place on the ecosystem but also lauds the conservation efforts / Credit: Rastor Otieno.

Nature Kenya is already working with residents in habitat restoration in those areas that have been affected by factors like clearance and burning of vegetation through direct tree planting and papyrus planting. In addition, 8404 ha. within the swamp has been designated as an Indigenous Community Conservation Area (ICCA) with a management plan and committee that involves the local community in the management of the conserved area.

The conservation champions have already restored 66.7 hectares of the degraded portion by planting papyrus and in the lower riparian zone the communities have planted indigenous trees. The conserved area is not up for grabs by the community members.

“We agreed that only the dry areas where there is no water can be used for farming while the riparian land was off limits," revealed Jacob Khatiechi, a resident of Budalangi.

Capacity building programs

A man stands in the garden of a house
Moses Nyawasa, an extension officer with Nature Kenya, speaks on the need of a survey for the swamp / Credit: Nakuru Times.

Agriculture is the source of livelihood for thousands of communities in Kenya and provides food for us all. Unfortunately, climate change impacts such as reduced or unpredictable rainfall and prolonged drought spells have had devastating effects on crop production. To help communities better cope with climate change Nature Kenya is promoting the adoption of climate smart agriculture in Yala swamp.

Under the AfriEvolve Project, local communities are being facilitated to acquire necessary skills and inputs to be more resilient to climate change. Through the project, supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and NABU-Birdlife partner in Germany, 150 farmers have been identified and supported to sustainably grow high-value climate-resilient vegetables and cereals under rain-fed agriculture.

Other community members have also been empowered through fish farming, chicken farming, beekeeping, tour guiding and weaving papyrus and palm leaf products.

The Yala Swamp Weavers Umbrella initiated by Nature Kenya in addition trains residents on making papyrus products like mats and helps them to find markets for their products thus generating income.

Moses Nyawasa, an extension officer, noted, however, that there was a need for the two counties to fast track the adoption and implementation of the Land Use Plan which will inform equity and fairness in land resources while protecting the wetland’s unique species.

“This plan needs to be implemented as soon as yesterday for certain issues to become clearer. For instance, a survey has to be done to determine the extent of boundaries and demarcation to differentiate between community land, that which belongs to the private investor and the land to be conserved,” he said.

The Kenya Wildlife Service had initiated plans which are still underway to have the swamp designated as a Ramsar Site that is, a wetland of international importance. This will in turn force Kenya to be more vigorous and intentional in its conservation efforts towards the swamp.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Nakuru Times on June 10 2022, and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: A swamp at sunset / Credit: Jon via Unsplash.

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