Inside the never-ending conflict between salt firms and residents

Magarini MP inspects contaminated well. Thirty fresh water wells in the village near Indian Ocean have been abandoned due to contamination by seepage from nearby salt manufacturing activity. [Photo by Joackim Bwana/Standard]

One early morning, armed police stormed Msumarini village in Adu Ward to enforce a state decree on eviction of residents.

The government had allocated the land to a private investor in salt manufacturing.

Karisa Ngumbao Thoya, 64, who was among villagers forcefully evicted now lives as a squatter in Muyu wa Kaya village next to the Indian Ocean, about 2km from Msumarini.

“We were treated like cattle and asked to leave,” Karisa says.

He claims during the eviction in 1987, police and state officials chaperoning the new investor informed them that they were squatters on private land. The compensation the residents received left a lot to be desired.

“The only compensation we received was Sh40 for every coconut tree. In total I received money for 15 trees,” he claims adding that other crops and houses were not legible for compensation.

This account is difficult to verify in an area where investors and residents often weave tales to suit their situation.

What is not in doubt however is that the residents are now squatters reliving the torment of past evictions.

“Now we have been asked to move again,” said Karisa as he pointed to charred coconut trees he claimed to have owned decades ago.

The squatters accuse the salt firms of contaminating wells at Muyu wa Kaya, through releasing seepage into the water.

Some residents even believe salt was dumped into the wells to compel them vacate the area.

“The wells became salty gradually until residents abandoned them,” says local MCA for Adu Ward Stanley Karisa who claims the contamination of wells at Muyu wa Kaya “began about ten years ago until residents ran out of fresh water sources.

He claims that 30 fresh water wells in Adu ward were abandoned because of contamination and residents now rely on fresh water supplied at a fee by trucks or carts. The water is sought from Kadzandani, Gongoni and Kambicha which are more than 20km away.

Women harvest Salt at the Salt mine in Magarini, Kilifi County. The harvesting of salt has become a health problem to most residents living in Magarini. [Photo by Kelvin Karani/Standard]

The Sunday Standard team came across large swathes of abandoned farms while some schools are being built illegally by enterprising squatters.

There are more than six salt manufacturing firms in Magarini constituency, including Al Sherman whose majority shareholder is Malindi Salt.

The squatters appear trapped between the demands of daily life that compel them to seek employment in the much vilified firms, opposition to the investors and the vicious cycle of poverty.

At a charged rally at Msumarini, Magarini MP Michael Kingi declared that residents do not benefit from the firms.

“Salt firms have been here for decades but local residents have not benefited from them. The hazards exceed the benefits,” he says and cites the eviction of local residents without alternative settlement.

He claims that the national government awarded large swatches of land to each firm and after 2011 they encroached on the available land.

“This piece of land is too big for salt mining,” says Kingi adding that “some investors were allocated land many years ago but have never mined a grain of salt.”

The MP further claims some investors use land allocated for speculative purposes. He claims that salt firms only offer menial jobs to residents when they come under pressure.

We established that Al Sherman Limited owns about five salt firms in the area including the villages now under threat. Officials released documents showing that the firm was allocated 1,000 hectares in Fundisa area on January 1, 1986 for a 45 year lease, 175 hectares for 99 years at Gongoni on December 1, 2010.

The firm was also allocated 1021.9 hectares in a separate location on a 99 year lease, another 459 hectares on August 1, 1990 for 99 years.

On December 9, 1997 Al Sherman was allocated 438.9 hectares on a 99 year lease.

Suhel Ali, the project manager at Al Sherman told Sunday Standard that no investor can sink billions of shillings into land they have no legal entitlement to.

“We are always complying with the law,” he says adding that “according to our records all documents are in order.

Mr Ali discloses that his firm not only pays huge taxes and rates to the national and county governments but also caters for the welfare of the squatters on the property.

“We are willing to give them some land with titles within out parcels,” he says adding that from his records only 311 families on the property are genuine squatters. Local leaders dispute this figure saying it is a gross underestimation.

He claims some “professional squatters” pop up expecting free land and compensation.

Ali says that besides offering free water, medical services and employment his firm also provides scholarships and other social amenities to residents.

But these assurances ring hollow in the mind of Karisa and local leaders who say salt firms are only bent on profiteering. Kingi points to a 2006 report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights which documented rights violations of residents by salt firms in Magarini.

“They claim they were allocated land by the national government but why did the government ignore residents who were living in this land? This is the original sin that must be addressed,” he adds.