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Monday, 13 June 2011

Mwala's Sand debacle- The Anchor May June 2011

Mwala residents up in
arms over sand thieves

The government is accusing unscrupulous sand harvesting cartels of perpetuating plunder of the river systems in Mwala district by flouting the extraction regulations imposed by the national management authority [NEMA].
 District commissioner Ms Florence Amoit  pledges to ensure the NEMA guidelines are enforced to the latter to curb the menace.But it remains just that. A mere pledge.

 The DC, who toured some of the most affected areas accused the dealers of occasioning  massive degradation to the river ecosystems by over-scooping sand from the riverbeds and banks leaving them bear and unable to hold in water for use by the residents and livestock.

“ The destruction is in contravention of the provisions of the Environmental Management and Coordination Act [EMCA] of 1999,’’ she referred to the NEMA rules meant to ensure the natural resource is exploited sustainably and environmental protection.

 She was concerned that the destruction was occasioning suffering to the residents through scarcity of water ‘’The main problem with the harvesters is over-scooping the riverbeds and failure to construct gabions across the rivers as well as sand dams as required by the NEMA guidelines to ensure restocking during the rainy seasons,’’ the administrator remarked during the fact finding tour in Mbiuni location. She was flanked by Mwala D.O Mr. Joseph Lenkarie.

 The DC and her entourage visited rivers Nditha and Kiliva where she expressed shock at the extent of degradation at the licensed sites. Her itinerary included rivers Athi, Nyanyaa and Kalenga which are equally affected but she didn’t make it due to limitation of time.

 She said the government will work in consultation with the sand harvesting groups to agree on a viable plan of exploiting the resource in line with the NEMA recommendations and in a manner which benefited all the stakeholders including the residents.

 ”The aim is to ensure the commodity is extracted sustainably and in a style which guarantees environmental conservation and economic wellbeing of the community,’’ she referred to the government aspiration.

 She stressed that the government will not allow the merchants to continue exploiting the community by offering them peanuts in terms of royalties.

 Harvesting of sand in areas where environmental impact assessment has not been carried out is outlawed as per the NEMA guidelines.

  Other key requirements of the by- laws is for the dealers to built sand dams and gabions across rivers approved for harvesting by the technical sand harvesting committees.

 But the cartels have over the years flouted the requirements with impunity which, even as the Mwala DC protests.

 Under the NEMA measures, District Environmental Committees are supposed to appoint the technical Sand Harvesting Committees [TSHCs] and the Riparian Resource Management Associations [RRMAs] to guide and oversee sustainable management of sand harvesting activities in their areas of jurisdiction but the DC regretted that the forums had remained inactive in the district.

 However, the two crucial forums have been deliberately de-activated to defeat efforts to streamline the industry.  It is not the first time that sand harvesters are running amok in Mwala even as she says her District Environmental Committee would work in liaison with the Machakos regional environmental office to restore sanity in the industry.

Clearly, Mwala residents are tired of government pledges to act and seem all too ready to take action themselves to stop wanton degradation of their lands, after all, it is the residents who feel it after the officials are moved out of the district.

Reacting to a resolve by the residents to confront the cartels, Ms Amoit cautioned them against taking the law into their own hands, saying the government was committed to streamline the matter.

Much as the residents want a halt to sand harvesting until full recovery  of the ecosystem, Amoit has her ideas of what she calls an alternation strategy in harvesting to allow overexploited rivers to rejuvenate while the dealers shift to new sites approved by the government. Is this strategy driven by informed research of self interest?

 Area councilor Thomas Kasoa petitioned for total ban on the activity to protect the community from a looming catastrophe. He cited worsening water crisis, soaring crime and falling education standards. He said 80 per cent of local residents supported stoppage of the sand harvesting. So whose interests is Mrs Amoit fronting in Mwala?

 Mr. Kasoa criticized the cartels, saying they forced their way into unapproved sites by threatening and intimidating the residents and compromising police officers and chiefs with bribes. It is believed that the police- whether Regular or Administration pass bribes upwards as do Chiefs and District Officer and NEMA officials as well. So how far do these coalitions of graft go is the question; and the answer is to be found in the unending ping-pong over sand harvesting and a degraded environment.

 Kasoa He censured the sand barons for exploiting the local youths by paying them peanuts for manual jobs. ‘’They are currently paying  the scoopers and loaders as little as Sh 2,000 to share but rake in between Sh 37,000 to Sh 40,000 after delivering the commodity to Nairobi  and the surrounding environs,’’ he claimed.

 Housewife Ms Veronica Musembi, cursed the dealers for causing scarcity of water in the area through the haphazard activities. ‘’There was no scarcity of the commodity initially but the  crisis started building up gradually when sand harvesting became rampant,’’ she regretted when kna caught up with her at plundered section of river Nditha.

 She said residents used to draw the precious commodity from river wells before the degradation took its toll. ‘’We are forced to walk some kilometers upstream to fetch water at sections of the rover not affected by sand harvesting,’’ she added.

 During an earlier meeting with the DC at St Patrick’s academy, local leaders ridiculed government commitment to stop the menace. They mocked NEMA’s responsibility to protect the ecosystems   and alleged involvement of high ranking government officials in the lucrative trade which, according to them is what had frustrated efforts to restore sanity in the activity.

 ‘’We are convinced that some powerful people in government are involved in the trade for how come every time the security personnel make arrest over illegal sand, they receive threatening calls directing them to releases the culprits and the impounded trucks or face the consequences,’’ an elder Sammy Munyao claimed which was echoed by his peers Francis Muvui, Patrick Ngombalu, Benard Muli, and Stephen Kaundu.

 The DC pledged to have the elders claim that some of the merchants operated with fake permits investigated but residents went home clearly unbelieving that Ms Amoit would do anything to  address their concerns “’we established that some of them [the merchants] continued degrading the environment using forged licenses they purport  to  obtain from  key officials at NEMA’s head office,’’ alleged Muvui

 The elders cited prostitution, drug abuse and high drop out of learners to engage in manual jobs at the harvesting sites as other social ramifications of the activity.

 They censured the delears, claming they lured young girls and married women into prostitution and infidelity using the monies they get as daily wages which continued to  fuel HIV/AIDS infections in the district.

 They alleged that most sand scoopers and truck loaders were addicted to taking of drug substances like bhang and miraa [khat] which had in turn turned them hostile and disrespectful to elders.

The manual laborers had become accustomed to hostility and use of vulgar language which the elders felt impacted negatively on the morals of young children.

  They accused the dealers of issuing death threats to anti-sand harvesting activists.  ‘’They are ruthless and threaten to behead or bury alive anyone who threatens economic lifeline,’’ the elders concurred.

 NGO activist Mr. Peter Matheka,, of the Legal Resources Foundation Trust [LRF] suggested stoppage of  the activity for 5 years to allow rejuvenation of the rivers and  proper consultations amongst stakeholders on the best options of exploiting the commodity without hurting the environment and resolve the conflict pitting  the residents and dealers.

 The elders called for probe into the activities of a local community based organization called Multipurpose Sand Harvesting organization led by Mr. Albanus Mutua Mbiti which they accused of promoting illegal sand harvesting activities in the location in connivance with the administration, much as the DC denies this.

 The CBO, they claimed had illegally usurped control of the lucrative venture and its members were behind the brutality, death threats and intimidation meted out on residents who advocate against their interests.

 But the CBO boss who joined the DC’s entourage later rubbished the claims, saying the group’s mission was to oversee collection of royalties from the sand buyers on behalf of the residents.

 ”In addition, we do charity work to benefit disadvantaged children and construction of gabions and sand dams across the designated rivers as per the NEMA recommendations,’’ he said adding the CBO collects Sh 6,500 per every lorry which comes to collect the commodity out of which Sh 3,000 goes to loaders, Sh 1,000 to owner of the harvesting site while the rest is used in building the gabions and school fees for disadvantaged children.

 The demand for the high quality sand from Ukambani has tripled as a result of the increased construction activities occasioned by the booming economy.

 An estimated 170,400 tonnes of sand are harvested annually from the region, according to survey by Semi-arid Regions Environmental Services, an NGO operating in the area.

 The Ukambani sand industry has great economic potential considering its contribution to the construction industry especially in Nairobi city and the surrounding suburbs.

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