Politics of Poverty

Listening to local communities in Kenya: 6 tips for oil companies and lenders

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Photo: Kieran Doherty / Oxfam

New Oxfam study finds that Tullow Oil has not yet effectively obtained the free, prior and informed consent of project affected communities in Turkana, Kenya

While most of the news related to Kenya in recent weeks has focused on turmoil around the contested elections, another important story flew under the radar. Kenya announced it will conduct a feasibility study for a 500 mile, $2 billion oil pipeline from northern Kenya’s Turkana region to Lamu on the coast for export.

Much of the land the pipeline will cross is occupied by marginalized indigenous and other local communities who grapple with drought, poverty, and limited access to social services compared to other Kenyans. Given these serious challenges, it is essential that the government involves communities in the design of the pipeline route and ensure their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) when the project will impact community lands.

Although it does not address the pipeline specifically, a new study released by Oxfam in Kenya offers some important clues about the readiness of the pipeline consortium – Tullow Oil, Africa Oil, and Total – to engage communities effectively. The research examines whether the upstream oil project’s operator, Tullow Oil (and project funder, the International Finance Corporation (IFC)) have met their commitments to respect the FPIC rights of communities’ affected by oil exploration activities in Turkana.

The research is the first independent, in-depth review on how a company is implementing the IFC’s FPIC requirements in practice that we’re aware of. It finds that while the company has made some important improvements with regard to their community engagement practices, they have not yet effectively obtained FPIC in these communities.

Six recommendations for companies and lenders stand out as particularly salient:

  1. Companies should facilitate efforts by communities and local governments to document consultation processes and agreements in appropriate languages and make them readily accessible to all community members. The report highlights shortfalls related to information provision and transparency, and highly disparate understandings of agreement contents among community members.
  1. Companies should ensure that FPIC consultations explain issues in the context of the potential positive and negative impacts of a multi-decade project. Oil development is new in Kenya, and communities have little sense of the potential long-term potential impacts. Companies can help communities by providing the full story – describing not just the impacts at one site during one phase of development, but the potential cumulative environmental, social, and human rights risks throughout the whole project.
  1. Companies should maintain and deepen informed consent through formal, routine meetings with community leaders and with the broader community. FPIC processes should never be a one-off thing, and consent will not be sustainable without continuous engagement and public monitoring of commitments. The report highlights a common perception among communities that Tullow Oil is not following through on their commitments which is eroding trust. While the company may have legitimate reasons for delays in keeping promises, community frustration builds when they fail to communicate these effectively.
  1. Companies should create space for communication and learning across project-affected communities. In addition to engagement within individual communities, companies should create learning and exchange experiences that bring affected communities together. This will facilitate the transfer of knowledge and also the scaling up of new initiatives. Tullow Oil consulted the communities in the study separately.
  1. Companies and lenders should bring in third party, independent specialists, such as legal advisors, to support communities in understanding issues and monitoring FPIC. The report notes that 82 percent of Turkana county residents have no formal education, and that much of the population is very young and poor. Yet communities are faced with the challenge of negotiating an agreement with a powerful and well-resourced multinational oil company with a cadre of lawyers at their disposal. The communities involved in the study had no legal or technical support at their disposal during the negotiations.
  1. Lenders should ensure that independent monitoring work includes more active engagement with diverse segments of affected communities. The IFC has contracted external monitors to evaluate the project twice a year during exploration to ensure compliance with its performance standards. This is an important measure. However, the monitors spend limited time actually engaging with community members in the field. This impedes their ability to speak credibly about compliance with the IFC’s FPIC requirement.

By taking these steps, companies and lenders can ensure that FPIC processes are more transparent, participatory, and effective.  As companies and other institutions such as the World Bank’s public sector arm are considering ways of implementing FPIC effectively, we hope they will look to learn lessons from this study. Ultimately, this will reduce the risk of social conflict and increase the possibility for communities to receive tangible benefits.

Download the full report here here.

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