Politics of Poverty

Will oil bring promise or peril to the communities of Turkana, Kenya?

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Children play in the water on the shore of Lake Turkana in Nasechabuin village of Northern Turkana. Photo: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

Oil companies and Kenyan civil society groups debate the future of the region.

How does an oil company engage with communities effectively when these communities have been plagued by years of poverty, conflict, and extreme marginalization from the rest of the country? The UK-based oil company Tullow Oil faces this difficult (although not unique) situation in Kenya’s northwestern region of Turkana. Representatives of civil society, Tullow Oil, and the investor community shared reflections on this challenge at a conference on East Africa’s oil and gas boom hosted by Brookings Institute and Oxfam America last month in Washington, DC.

Ikal Angelei, an accomplished activist working on human rights and environmental issues in Kenya, remarked on the experience of Turkana communities since the discovery of oil on their lands in 2012. Ms. Angelei founded Friends of Lake Turkana, a grassroots organization that aims to foster social, economic and environmental justice in the Lake Turkana Basin, where she was raised. She described a daunting context in Turkana where communities face a 94 percent poverty level and 87 percent illiteracy level (with literacy rates for women in particular only reaching a mere 4 percent).

Communities feel so detached from their country that they commonly quip that they are coming from Turkana and going to Kenya.Turkana has been prone to conflict, but communities have experienced limited support from the national government regarding security issues. Ms. Angelei noted: “The Government of Kenya has not given security to the local communities in the region, but now with oil the government is giving security to the oil companies. What does that say to the citizens of the region?”

Ms. Angelei also highlighted the stark disparity between the amount and quality of information available to national government as compared to local communities. She explained that, “information trickles down very slowly and sometimes does not get to local communities, which creates an environment for conflict.” In particular, she emphasized that in an area where communities have access to arms the urgency of creating a space for local engagement should not be underestimated. In fact, Tullow Oil has already shut down operations once – in late October through early November last year – as a result of local protests.

On behalf of Tullow Oil, Chairman Simon Thompson and Vice President for Safety, Sustainability and External Affairs Sandy Stash participated in the conference. Following Ms. Angelei’s presentation, Ms. Stash noted that Tullow’s “outreach and engagement needs to be very broad” and highlighted the importance of establishing a level of community engagement that goes beyond simply educating or explaining issues to community members. In particular, she highlighted the importance of overcoming barriers to women’s participation (including by addressing logistical issues such as the time of day selected for meetings). She called for a focus on long-term investment, not just on the cost of doing business. Chairman Thompson underscored this point, stating that “we’re working on a multi-decade time horizon…so we really have an interest in trying to ensure that the people in Turkana want us and can see tangible benefits.”

Building on this discussion around community engagement in Turkana, I had the chance to present Oxfam’s new report entitled Free, Prior and Informed Consent in Africa: An emerging standard for extractive industry projects.It provides an overview of global policies and standards pertaining to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) relevant to Africa. Importantly, it illustrates that in Africa regional institutions, civil society organizations, and others have recently begun to call for FPIC processes when natural resource projects have the potential to impact local communities (regardless of whether affected communities identify themselves as indigenous peoples).

Referencing my comments on FPIC, Chairman Thompson of Tullow stated that, “from our perspective consent isn’t really enough, we actually need the support of the local community…grudging consent is not enough, we actually need the community to be on our side.” Effective implementation of FPIC would in fact require the ongoing support of communities (it is not a one-off process). However, terminology aside, Tullow Oil’s recognition of the importance of ensuring community support for a project is encouraging. If Tullow Oil wants to embrace best practice in the sector, they will publicly commit to ensuring that project-affected communities are adequately informed in a timely manner and given the opportunity to approve or reject a project prior to commencement of operations.

Ms. Angelei concluded her comments on community perspectives by noting:

How do you expect them to feel that this is a national resource when for years there has never been a national resource to bring social and economic transformation for these communities…Companies working in the region have to realize that the political economy of the region is different. We’re not on the same playing field, so what national government perceives is not what the local community perceives…You are working in a region in which communities need to be part of the conversation and they have to be at the table.

Tullow Oil will need to find a way to effectively ensure community participation in decision making if they wish to change the tide and guard against future social conflict in Turkana. Whether Tullow and the Kenyan government manage to get this process right could present an early signal as to whether the country will manage to successfully use its natural resources towards poverty alleviation or follow the conflict-ridden path of resource rich countries like Nigeria.

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