Mr Dancun Ouma, 58, from the Sakwa clan in Bondo sub-county, is worried after the National Land Commission (NLC) leased the Yala Swamp for 66 years to Lake Agro Limited.
For the past 17 years, he has been cultivating a two-acre tract on the periphery of the swamp and his livelihood depends on it.
With 400 other farmers, he acquired the land after the previous investor allowed them to clear papyrus and cultivate crops.
“The investor allowed us into the swamp and since then we have been cultivating it. The previous investor also employed some of us,” Mr Ouma said.
His main worry is that the NLC allocated a total of 6,899.2 hectares (three portions of the swamp) to the Lake Agro for investment.
This is almost twice the land that the previous investor, Dominion Farms, had – 3,700ha.
“We are worried because the new investor might get into the portions that some of the community members are cultivating. The farm is everything to us. It is the sole source of our livelihood,” Mr Ouma said.
But community opinion leaders who have been fighting for the swamp to be registered as community land – a change from its current status as government trust land – believe some powerful people, mainly politicians and businessmen, are out to benefit from the swamp at the expense of the poor community.
“Leaders are quiet. The businessmen are quiet when they know how important this land is to us,” said a community leader, who sought anonymity in order to discuss the issue more candidly.
“We have information that some of them have already acquired hundreds of acres and they will cultivate them together with the investor.”
He added: “We shall not allow it to happen. Why have they doubled the amount of land that the investor will have at the expense of the community? We know how selfish they are and we shall fight them through legal means.”
The community, during a public participation forum held in June, objected to earlier plans to lease the land for 99 years, arguing that the period was too long.
The Community Initiative Action Group (CIAG), one of the objectors, said it would proceed to court to challenge the action taken by the NLC.
“We shall proceed to court. We shall sue the NLC, the individual commissioners and the Siaya County government. There are lots of illegalities in the lease process that the community objected to yet the commissioners overlooked,” said CIAG Director Chris Owala in a phone interview.
He added: “Why is the NLC forcing Lake Agro Limited down our throats. What is it that the commissioners know and we don’t know?
“The Yala Swamp is community land and in our submissions we demanded that the land be registered as community land before it is leased out. Currently the land is registered as government trust land.”
Mr Owala also said 66 years is a long time that would allow the investor to use it for dubious activities.
“By failing to register the land as community land and leasing it out for 66 years, the investor can use it as collateral and acquire huge loans from financial institutions then disappear,” he warned.
“The first investor disappeared without paying the land rates to the county government amounting to Sh7 million. We must safeguard the community property.”
Also Read: Dominion moves out of Yala swamp
Mr Owala also objects to the decision to change the name from Yala Swamp to Usonga/Usonga block.
Other objectors like the Mr Alfred Ayiro, representing the Community Wildlife Committee, rejected the planting of sugarcane by the new investor, saying it is detrimental to the environment because of the water uptake and the agro-chemicals used.
“The new investor is hell-bent on planting sugarcane in the swamp. We know how dangerous sugarcane is because all the processes involve the use of chemicals that are harmful to the flora and fauna,” he said when he made his submissions to the NLC.
In a report issued by the NLC, the agency argued that the period of 66 years was appropriate for recouping the cost of investment.
“We are [of the] view that the lease term of 66 years is appropriate because short term lease would not allow the investor to recoup the cost of investment and the county will also not benefit from the land as envisaged in the constitution and Land Act,” the NLC report said.
The new investor will take over the swamp after Dominion Farms abandoned it before the expiry of its 25-year lease term, in what was called a conflict between the investor and the community.
NLC member Reginald Okumu, who led the team that was hearing the objections, said commissioners would sit and collate the views given by stakeholders and the community and come up with a final solution on the dispute.
But the community and other stakeholders said they were dissatisfied with the NLC’s decision to lease the swamp without first registering it as community land.
The Yala Swamp has been a source of conflict for years. The community has held demonstrations demanding that the land be registered in their name.
ODM leader Raila Odinga in March urged leaders to sit down with the community and have the case withdrawn from court. But this did not go down well with the community members who had filed the case under a certificate of urgency demanding the land be registered as community land.
“We need investors in our land; we need to create employment opportunities for the thousands of youths who are jobless,” said Mr Odinga when he attended the funeral ceremony for his former aide Samuel Aduol in Alego Usonga.
“Therefore, the leaders from Alego Usonga, led by Mr Samuel Atandi, must sit down with the community and have the case withdrawn from court.”