Strengthening democracy from the ground up: Empowering local civil society in Kwale, Kenya

Kenya Kwale

19 April 2021

There is a video on the website of Base Resources. A digitised satellite image of the planet locks onto Kenya and zooms swiftly into Kwale County  a small coastal area in the country’s south-east. 

Kwale is one of the world’s top producers of ilmenite and rutile – key ingredients in the production of titanium dioxide. They are multi-functional minerals used to make paints, fabrics, plastics, paper, cosmetics and food. 

The video zooms further in and the scale of the mine becomes apparent. Kwale Mineral Sands mine is enormous. It accounts for about 65% of the Kenya’s mining industry by mineral output value. 

The video switches to drone footage looming over Base Titanium, the Kenyan subsidiary of the Australian-owned Base Resources. As the drone flies ever higher, the giant sandpitlike mine stretches for as far as the eye can see, with lush forests hugging its fringes. 

What does this mean for the people of Kwale County?  

This is the question at the forefront of Transparency International Kenya’s work with the local community. 

The Community Development Agreements (CDA) – required of mining companies in Kenya to distribute some of their profits to local communities, such as schools or roads, are an opportunity to ensure local communities benefit from miningThough mining started in Kwale in 2013, the Community Development Agreement Committee – committee made up of representatives from government, the community, the company and civil society, and designed to lead on the use of the development funds, was only formally set up in early 2020. In early 2021, after the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic eased, the Committee began preliminary community consultation meetings for the development of draft agreements.

Community Development Agreements  

The questions in this community illustrate a wider problem with Community Development Agreements, which can often be poorly developed and distrusted by local communities. 

Too often they lack transparency and neglect meaningful consultation with the community. Without this, the foundations of a fair and solid agreement crumble. 

People need transparency – they need to be properly informed about the real environmental and social impacts of a proposed mine so that they are able to negotiate adequate mitigation measures or compensation.  

People need to be consulted in the drafting of a Community Development Agreement, so they can discuss what the community actually needs. 

When people are ignored, sidelined or locked out of these processes, avenues for corruption widen. Without transparency and public participation, there is a greater risk that local leaders and mining companies could strike deals behind closed doors; or minimise information about environmental and social impacts. These corruption risks lead to greater environmental destruction, social disruption and entrenched poverty. 

Strengthening democracy from the ground up 

When TIKenya started engaging with the local people in Kwale, they recognised a rich and diverse fabric of civil society, with over 40 community-based organisations. However, a lack of cohesion undermined their capacity to represent the needs of the local people in the CDA negotiation process. Some groups were perceived to be too closely aligned with political or special interests. There was mistrust and miscommunication.   

TIKenya decided the first step forward was to get the community groups to speak to each other. The Chapter recognised that in order for the community groups to better represent the community’s needs, they needed to speak to each other more, understand each other better, trust each other more, and find common ground. Supporting community-based organisations to work better together would strengthen their ability to participate in the negotiation of the CDAThis would help reduce the risks of corruption in the process and ensure the CDA provides greater benefit to the people of Kwale. 

TIKenya built a network of local organisations that work on mining – called the Kwale Mining Alliance (KMA) – and organised a series of forums that brought together representatives from Base Titanium, members of local, state and national government, civil society and community groups. TIKenya created a space where they could openly discuss their priority concerns, and how they can work collaboratively to fix them. For TI-Kenya, it was important to bring together people from different sectors to share their different points of view. Significantly, TIKenya also underlined the importance of including women’s groups – recognising that too often women’s needs, perspectives and voice are sidelined in discussions involving the mining sector, despite the significant impacts of mining and corruption on women 

Having brought the groups together, TI-Kenya then facilitated the establishment of a series of core working groups within the KMAThe working groups are local, issues-based taskforces that collectively decide how they would continue to work together and what issues they would advance.  

Members of the working group meet regularly to discuss pertinent issues. They also use Whatsapp and social media to engage actively on the CDA process, among other issues 

‘The CDA process has taken very long to come to fruition and understandably, everyone would like to see the community begin to reap the benefits of development sooner rather than later, this is all the more reason why due care should be taken to ensure that community is adequately consulted and involved’ said one member of local civil society group from the Kwale Mining Alliance. 

‘One common observation I made in that [stakeholders] forum was lack of active participation by members representing the community in the CDA [Committee] (PWD, youth, women and elders) (…) The leadership of the CDA [Committee] must find a way of activating and encouraging all members to have a meaningful and active participation’ said another member of the Kwale Mining Alliance. 

At the same time, TIKenya is working to make information about mining clearer and more accessible to the members of the working groups and the wider public. This includes raising awareness about people’s right to be consulted by mining companies about a proposed mining or exploration project, their right to see honest information about a mine’s expected environmental and social impact, and their right to negotiate better outcomes. With more transparent information, people can also hold decision-makers to account. People have a valuable role to play in monitoring the impacts of a mine and reporting corruption and misconduct. 

Importantly, this approach builds democracy from the ground up. It is a sustainable and self-sustaining model that builds and connects the latent power of local civil society and enables them to better represent the community over the longer-term. Each group contains representatives from government, mining companies, and civil society and this approach has successfully bridged previously fractured relationships between communities and mining companies.

It’s an important model to learn from this work for communities in other parts of Kenya. A mining boom along Kenya’s southern border has raised alarm about the environmental impact. This part of the country, with beautiful beaches bordering the Indian Ocean, is a key tourist attraction.  Mining promises to bring much wealth to the nation – but at what cost to the environment and local industries like tourism, which is also a major contributor to the country’s GDP? A fairer, more transparent and accountable process – one that involves the local communities that will be most directly affected, is essential for a future sustainable mining sector. 

Photo: Flickr/James Gray King