Sunday, 1 August 2010


Last week I met Robin Palmer, who maintains Oxfam’s ‘Land Rights in Africa’ webpage and is the author of a stimulating think-piece on land grabs: ‘A New Scramble for Africa?’ (2010). This, and another paper that he forwarded (Zoomers 2010), set me thinking about the different kinds of land alienation that I’ve come across in East Africa. The case that troubles me most is the expansion of Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park (Walsh 2008; 2012). I’ve also been exercised by the negative consequences of land adjudication in Mbeere (Walsh 1993), and of commercial ranching near Mount Kasigau (unpublished field notes), both in Kenya. In an earlier note (‘Giriama Bird Names’) I referred briefly to the ongoing conflict over a land grab for the cultivation of a biofuel crop (Jatropha curcas) in Dakatcha (inland of Malindi, on the Kenya coast). But the land grab on the coast whose deleterious impacts I know most about is the development of the ‘Diani Complex’ of luxury tourist hotels and amenities south of Mombasa.

In August-September 1985 I lived with and studied Agwiraye women’s group in the village of Mwamambi in Diani Location, by the main road from Mombasa and on the outskirts of Ukunda, about 3 km inland of Diani beach and its ‘tourist paradise’. Here’s how I began my description of the local economy:

Mwamambi is surrounded by alienated land. To the north and west are thousands of acres of farmland first alienated during the colonial period. One of these plantations, a few hundred metres inland of Agwiraye’s meeting-place and known by the name of its present Indian owner, Kaslak, was the scene of violent clashes in the early 1970s when a group of Kikuyu land speculators tried to enforce the removal of local Digo squatting and farming illegally on land which they still claim as theirs. But the most disruptive alienation in recent years, altering the entire character of the local economy, took place under President Kenyatta in 1972. This comprised the decision to convert the whole of the area between the main highway and the beach into a tourist paradise under the name of the Diani Complex. The Complex, stretching some 10 km from Kongo to Kinondo, was subdivided into 4 strips or ‘beaches’. Beach 1, a 1 km wide strip along the shore, has become the site of more than 10 major hotels. Beach 2, ¼ km wide, comprises an access road and the services along this. Beaches 3 and 4 cover the rest of the land inland to the main road. From here locals were to be resettled along the road and to the west on land designated as a Reserve, where most of Agwiraye’s members live and the group meets. However, development on beaches 3 and 4 was stopped in 1978 by the new President [Moi] and Digo continue to live and farm there. But the damage was done. Locals lost land on beaches 1 and 2, some selling and some receiving compensation. Otherwise considerable uncertainty remains over land rights in the area, and only some landowners have been issued with title deeds.

Before this development the local Digo grew most of their grain crops (especially maize) ‘chini’, on the rocky land just inland of the sea, and tended coconut palms interspersed with other crops (including cassava and rice) ‘juu’, on the land rising up from the main road. Young men sought wage labour in Mombasa and elsewhere, eventually settling down to look after their land and derive some income from the sale of copra, dried coconut kernel. This pattern has now been thoroughly transformed. The beach hotels have brought an influx of migrant workers from up-country, Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya and Kamba, spawning the rapid growth of settlement and services along the main highway, especially in Ukunda. Digo have also found work in these hotels and the sector which has grown up around them. Many, already suffering from land pressure, have sold their land to immigrant entrepreneurs, while others, more canny, have built accommodation to rent out to immigrant workers. The result is an incipient class division, partly, but not entirely, along ethnic lines.

This has had a further, detrimental, effect upon local agriculture. Because many men, young and old, are now in paid employment they have little time to devote to their fields. Consequently a lot of land between palms which used to be under cultivation has reverted to bush: the women alone cannot clear and cultivate all of it. This uncultivated land, including large areas of alienated land, harbours wild animals which are damaging to crops: monkeys, warthogs and wild boar. It also encourages the few local stock owners, who would have once grazed their animals far inland, to leave them to roam in between the homesteads. Meanwhile men are no longer free to guard the crops at night, while the culling of wild animals is discouraged by the government and prohibited without a licence. Women, especially those with small children, are unable to guard the crops themselves. As a result a very high proportion of women’s agricultural enterprises fail, including those right next to their homes, the crops being eaten or trampled by animals before they are ready for harvesting. (Walsh 1986: 26-27)

As I went on to write, the members of Agwiraye women’s group were seriously affected by this. Most of them had husbands who were employed or absent for other reasons, and a number didn’t have husbands at all. Their farming suffered accordingly: over half of members’ fields weren’t cultivated in 1985, in many cases because of the threat from wild animals:

The result is a vicious circle. Because such a high proportion of agricultural enterprises fail, households are becoming increasingly dependent for their subsistence upon food staples purchased from the local shops. Thus household members, particularly men, are under increasing pressure to find and remain in wage employment, one of the major causes of local agricultural decline in the first place. This has a somewhat different effect upon gender relations than the well known scenario in which women with labour-migrant husbands find themselves bearing a much heavier agricultural burden in order to stay alive. In Mwamambi most of the working men continue to live at home and do the shopping themselves to feed their households. The burden of agricultural labour upon their wives is reduced, and in 1985 a few group members had abandoned cultivation altogether. But women without working husbands are not so fortunate: a fact reflected [...] in the difficulty they experience in sustaining membership of the women’s group. (Walsh 1986: 28-30)

Leaving aside the specific features of this case, it’s a depressingly familiar story. The bitterness and simmering resentment that I found in Mwamambi are reproduced up and down the Kenya coast. As we now know, the different alienations of land – and the feelings of alienation – experienced by the people of the coast, and the Digo in particular, provided a fertile ground for political manipulation and the eruption of widespread violence and ethnic cleansing in August-November 1997 (Kenya Human Rights Commission 1997; 1998; Human Rights Watch 2002). But there seems to have been relatively little research on the Diani case since the 1980s (cf. Migot-Adholla et al. 1982), and while writing this note I’ve struggled to find online references to the social and economic consequences of hotel development there (Hannan 2008 is a rare exception). Instead the good works of The Colobus Trust, established in 1997 to protect the Diani population of the Angolan colobus (Colobus angolensis), are ubiquitous.

Unless they’re documented and commemorated, land grabs are readily erased from the collective memory of all but their victims. In August 1987 I discussed local land alienations and their negative impacts with a group of Lutheran World Relief volunteers staying in one of the Diani beach hotels. I can’t remember which hotel it was, but I do recall drawing my young audience’s attention to the magnificent coconut palms in its well-manicured grounds. These were once the property of local farmers, as was the land below them, but now they were excluded from the hotel premises, and the nuts went unharvested except by hotel staff instructed to make sure that they didn’t drop on the heads of unsuspecting holidaymakers. For obvious reasons, this isn’t the kind of information that you’re likely to read in a hotel brochure or get from a tourist rep. I’ve visited and stayed in my fair share of beach hotels in East Africa, often when working as a development consultant. It’s easy to enjoy these carefully prepared representations of exotic Africa when you can afford it and don’t know or care about the backstory. And the same goes for other processed and packaged products of land grabbing, including many wildlife safaris and ecotours (for which see Igoe et al. 2010; Igoe 2010).

My thanks to Robin Palmer and Jim Igoe for kindly sharing the recent papers referred to in this note. And my apologies to everyone who can’t readily access commercially published journal articles.


Hannan, Lucy 2008. Trouble in Paradise / Tourism and Minorities: A Kenya Case Study. In Ishbel Matheson (ed.) State of the World’s Minorities 2008. Minority Rights Group International. 28-39.

Human Rights Watch 2002. Playing with Fire: Weapons Proliferation, Political Violence, and Human Rights in Kenya. New York: Human Rights Watch.

Igoe, James, Katja Neves and Dan Brockington 2010. A Spectacular Eco-tour around the Historic Bloc: Theorising the Convergence of Biodiversity Conservation and Capitalist Expansion. Antipode 42 (3): 486-512.

Igoe, James 2010. The Spectacle of Nature inthe Global Economy of Appearances: Anthropological Engagements with theSpectacular Mediations of Transnational Conservation. Critique of Anthropology 30 (4): 375-397.

Kenya Human Rights Commission 1997. Kayas of Deprivation, Kayas of Blood: Violence, Ethnicity and the State in Coastal Kenya. Nairobi: Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Kenya Human Rights Commission 1998. Kayas Revisited: A Post-election Balance Sheet. Nairobi: Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Migot-Adholla, S. E., Katama G. C. Mkangi and Joseph Mbindyo 1982. Study of Tourism in Kenya: With Emphasis on the Attitudes of Residents of the Kenya Coast (IDS Consultancy Reports No. 7). Nairobi: Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi.

Palmer, Robin 2010. A New Scramble for Africa? Mokoro Newsletter 52 (May 2010): 4-5.

Walsh, Martin 1986. Interim Report for a Study of Income Generation and its Effects among Women’s Groups in Kenya’s Coast Province. Report to World Education Inc., Boston.

Walsh, Martin 1987. Development in Diani and its Lessons. Presentation to a seminar on ‘Issues in Development’, Lutheran World Relief Volunteer Conference, Diani Beach, 27 August 1987.

Walsh, Martin 1993. The Social and Economic Impacts of Land Reform: A Kenyan Case Study. Paper presented to the East African Seminar Series, African Studies Centre, University of Cambridge, 9 November 1993.

Walsh, Martin 2008. Pastoralism and Policy Processes in Tanzania: Mbarali Case Study. Report to the Tanzania National Resource Forum (TNRF), Arusha.

Walsh, Martin 2012. The Not-So-Great-Ruaha and Hidden Histories of an Environmental Panic in Tanzania. Journal of Eastern African Studies 6 (2): 303-335.

Zoomers, Annelies 2010. Globalisation and the Foreignisation of Space: Seven Processes Driving the Current Global Land Grab. Journal of Peasant Studies 37 (2): 429-447.

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