Kenya has officially opened bidding for the construction of a new port at Lamu, on the country's northern coast. The port is being built to increase trade with Ethiopia and southern Sudan, but some fear the new facility will forever alter the area's ancient culture.
After many months of speculation, the proposed port facility at Lamu is one step closer to becoming a reality. Kenya's Ministry of Transport has published a formal letter in the "Daily Nation" newspaper inviting international companies to bid on the initial phase of construction for the proposed $3.5 billion project.
The Lamu facility is part of Kenya's "Vision 2030," an ambitious development plan that aims to make Kenya a "rapidly industrializing middle-income" nation by the year 2030. The construction of the new port would cement Kenya's status as one of the major transport and shipping hubs of Africa, and the economic heart of East Africa.
The Ministry's newspaper advertisement said the initial phase would involve the construction of three berths at Manda Bay, Lamu, which could support large container, general and bulk cargo ships. The request included proposals for access roads, railway sidings, warehouses and additional infrastructure to support the facility.
The project also includes plans for an international airport, an oil pipeline and refinery, and resort cities to support additional tourism.
China and Japanese giant Toyota Tsusho have expressed interest in the project.
Southern Sudan, expected by many to gain independence through referendum in January, contains large quantities of oil which Lamu's developers hope to exploit through the construction of a pipeline to the southern capital, Juba.
Kenyan economic analyst Robert Shaw says the new port would greatly expand Kenya's reach in the region and prove useful with or without the pipeline.
"It is not just Southern Sudan and it is not just oil, Lamu looks quite attractive for access even from Ethiopia and certainly for goods coming from Juba, even if they do not think that a pipeline is viable," he said. "Kenya is a very important hub to southern Sudan, and that relationship is likely to broaden and strengthen and it is to the benefit of both countries."
But environmental groups have raised concerns that construction of deep berths could alter the local ecosystem, which is home to a variety of marine life.
On its website, the U.S.-based Mangrove Action Project warns the port's development will threaten local coral reefs, as well as populations of turtles and endangered dugong. The site of the berths at Manda Bay are also just miles from Lamu town, an ancient Swahili trading post and one of Kenya's UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The initial announcement of the planned facility met with protests by local residents who feared they would be evicted from their land. While the port facilities will be built on a deserted part of the Lamu Archipelago, residents and tourists say they fear the infrastructure could alter the nearby fishing communities, which are renowned for their unique Muslim culture and relatively simple way of life.