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Kenyans Have Concerns Over Land Deal in Time of Hunger

As Kenya prepares to declare a national emergency in response to food shortages, the government's agricultural policies have come under growing scrutiny. A proposed deal to lease land to the government of Qatar for agricultural use has received particular attention.

Last Friday, the Kenyan government said it would soon declare a food emergency because drought in the country had left 10 million people in jeopardy.

The announcement has sparked growing debate over the country's agricultural policies.

There are allegations of corruption within the Ministry of Agriculture and concern the government has not done enough to respond to post-election violence early last year that displaced thousands of farmers in the country's most fertile region.

Attention has also returned to government plans to lease 100,000 acres of land in the Tana River Delta to the government of Qatar. Under the plan, Qatar would construct a port on the island of Lamu, to facilitate trade with Ethiopia and Southern Sudan to the north.

But many Kenyans wonder whether it is appropriate to cede control over so much fertile land to another country when there is a food crisis at home.

"For us to rent out such a huge tract of land when 30 percent of Kenyans are facing food security issues, in my opinion it is wrong," said Lusike Wasilwa, assistant director for Horticulture and Industrial Crops at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.

Wasilwa says Kenya has the resources to use the land to produce food itself.

"We can use this land to grow food for Kenya, and Qatar. This is a lot of land, completely underutilized and we need to begin to look at the resources we have in Kenya and utilize them to their full capacity. Let Kenyans do what we know best," added Wasilwa. "We are an agriculture-based economy, we can grow whatever product any country wants following the regulations that they need."

But others say if the alternative is that no food would be produced on the land, then foreign ownership should not be cause for objection.

"If you have land and you are not utilizing it, and then you start complaining when somebody else wants to utilize it, it does not really lead anybody anywhere," said John Akoten, a Research Fellow in Agriculture and Industry at Nairobi's Institute of Policy Analysis and Research.

He says production on the land is likely to create local employment, regardless of who owns the project. And Qatar may bring new agricultural knowledge to Kenya, which can be employed in the future. The Kenyan government has said under the deal, Qatar would also develop land for Kenyan use.

But another research fellow at the Institute, Tiberius Barasa, says it is unclear whether the government looked closely enough at the options for developing the land locally.

"We would like to know why the government decided to ask the government of Qatar to come in. It could be that they found out that the Kenyan companies or Kenyan investors were not willing to invest in agriculture," said Barasa. "I am not so sure whether they did enough research. Alternatives are there. Going to Qatar was not the last alternative."

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made similar arrangements for land in Sudan and Senegal, respectively. The director of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, wrote in July that such arrangements could risk creating a "neocolonial" system and could cause social unrest if local communities do not benefit.

The Kenyan government's plans have also encountered environmental concerns. The Tana River Delta is also the site of a planned sugar factory. That project was put on hold after objections from environmental groups and local leaders who claim the development would disrupt the activities of the local community, many of them pastoralists, who rely on the delta's waters.