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Proposed Kenya-Qatar Land Deal Stirs Controversy

The Kenyan government is considering leasing a large tract of land in the Tana River Delta in eastern Kenya to Qatar's government. In return, Qatar would build a port in the seaside town of Lamu that supporters of the deal say would provide thousands of jobs and boost tourism. But the proposed deal comes at a time when Kenya is grappling with famine, and critics say Kenya would be better off keeping the land in the hands of small farmers.

To Hadija Juyo and her 45-member women's group, the three-hectare plot of land they own in the Tana River Delta is a veritable Garden of Eden.

"From what we sell from our farm, we are able to help each other out with things like household expenses, paying school fees for our children," Juyo said.

The Manufaa Women's Group also grows and harvests more than 1,000 fir trees for construction as well as bananas, cassava, sugarcane and other crops.

But Juyo and her group are worried that they may soon lose their land, putting an end to their income-generating activities.

The Kenyan government is considering a proposal to lease 40,000 hectares of land in the Tana River Delta to the government of Qatar. Qatar wants the land to create large-scale plantations to grow and send crops back to Qatar.

In exchange, Qatar would construct a multi-billion-dollar port in the historical coastal town of Lamu, a popular destination for tourists.

Lamu's Mayor, Hassan Abdalla Al-Baity, backs the idea.

He says at least 30,000 jobs will be created in the construction phase and that the port will boost the local and national economy by bringing in more tourism and business.

"If you have land, and you do not make use of that land, you have to make use of that land," Al-Baity said.

But turning 40,000 hectares of prime land into large-scale estate farming does not make economic sense, others argue.

Maulidi Diwayu, a Tana River Delta activist with the environmental group, Nature Kenya, says Kenyan farmers and the economy would benefit much more if the farmers were to produce for export to Qatar, instead of working as hired hands on plantations run by Qatar.

"The farmer will realize that whatever he produces, it is for himself," Diwayu said. "He will put [in] efforts to get more for subsistence and exportation. "

As officials continue to discuss the Qatar deal, the East African nation faces a severe famine, with almost daily reports of people starving across the country.

To Stephen Muchiri, chief executive of the East Africa Farmers Federation, the proposed deal does not make sense when Kenya's own food security is so shaky.

"It is straightforward. We are facing a famine," Muchiri said. "We need a long-term strategy in terms of policy framework and everything."

The government says it will consult widely with farmers, pastoralists and others working and living in the Tana River Delta before making any decisions.

The Tana River is Kenya's largest river, originating from central Kenya and flowing into the Indian Ocean.

The 130,000-hectare delta is made up of grasslands, wetlands, forests, mangroves, and other ecosystems

Critics say the delta's future and delicate environment balance are threatened by the Qatar proposal, a view the government dismisses.