Land Deals Gone Bad

Tractors and other heavy agricultural equipment that are lying idle in the yard of Dominion Farms Limited.

Near Kisumu town along Lake Victoria in Kenya lies the graveyard of a once 60-square-kilometer massive American farming institution. 

On the shores of this enormous lake that sustains the fishing economies of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, towering rice silos and a sugarcane processing plant lie eerily idle, slowly falling into disrepair. Spilling out of a huge empty workshop are strewed a hapless collection of defunct agricultural equipment, including tractors and ploughing machines.

The only sign of life in this desolate scene are a few women from the community, bathing their naked toddlers beside a small stream, and the lazy grazing of cattle, milling around the abandoned farming tools.

This is the sad outcome of Dominion Farms Limited, an American company that acquired a 175-square kilometer area of swampland next to Lake Victoria with a 25-year lease to conduct large-scale rice, banana, cotton and sugarcane production as well as aquaculture farming.

Location of Dominion Farm near Kisumu, Kenya

Touted as the single largest investment project in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya, the Dominion Farms’ agricultural interests were initially hoped to be a major boon to the economy of Siaya County.

Besides creating jobs for the local residents, it was hoped that this investment windfall would have the ripple effect of stimulating the entire economy of the poverty-afflicted lake basin region.

But with 12 years remaining on its lease, the U.S. investor abandoned the project when its CEO Calvin Burgess swiftly left Kenya due to what he called an unfavorable business environment, the Standard reported.

Over the company’s tenure in the 200-square-kilometer Yala Swamp, thousands of local residents complained that their lands were unfairly stolen. 

Originally, part of the swamp was controlled by the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA), an oversight government agency in the Lake Victoria Basin. At the time, the government used to occupy the left-hand side of the swamp, whereas the community worked the land on the right-hand side.

But two local county councils leased away the land to Dominion without community input, leaving the local people without a means of livelihood. 

Community members tried to force their way back into the swamp, clearing papyrus reeds and planting small farms to grow food for survival. But the government would frequently drive them away, displacing a total of 6,000 people as a result, according to Jacob Ouma, the area chief of Kadenge Sub-location of Siaya County.

Jacob Ouma, area assistant chief of Kadenge Sub-location, Siaya County, Kenya , home of Dominion Farms Limited.

Over its 13 years, aerial spraying of chemicals on the swampland destructed fragile wetland environments that are key to purifying water that enters Lake Victoria as well as serving as the breeding ground for the African catfish fry, according to Christopher Aura, assistant director of the Freshwater Systems Research at the KMFRI’s Kisumu Centre. 

A recent technical report by the KMFRI, which is still in the process of being published in a scientific journal, found that River Yala is one of the two major rivers north of Lake Victoria that majorly contribute to pollution in the lake. This river directly parallels the former Dominion Farm. 

These latest findings are consistent with another study published in 2014 in the International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR). “This study observes that degradation of the environmental resource base such as excessive resource extraction and severe land use by Dominion Irrigation Project has not only affected the quantity and quality of the services that are produced by ecosystems, but has also challenged the resilience of the Wetland to ensure sustainable development for the households in South Central Alego,” the study found.

As with many large-scale land acquisitions, the investment spurred some community development just as it harmed the environment and local livelihoods. Dominion assisted several several local primary schools to gain new classrooms, wrought-iron goalposts and rehabilitated playgrounds. The farm was also the first in the area to implement research by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, including introducing cage fish farming in Lake Victoria in 2005, according to Veronica Ombwa, a research scientist at the institute.

52 land deals making up about 393,000 hectares have been signed and concluded in Kenya since the year 2000, according to the Land Matrix. Foreign and domestic companies have invested primarily in agriculture, renewable energy, conservation, tourism and forestry.

Land Deals in Kenya

A Flourish data visualisation

With 160,000 hectares allocated to the project, the Bedford Biofuels is the largest of any such deals yet. The project intends to invest in jatropha plantations in the Tana River Delta.