Yala Swamp matters to all of us

In November 2022, the National Land Commission (NLC) made a determination in favour of allocating 6,763.74 Ha of Yala Swamp to Lake Agro Kenya Limited. This, together with land originally held by the collapsed Dominion Farm, will lead to over 50% of Yala Swamp allocated for destruction through planting sugar cane. This is contrary to the wishes of the people of Yala. This allocation will compromise the ability of Yala Swamp to provide fish for food, water for food crops, filtration of water before entering Lake Victoria, carbon sequestration by the papyrus, flood regulation, tourism and biodiversity. It also threatens the livelihoods of over 250,000 people who depend on Yala Swamp, including papyrus harvesting and basketry, fishing, small-scale irrigation and tour guiding. The allocation is a gross violation of the land rights of Yala’s indigenous communities.

Nature Kenya, local communities and other human rights and conservation stakeholders objected to the allocation. Through their representatives, the communities made clear submissions to the National Land Commission detailing their reasons for rejection. Other stakeholders, including government agencies – Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) – also objected.

The National Land Commission seems to be stage-managing the consultation process in order to promote sugarcane, and thus condemning Yala Swamp and the invaluable ecosystem services that the Yala community and national and global stakeholders depend on. In November, Nature Kenya was able to review a report detailing how the NLC plans to ignore the views of the stakeholders and instead subvert their rights and allocate the land to Lake Agro Kenya Limited. Nature Kenya, representing the voiceless unique fish and other biodiversity, the poor Yala communities and the national and global community, will continue to lobby the Government of Kenya to reverse NLC’s decision and instead foster the implementation of the Yala Land Use plan. We count on the power of many. Reach out to your leaders and let them know that Yala Swamp matters to all of us!

Help us save Yala Swamp, say local communities

Along the Kombo dyke that separates Lake Kanyaboli and the vast Yala Swamp in Misori, Siaya County, clumps of papyrus reeds dance to the gentle morning wind. Fishermen in traditional wooden canoes paddle through the calm lake waters, occasionally making stops to inspect their traps. Pied Kingfishers lay in wait to catch some fish. Many other birds, including Papyrus and Black-headed Gonoleks, forage through the papyrus. The place is a birder’s paradise. Local communities use papyrus reeds from the wetland to make baskets, mats and other products.

“As a weaver, my life revolves around Yala Swamp. It is here that I get the raw materials for my weaving. Together with other weavers, we make and sell products to sustain our livelihoods,” Mildred Apiyo, a resident of Bunyala says.

All this, however, hangs in the balance as Yala Swamp, the country’s largest freshwater wetland, faces another major treat: the conversion of the swamp to a sugarcane plantation.

 “It is like everyone wants a piece of the swamp land. Private developers are scrambling for it. Communities who have lived here long have a right over it. The scramble for this resource is not anything that can be ignored,” Ibrahim Ogolla says.

For now, local communities are not so much concerned by the rampant fires to reclaim the edges of the swamp. The controversial allocation of 6,763.74 ha (16,713.57 acres) of the wetland by the National Land Commission (NLC) to a private investor – Lake Agro Kenya Ltd – is what has them worried.

“The move by the National Land Commission goes against our land rights. We depend on Yala Swamp for food, water, pasture, fuelwood and medicinal herbs. Sadly, our voices seem not to count,” says Ayiro Lwala, chairman of Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group (YESSG).

Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group is a community umbrella body working with Nature Kenya to conserve the Yala Swamp.  The group also promotes sustainable livelihood initiatives to ease overdependence on the wetland for sustenance. Climate-smart agriculture, fish and poultry farming, beekeeping, basket weaving and ecotourism are some of the income-generating activities YESSG is promoting with Nature Kenya’s assistance.

“We are working closely with Nature Kenya to reduce pressure on Yala Swamp for natural resources by supporting nature-based enterprises. The decision by NLC to allocate large portions of the swamp to a private investor undermines our conservation efforts. The focus should be on protecting the swamp, not destroying it,” says Edwin Onyango, a member of YESSG based in Bunyala, Busia County.

To the local communities, the conversion of the swamp to a sugarcane plantation will put many of their livelihoods at risk, compromise their subsistence food production systems, and expose them to abject poverty.

Yala Swamp is one of Kenya’s important wetland ecosystems. The swamp is internationally recognized as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). It provides numerous essential environmental services and vital resources for over 250,000 people who live around it.

Besides being home to the endangered Sitatunga antelope and many papyrus-dependent birds, Yala Swamp is a refuge for cichlid fish that have become extinct in Lake Victoria.

YESSG and many other community organizations object to the Yala Swamp allocation by NLC and are asking the government to stop it.

“Yala communities will not accept to be impoverished at the expense of some rich greedy people. We will continue to fight for Yala Swamp’s conservation for the benefit of everyone,” concludes Thomas Achando, chairman of the Yala Swamp Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas.