‘We will oppose it until the end of our lives’

Shadrack Omuka reports from Kenya’s Arabuko Sokoke forest on the threat posed to East Africa’s largest coastal forest from titanium mining.

A green and black bird sits in a tree with blue sky behind
A black-bellied starling soaks up the view in the wildlife-rich Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. Credit: Peter Steward, published under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

‘We only learned about the titanium mining on the radio and television – we were shocked,’ says Charo Ngumbao, the chair of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association.

For over 20 years, the group has been working to conserve the only remaining indigenous coastal forest in East Africa, a fragile biodiversity hotspot and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. ‘Now the forest is endangered,’ he adds.

The 420 square-kilometer Arabuko Sokoke forest lies around 110 kilometers north of Mombasa, along Kenya’s coastline. Local people and biodiversity experts have raised the alarm about proposed titanium mining near to the forest which they say could put it at risk from landslides, and harmful levels of dust. They also fear eviction or forced relocation. Residents of Dzunguni village which lies just at the edge of the Arabuko Sokoke claim that, despite the threats to their livelihoods and well-being if the forest is destroyed, they were not properly consulted about the plans, which are led by Valencia Mining Company.

Arabuko Sokoke is an important example of the coastal lowland forest that once stretched from southern Somalia to Mozambique.

Opening up the forest will increase access to illegal activities, including logging and poaching

‘Mining at such a close distance will cause adverse impacts to the Arabuko-Sokoke ecosystem,’ said Francis Kangema, regional coordinator for Nature Kenya. ‘It is also detrimental to the ongoing environmental conservation and management efforts in the area... Opening up the forest will increase access to illegal activities, including logging and poaching.’

The entire proposed mining area lies within the Biosphere Reserve buffer zone and a Participatory Forest Management area provided for in the Forest Conservation and Management Act 2016. The Arabuko Sokoke forest is home to endangered and rare wildlife, including the African Elephant. Six butterflies which only exist on the East African coast can be found there, as well as the rare golden-rumped sengi (elephant-shrew). According to Kangema, more than 230 bird species have been recorded as dwelling in the forest, including the endangered Sokoke Scops Owl, Sokoke Pipit and Amani Sunbird. Arabuko Sokoke is also a habitat to over 600 plant species out of which 169 are medicinal.

For three years, people living near Arabuko Sokoke have been organizing against the mining proposals, including public meetings in local villages where people who are against the mining have been given a chance to express their views. There have also been demonstrations and visits to various government agencies, including the National Environmental Management Authority, to air grievances. Residents have also collaborated with various environmental groups and activists.

Echo of the past

This is not the first attempt at extraction in Arabuko Sokoke forest, and it’s unlikely to be the last. In 2014, a company called CAMAC Energy Kenya was contracted by the government to oversee oil and gas surveys there. The surveys would have involved underground drilling and explosive (seismic) activity. CAMAC recruited the Chinese company BGP to carry out this work.

But conservation organizations were concerned about the impact on local wildlife, and the further threat to biodiversity and livelihoods if oil was found. A campaign was launched to oppose the surveys, and a petition delivered to the Kenyan government to demand that work was stopped from taking place. Following this public outcry, CAMAC suspended its operations in the forest.

People that rely on the forest now face sinking into deep poverty. 53 communities adjacent to the forest are at high-risk of losing livelihoods, medicinal plants, food and culturally important land and traditions

In 2021, Nature Kenya submitted comments on the Kilifi County Quarrying Control Bill. Among the submissions for the bill was the rejection of mining activities within or near conservation areas. These include Key Biodiversity Areas, Important Bird Areas, Heritage Sites, Kaya Forests and wetlands. The Bill is still pending but if it is passed it could protect Arabuko Sokoke – as long as it happens before the mining starts.

Communities at risk

People that rely on the forest now face sinking into deep poverty. According to Sokoke Community Forest Association chairperson, James Katana, 53 communities adjacent to the forest, including his own, are at high-risk of losing livelihoods, medicinal plants, food and culturally important land and traditions.

‘The titanium mining project will leave us as ten times poorer than we were... we will oppose it until the end of our lives,’ he explains.

Bidii Na Kazi is one of the projects that relies on the forest. Founded more than 30 years ago, it benefits thousands of local people either directly through income and participation, or indirectly – such as the motorcycle taxi drivers who ferry visitors back and forth. The main focus of Bidii Na Kazi’s activity is a self-help group for women, named Bidii Na Kazi. They have been rearing butterflies for commercial purpose while at the same time working to conserve Arabuko where they obtain parent stock.

‘This project has encouraged us to conserve Arabuko so that we can continue getting the pupae and earn money,’ said the group’s chairperson Harafa Baya ‘Here we rear various species of butterflies including the endangered papilio democus and junonia and both of them come from Arabuko Sokoke forest.’

In addition to the sale of butterfly pupae, the local community sells honey through the market place, which earned them around $38,683 in 2019.

The communities adjacent to the forest have vowed to continue protesting until their grievances are heard and action is taken to save the forest from mining activities, logging and encroachment.

This article is part of our From The Front series, featuring fresh perspectives on conflict, peace and environmental protection around the world. The series is funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation and you can find out more about it here.