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Kenyan farmers back referendum push for more local aid

by Kagondu Njagi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 20 October 2014 08:26 GMT

Miriam Kinyua prepares a meal in Rukindu village in Eastern Kenya using an energy-saving cooker. TRF/Kagondu Njagi

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Referendum supporters want government to hand down more aid for communities tackling climate change, poverty

RUKINDU, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It has never been in Miriam Kinyua’s nature to challenge authority, but these days the mother of six can’t restrain herself. She is one of a growing number of poor farmers calling for a referendum to improve their position under Kenya’s county government system.

Many feel they have been left at a disadvantage as the country grapples with developing its infrastructure while trying to counter the effects of climate change.

At her village in Rukindu in eastern Kenya, Kinyua must balance protecting the trees on her 3-acre (1.2-hectare) farm with making sure she has enough firewood to prepare food for her expanding family and dependants.

“I cannot cut down trees so that I have enough firewood,” said Kinyua. “If I do that I will get arrested by the chief because this is illegal, even if the tree is in my home.”

Kinyua feels let down by the government. But when she seeks counsel from the village elders, they tell her it is not a woman’s place to be concerned with land issues. When she lodges a complaint with the village chief, the local administration insists it is following the law.

At the Tharaka Nithi County offices, she is advised to wait for the establishment of clear legislation on farmers, agriculture and climate change. But her patience is running out.


Kinyua supports a push for a referendum, backed by some politicians, to review the country’s constitution, in force since August 2010.  The aim of the vote would be to make the national government more accountable for how development and climate change funding is allocated.

“The constitution gave more voice to the people, but it gave the powerful in society easier access to public resources. There is nothing for us,” Kinyua said.

The constitution devolved power to county level, enabling them to raise funds through their own levies, but central government still oversees how the money is spent, lobby groups say.

Furthermore, the constitution is unclear about whether it is the responsibility of the national or county governments to manage community resources like land, water and forests, they argue.

About 45 percent of the 350 billion Kenyan shillings (around $3.9 billion) allocated to counties for development projects to improve food security, water and infrastructure has yet to be released by the national government since it came to power in April 2013, they add.

A Climate Change Authority Bill passed in 2012 was vetoed by the president, amid claims the legislative process lacked the required degree of public participation. The bill would have set up a body to seek funding for climate adaptation programmes at both national and community levels. It would also have had powers to seek legal redress for communities left out of development and environmental programmes.

“The call for a referendum is because resources are not reaching marginalised Kenyans in various parts of the country,” explained Isaac Ruto, chairman of the council of regional governors, which supports the referendum campaign.

It also involves politicians from the ruling and opposition parties. Signatures are being collected in the hope of triggering a debate in parliament. The winning side will then decide whether to hold a referendum on the constitution.


Ruto, a legislator from a humble background in Bomet village in the Rift Valley, some 500 km (310 miles) from Kinyua’s home in Rukindu, shares her frustration.

The area around Bomet has plenty of rivers, but the national government’s plan to sink water pans there for irrigation and domestic use will not meet local people’s needs, he said.

“What we need here is the laying of pipes to tap water from the rivers,” he said. “The national government is not aware of what is happening in the communities, yet they are imposing policies on us.”

According to Ruto, 21 mothers die in Kenya every day due to lack of food and water. The poor state of roads, which flood during the rainy season, makes it difficult for farmers to get their produce to market, and for people to access health care.

“We want to protect devolution so that it can serve people living on the margins,” argued Ruto.

Not everyone agrees.

Critics of devolution say the referendum plan is a political ploy to disrupt the functioning of the government and to shatter peace in Kenya.

“The push for a referendum is a ploy by unfriendly forces to destabilise Kenya,” said Senator Kipchumba Murkomen. “It is the poor who are suffering due to political turf wars.”

Conflict over resource management is effectively a supremacy battle between the central government and the National Land Commission it appointed, he added.

Meanwhile, poor, rural Kenyans lack confidence in the government’s ability to help them. Some have found support through projects led by nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) instead.  


Mid-morning in Rukindu finds Kinyua busy preparing the day’s meals. As she hums her way through her chores, she picks up two sticks of wood and thrusts them into the energy-saving cooker she bought recently, subsidised by Carbon Two Balance, a local NGO.

The wood will burn long enough to prepare both lunch and dinner, she explained. Before, she could not gather enough firewood to stoke her traditional cooker.

“(The new stove) is clean, fast and saves on firewood,” said her husband, Joseph Kinyua Mung’ori, adding that it also emits less smoke, helping the children avoid eye infections.

Mung’ori wishes the county government would undertake more such life-changing projects, allowing everyone to benefit. But it still isn’t up to the job of handling them, he believes.

Enabling people to improve their lives would have economic advantages for the local government because it would not have to bring in so much food aid when drought hits, he said.

(Editing by James Baer and Megan Rowling)

Kagondu Njagi is a freelance contributor for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, based in Nairobi and writing on climate change issues.

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