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May 3, 2024

Kenya grapples with titanium miner’s legacy

By Kenyan journalist Asha Bekidusa. First published in Dialogue Earth (Formerly China Dialogue Trust). This article was facilitated from the joint workshop on Critical Minerals for the Energy Transition Reporting Workshop, 22-23 November 2023.

Gideon Masyuki is from Kwale county in south-east Kenya. In 2009, he moved 25km east from his sun-baked farm in Nguluku village to Kigombero village, Msambweni, on the coast. His old home was to be absorbed by an ever-expanding titanium mine.

Masyuki’s relocation was the consequence of a land deal between the government and Vaaldiam Resources, a Canadian miner. But while Masyuki agreed to the relocation, he does not believe he was compensated adequately.

The following year, Base Titanium (the Kenyan offshoot of Australia’s mining giant Base Resources) acquired the Kwale project from Vaaldiam for USD 3 million. In 2013, Base started mining in Nguluku and other nearby sites.

A pit at a Base Titanium mine in Kwale, Kenya (Image: Asha Bekidusa)

Though today Kigombero serves as a second act for Masyuki, it is a far cry from the life he once knew in Nguluku. There he lived and worked on 12 hectares next to the Mkurumudzi River, which he used to irrigate his crops.

A sense of betrayal

Although Base Titanium has its detractors in Kwale, it also has a reputation for job creation in an area where employment opportunities are few and far between. A Base Titanium sustainability report stated its Kwale operations had 1,746 employees and individual contractors on its books, as of June 2023.

But Masyuki says the compensation he was offered for his fertile land bordering a vital water source did not match its value.

Though he claims his holdings encompassed 31 acres (12.5 hectares), he tells Dialogue Earth that he received compensation for only 13. In all, he received about KES 1.04 million (roughly USD 13,500) for his land.  

“I was very happy on my farm in Nguluku. We had everything. Even the money we had then was enough for us, unlike now,” says Masyuki. “I miss my former neighbours because we used to support each other in everything. Now we are scattered because everybody bought land in different places.”

An emotive issue

Alloys Musyoka, in his 30s, was also displaced from Nguluku. Now a restless squatter in Matuga, Kwale county, he yearns for a return to the land of his childhood. But he does not know what will happen to the land once the mining company leaves.

The government had first purchased the land from Musyoka before leasing it to Base Titanium.

Musyoka, and residents like him, believe that because the compensation provided to them was inadequate, the government should return the land to them.

Ali Masemo, Base Titanium’s government and community relations officer, paints a more positive picture.

He acknowledges concerns from the community, particularly regarding compensation, and tells Dialogue Earth that these have been addressed.

“We have a whole programme on conflict resolution and we target each and every individual in the about 10 villages that we operate [in],” he says.

Transparency, Masemo says, is key: “We ensure that both the company and the community understand the advantages – as well as the challenges – we face, fostering a harmonious coexistence.”

Masemo cites a recent study by the company that supposedly unearthed the root causes of the friction regarding Nguluku and allowed the company to take corrective measures. Dialogue Earth requested but was not granted a copy.

With the end of the company’s time in Nguluku drawing near – in December 2024 according to the company – a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Kwale. Masyuki says 200 farmers like him harbour grievances about compensation. But dialogue with the company and the government seems far from materialising, he says.

Community engagement and land transformation

In Magaoni village, Msambweni, a village elder holds court. Mzee Salim Ali Mwawanzi recalls the initial foray of Tiomin Resources (a previous incarnation of Vaaldiam Resources of Canada) into Kwale back in 2007.

Mwawanzi recounts that leaving their ancestral land was unthinkable for the elders of Magaoni. Only after tense negotiations, in which the community laid bare their anxieties, did residents agree to the mining operations: “We, the village elders, decided to give them a chance. They’d come to the table, addressed our concerns. My father, the village headman at the time, felt they’d listened.”

​​Base Titanium specialises in extracting titanium ores. In Kwale, it has successfully transformed exposed orange mining pits into lush green areas of grass and forest, according to its sustainability report.

In the report, the company boasts of establishing an indigenous tree and plant nursery in 2012, and enormous success regarding restoration.

Masemo says the company’s policy is to return mined land to the condition it found it in, or better. Fred Wafula, a geologist at Kenya’s ministry of mining, told Dialogue Earth the company’s efforts should be commended and urged all other miners in the region to follow its example.

While former residents want their land back, proposals at a meeting in early 2023, attended by a cross section of stakeholders, included building a park or a military camp at the mining site.  

Public participation

Though there are fears over job losses once the company leaves, Base Titanium’s plans for the land as outlined in its sustainability report do include land access and resettlement, as well as improving local lives and livelihoods.

Elshena Oketch is the deputy coordinator of Kwale Mining Alliance, a network of organisations bringing together civil society, government, mining companies and community. She says Base Titanium has supported education through bursaries in Kwale and Mombasa counties.

Rashid Mbwiza, a lawyer from Kwale county, appreciates Base Titanium’s public engagement participation. Not all mining companies have been as successful in this domain: the Kenyan company Bamburi Cement plans to mine and produce cement in Matuga, a coastal sub-county of Kwale, but it is yet to start its operation due to differences with the residents. Residents have complained of harassment and attacks from the people charged with protecting the area acquired by the company. Many do not absolutely oppose the project but feel their needs have not been adequately addressed.

Kassim Sawa Tandaza, the member of parliament for Matuga, says government officials are working together with different stakeholders to ensure that all grievances are solved.

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