Our work with Indigenous Maasai Communities in Olkaria
Updated: May 11
In response to the lack of consultation of local Maasai communities during the development of geothermal power plants in Olkaria, the International Lawyers Project (ILP) has undertaken a capacity building programme, focussed on empowering local communities to protect their rights.
The potential of Kenya’s Rift Valley for producing geothermal power was first recognised in the 1950s, with the first geothermal plant built in Olkaria in 1981 (Olkaria I). Today, there are five operational power stations, with another planned. While this investment in green energy has clear upsides, the Rift Valley is the home of the semi-nomadic Maasai community. The Maasai have been repeatedly relocated as the geothermal projects have developed, without consideration to the impact of reducing the area available for grazing livestock, central to the Maasai’s livelihood. As these forced evictions (usually without proper consultation or compensation) continue, the Maasai are further separated from their historical and ceremonial sites.
At the core of this issue is the imbalance of power between internationally backed energy companies, and the local Maasai. The local Maasai people lack secure rights over their land, holding it on a customary basis, and cannot match the financial power of large energy companies to challenge their actions in court. ILP is supporting the local Maasai community to address this imbalance by working closely with Narasha Community Development Group to increase awareness within the local Maasai community of their land rights, and the obligations owed to them by corporations and government officials. Through focus group discussions, the top challenges facing the Maasai communities in Olkaria were identified as displacement and forced eviction, reduced land for grazing livestock, the impact of geothermal projects on their livelihoods, and pollution. These focus groups included women and young people, who have historically been excluded from discussions about selling land and relocation.
Six radio shows in the local Maa language were designed in partnership with the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) to address the top concerns raised in the focus group discussions. Combining the LRF’s local knowledge with ILP’s network of pro bono international lawyers provided comprehensive legal advice to local communities, including how to best use Kenyan law to their advantage. These broadcasts provided the community with information and knowledge on land rights to help them better engage with relevant stakeholders on land and community issues, and were broadcast on Mayian FM, a leading Maa language radio station in Kenya. Covering topics including land rights, rights in the face of harassment or forced eviction, and the right to peaceful protest, these radio shows provided an interactive platform for the local Maasai to call in to ask questions, and share information with each other. (Recordings are available here)
''On behalf of the Narasha team and the other communities, I want to sincerely thank the ILP for the great time over the week. It has been a great opportunity to learn a lot. We look forward to have another learning session”
Importantly, this open forum allowed participation from groups who have historically been excluded from conversations about the Maasai land in Olkaria, including women and young people. Issues such as the exclusion of these groups from consultations about selling land, and the perception that women’s opinions were not relevant in matters relating to their land were discussed openly and respectfully through the broadcasts. As a result, awareness of land rights has been improved throughout the Maasai community.
As well as working with local and international legal experts, ILP seeks to empower communities to understand and advocate for their own rights even in the absence of direct support from organisations and pro bono lawyers. Currently, 30 community champions are being trained to educate their own communities on their rights in the face of the expansion of these geothermal projects. There is also planned champion training for women, to ensure the inclusion of women in future land rights negotiations. By building the capacity of local Maasai communities to represent themselves in negotiations, they will be able to protect their rights in the long-term, independently of support from external organisations.
Recent Champion training took place from April 27th- May 3rd
James Somerville - Senior Content Editor, International Lawyers Project