Maathai boosts Kenyan opposition to biofuels project

Kenya will regret its failure to protect the environment, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai said on Sunday, as environmentalists battled to halt a government-backed biofuels project.

“This country has failed to take environment issues seriously and that is very dangerous for posterity,” Maathai said. “I am sorry that Kenyans are going to regret, in 20 to 30 years to come, why they let their government interfere with the environment, forests and wetlands.”

Maathai was speaking two days after a Kenyan court temporarily halted construction of a government-backed project where sugar was to be grown to generate power in coastal wetlands and opposed by environmentalists.

The government had approved the Tana Integrated Sugar Project, a 24-billion-shilling ($369,3-million) operation, on July 1.

Friday’s ruling, from a court in the coastal town of Malindi, temporarily suspended work to allow environmentalists and local communities to apply for judicial review.

Conservationists and local communities have warned that loss of grazing and crops caused by the project would incur serious land damage in the protected area.

Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Nature Kenya also oppose the project, which would cover more than 20 000ha of the Tana River Delta, saying it would damage the fragile ecosystem.

But Maathai stressed that it is up to local people and communities to oppose government projects that harm the environment. “We cannot just start messing around with the wetland because we need biofuel and sugar,” she said.

Maathai won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement, which has planted about 30-million trees to counter forest loss and desertification in Africa.

The Tana Integrated Sugar Project aims to mill 8 000 tonnes of sugar cane daily, generating 34 megawatts of electrity and producing 23-million litres of ethanol a year.

Mumias Sugar Company owns 51% of the project, to be sited about 120km north of the port city of Mombasa.
The rest is owned by the state-run Tana and Athi River Development Authorities and local residents.

Demand for biofuels has been blamed as one of the factors contributing to the global food crisis that has sparked riots in many poor nations, including Kenya.—Sapa-AFP

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