Environment & Climate Change Opinion World Politics & Affairs

East African UNESCO Heritage Site in Danger of Destruction

It has been hailed as one of the oldest and best preserved ‘Swahili settlements in the world, a site of cultural exchange with European, Persian and Indian Cultures for over 700 years’ through Indian Ocean trade exchanges.

It is Lamu, one of East Africa’s UNESCO heritage sites, an island that might soon take to the books of fairy tales if we don’t take heed. Lamu is now plunged into a political hot plate and is giving away because of the extensive coal industry at play. Shockingly, experts contend that when it comes to Lamu’s case on coal and climate change, two of the biggest threats to World Heritage sites, UNESCO has gone silent. Beyond its cultural heritage, Lamu is known for its coral stone streets, traditional fishing methods and society have been largely unchanged for centuries.

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Save Lamu

Lamu’s Case reminds us of political interests in Climate change

Going through who is really behind this project and how much how has been really invested in construction of the coal plant is quite speculative. News has it its Amu Power, ‘a consortium comprising Gulf Energy’ and a Centum Investment lobbied by a renowned business billionaire Chris Kirubi with $1.8 billion investment is expected to start September 2017. Amu Power is said to “erect a $2 billion coal power plant, the first of its kind in East Africa” one that the government boasts to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country by 2030. One of the respondents in The Star laments that this coal plant will be Kenya’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and may be the single largest emitter of toxic substances to the environment.

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On a regional scale, this shows us the geopolitics of the fossil fuel industry in impacting and continuously influencing climate change policies and also, in diverting countries that would otherwise seek to do so. Africa seems to be the next battlefield for Carbon emissions for the biggest polluters like China, the USA, and other European countries since it’s easier to escape public justice in their own countries but also, easier to use our ‘greedy’ leaders who care less about climate change. The extraction of coal is not only detrimental for the massive exploitation of Lamu’s natural habitat; it also has an effect on the livelihoods of people in the area as well. Give it few years down the road; the talk is likely to shift to too much air and water pollution, health risks, displacement of people, and destruction of cultures into a mining society, among others.

The coal industry in Lamu is a reminder of another capitalistic imperialistic project that keeps augmenting itself in African politics. With the silence and greed of our African leaders, it is easier to have such treasures of our civilization given up for the coal industry. The worrying question remains; who owns this coal industry and how many will benefit in the end? Using Uganda’s example, we are plunged into debts oil exploitation in the Albertine region before we even fully harvest it. There are already registered land wrangles and with an infestation of corruption in our socioeconomic and political structures, the overall oil benefits that are presumed to be enjoyed by Ugandan citizens looms as a mirage in the advent of the ‘oil curse’.

What now?

The argument that we still need to rely on Coal for energy serves not in the common man’s interest, but for the political man and the fossil fuel industry that lobbies him.  With advanced technology and ‘globalization’, one wonders why UNESCO doesn’t urge the Kenyan government or the Fossil Fuel Industry interested in Lamu to use biofuels or other renewable energies like solar or wind energy.  However, this also shows us the double standards both countries and international agencies, which foster or campaign for climate change are themselves administering.

UNESCO should go beyond the words of talking signing petitions to rather acting on the Lamu case. It should strong set a pace calling for the World Coal Association to stop “aggressively promoting a coal-centred agenda and lobbying in the very rooms where delegates discuss policy options to avert climate disaster” lest it seeks to be kicked out of climate conventions. It should take heed of questions such as: Of what use is the marking of these as heritage sites if they don’t receive its protection in the first place? Of what importance is development or so-called ‘globalization’ if it aims at disadvantaging the common man of Lamu and derailing people’s cultures, the means to their civilization? Of what importance is the coal industry if itputs other habitats within, around and beyond Lamu to only cause more environmental disasters or global warming?

These questions and more need to be thought over by both government agencies at the helm seat of the law and UNESCO itself. Lamu now faces the politics of dispossession where its inhabitants in their own (in)capacities may not single-handedly fight and win over the material project of the Ama Power which represents on exploitative delineations, political subjugation, cultural loss and in some way, aquatic pacification. UNESCO should start owning up to its promises and champion the call:

It’s time to protect Culture, Not Coal!

By Ibrahim Bahati

Ibrahim Bahati is a MasterCard Scholar at The American University of Beirut studying an Msc in Rural Community Development. Ibrahim is also a recent Global People's Summit Fellow (2018).

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