Read, Debate: Engage.

Deadly and destructive: Kenya cartels fan sand wars

September 12, 2017
tags:#Sand harvesting, #construction, #cartels, #sustainability
by:Bob Koigi
Juniter Kiage, a retired teacher-turned-peasant farmer has never known peace. In the ten years since she settled into farming in Kenya’s semi-arid Eastern region, she has lost her husband and two sons to a protracted battle between powerful cartels and locals in the area, fighting to protect and preserve their sand, a commodity whose curse in the region is now likened to the curse of oil.

Albert Kiage - the late husband of Juniter - and his two sons are the latest victims in a battle between powerful figures. Sometimes, this battle even involves government officials, a police force that has either abetted the scam or is helpless to bring the criminals to book. Locals who have been rendered helpless even as they try to salvage their agricultural land from the greed of an elaborate scheme hell-bent on taking over their only prized possession.

As the population in Kenya grows to unprecedented levels, the country also faces tremendous rates of rural-urban migration, and more pressure piled on housing. Demand for houses has seen developers rush to cash in. Sand, an integral part of construction has been hot business with its shortage seeing developers ready to part with a fortune. The government’s recent obsession with capital projects including the Standard gauge railway, the biggest rail project in East and Central Africa, has meant demand for millions of tonnes of sand while mining still remains unsustainable.

In the Makueni area Eastern Kenya which has epitomized the extent of the sand wars, up to ten people have lost their lives in the last two years to sand violence. The latest death is one of a 38-year-old police officer who was an avid crusader of sand conservation. Geoffrey Kasyoki who had been at the frontline of arresting illegal miners while actively involved in educating locals on the importance of sand conservation was earlier this year attacked by youths opposed to his crusade who shot him with poisoned arrows, pierced his eyes and crushed his head before slashing him with crude weapons. It is the same fate that befell Albert Kiage and his two sons. “We have been actively involved in horticulture farming in our six acres of land. All around us, miners had invaded desert farms to dredge sand after exhausting whatever was left in riverbeds. They would force the locals to allow them to dredge. My husband would not allow them to touch our land, even after they offered to pay him well. They promised they would teach him a lesson, and they did,” Juniter painfully recalls. One Saturday while tending to their farm, Albert and his two sons were hacked to death by criminals. They would after a few days return to dredge sand from the farm even before Albert and his sons' blood had dried. But even with a blanket ban on sand harvesting without a license by the county government, illegal harvesting continues unabated.

With scarce jobs, desperate youths have become the pawns of the cartels who hire them to source sand for them. Desperate to make a killing from the lucrative business, the youth are ready to do anything. In Makueni, the sand business is such a big deal that every day, over ten trucks snake through the town carrying with them more than 100 tonnes of sand and leaving behind dozens of acres of barren land and a trail of destitute families.

“It is tough surviving nowadays. There are no jobs at all despite the government’s constant promise. We have families we have to take care of. The sand business pays very well. I can sell a 90 kg bag at $30 or earn $40 scavenging for sand for a day. No other casual jobs pays that high. That is why majority of the youth in this area have found solace in this business,” said 23-year-old Simon Kativo a sand miner in the area.

At the Kenya coastal town Mombasa, another long-drawn battle between sand miners and environmentalists has been fought in the beaches and courts.

The onset of the Standard Gauge Railway in 2013 would see the contractor of the project, China Road and Bridge Corporation dredge the coastline targeting to harvest 800,000 tonnes of sand. The initial excavation saw the migration of fish and the death of turtles that rely on the ocean. Sea turtles feed on seagrass and lay their eggs on beaches. “It is one of the reasons we moved to court because we could foresee the serious danger this dredging was going to do to the marine life, the hundreds of people who rely on the ocean for livelihood like the fishermen and the irreversible damage to tourism. We are happy this was stopped by the courts,” said Ali Mwandamo one of the activists who was actively involved in opposing sand harvesting.

The allure of good money from the trade is not confined to Kenya alone, but so are the after-effects. Sand harvesting has been deemed a global catastrophe with the rare commodity now categorized second after water due to pent up demand. According to a report by the United Nations, in 2012, up to 29.6 billion tonnes was used globally which the UN equated to being enough to build a wall 27 metres high by 27 metres wide around the equator. In Dubai all marine and sand resources have been exhausted forcing the desert country to import sand from Australia while Poyang, China’s largest freshwater lake is at its last stages of drying following wanton dredging that has destroyed the ecosystem.

Back to Kenya researchers and environmentalists worry that with even more government projects in the pipeline and a ballooning population moving to urban areas the worst is yet to come.

“It is a tough balancing act. People need housing especially with Kenya being one of the fastest growing countries population wise. Developers here prefer sand for construction. If we do not come up with other sustainable construction materials, we are looking at a very dangerous future for the ecosystem, environment and safety of our people,” said Dr. Timothy Kilonzo a researcher on sustainable cities.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Embed from Getty Images
In the Makueni area Eastern Kenya which has epitomized the extent of the sand wars, up to ten people have lost their lives in the last two years to sand violence.
Embed from Getty Images
All around us, miners had invaded farms to dredge sand after exhausting whatever was left in riverbeds. They would force the locals to allow them dredge.
Call to Action
Support Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and assist them in making sure the international community acknowledges the dire consequences of armed violence and reduce its impact.
Support now