The risks and rewards of allowing mining in Kenya’s national parks

Elephants at the Tsavo East National Park in Taita Taveta. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

National parks and protected areas are known for their stunning landscapes, irreplaceable biodiversity and their role as major tourism drivers.

But these sanctuaries are increasingly becoming battlegrounds as mining and oil exploration companies, along with artisanal miners, push for access to resources hidden beneath the surface.

Kenya, with its world-famous wildlife reserves, is no exception to this global trend. While proponents argue for the potential economic benefits and empowerment of local residents, conservationists vehemently oppose the plans, citing severe environmental risks. This controversy mirrors similar struggles faced in other African nations grappling with the complex choices of balancing mining ambitions with protecting natural capital.

Governments around the world face a difficult balancing act. The potential economic benefits of mining are undeniable. However, the potential environmental damage can be catastrophic.

National parks are vital for preserving endangered species, maintaining healthy ecosystems, and attracting tourism revenue – all of which can be jeopardised by mining activities.

In Zambia, mining companies point to the potential for job creation and revenue from copper extraction, even within sensitive areas like the Lower Zambezi National Park. Similarly, Zimbabwe looks to potential oil and gas reserves within protected zones like Mana Pools National Park, hoping to boost its economy.

For developing countries like Kenya, these promises can be particularly tempting, offering a potential path toward economic growth and improved livelihoods. In as much as large-scale mining projects grab headlines, we mustn't overlook the plight of artisanal miners. Driven by poverty and a lack of alternative opportunities, they always seek a means of survival. In Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, desperation leads them to protected areas such as the Mana Pools National Park or the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in search of gold.

There are also examples of African countries that have frustrated the idea of allowing mining activities in parks such as the recent case in Ghana where an application to mine in Kakum National Park was outrightly rejected without processing or consideration. This should not be the path for Kenya.

It must be noted that, while President Ruto's plan to allow local communities to prospect for minerals within Tsavo National Park has sparked debate, this is not the first time that Kenya is contemplating allowing mining in its national parks. In 1980, a company called Equator Gemstones was granted the sole rights to carry out gemstone mining in the Tsavo West National Park and it continues to operate there today.

Kenya's Mining Act allows for the granting of prospecting and mining rights within national parks, subject to the provision of consent by the Cabinet Secretary in charge of wildlife conservation and management. The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act also requires anyone seeking to mine or quarry in protected areas to obtain consent from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

So, is there a potential path forward that prioritizes both economic empowerment and environmental protection? That path would depend on there being a rigorous screening process for the applicants implemented through a collaborative effort between the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Department of Mining.

Any application for mining within a protected area must undergo a multi-tiered evaluation. Each proposal must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as blanket approvals have the potential to cause irreversible damage.

First, the KWS, with its expertise in wildlife conservation and ecosystem management, would conduct a thorough assessment of the proposed mining zone. This assessment would prioritize areas with lower wildlife population densities to minimize disruption. Rigorous scientific studies, at the applicants’ expense, would be mandatory to evaluate the potential environmental impact on wildlife habitats, water sources, and overall ecological health.

Second, the Department of Mining would thoroughly evaluate the application to ensure the applicants' financial stability, technical expertise and commitment to adhere to best practices and responsible mining techniques. Licenses granted to artisanal miners would be channelled exclusively through vetted cooperatives to prevent unscrupulous businesses from exploiting the system and short-changing the miners themselves.

These artisanal cooperatives would have to receive government support for equipment, working capital and environmental protection guarantees to ensure their activities are not destructive. The KWS, in collaboration with the Department of Mining, would establish dedicated teams of specialists to provide oversight and ensure compliance with regulations.

These teams should comprise of geologists, environmental scientists and inspectors to monitor mining activities to safeguard the protected areas.

Strict adherence to environmental regulations set by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) would be paramount. The use of explosives and other hazardous equipment would be strictly prohibited, with alternative, less disruptive technologies prioritized.

The designated mining zones would be meticulously planned based on the initial scientific assessments, minimizing overall ecological disruption.

To further mitigate environmental risks, the government should introduce mandatory financial guarantee instruments. These instruments would require mining companies to set aside funds to cover any potential ecological damage caused during their operations.

Open discussions and public consultations with stakeholders are essential throughout the decision-making process. This includes local communities living near the proposed mining sites, whose livelihoods and well-being may be directly impacted, along with conservation groups who possess the expertise to assess the environmental risks.

Transparency and inclusiveness will help minimize potential conflicts and ensure that decisions are informed by a wide range of perspectives. Exploring alternative revenue sources for local communities, such as sustainable tourism ventures, is crucial to ensuring that conservation and economic empowerment go hand-in-hand.

Kenya has taken a bold step to follow through with the proposal to allow for mining in parks. There could be numerous economic benefits to be derived from it. By prioritizing a multi-layered screening process, robust oversight and adherence to best practices, Kenya can explore the possibility of empowering local communities through artisanal mining within protected areas while safeguarding its irreplaceable natural heritage.

However, while economic development is crucial, the government must prioritize the preservation of fragile ecosystems within national parks and other protected areas when issuing mining rights, ensuring that access is not granted to entities that may undermine their integrity.

Kenya's natural heritage is a source of national pride and a major draw for international visitors. Mining ventures, if not carefully managed, risk irreversible damage. Protecting these treasures isn't just about conservation – it's about safeguarding Kenya's future economic prosperity.

The writer is the Executive Director of the Extractive Insight Centre and can be reached on [email protected]

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