THE WATER-TREE DILEMMA

Mama Joy (Joy’s mother)[1] walks from River Sare about three kilometers from her home and on her head is a pail of water and on her left arm is a bundle of fire wood. As she walks she laments that today firewood and water which were abundant in the area are no longer a guarantee. She even says that at times she and her family spend a lot of money to purchase water and firewood at the local market something that was unimaginable a while ago.

The village is called Mariwa and it is located in South Sakwa Ward in Migori County. The village is about 9 kilometers from Awendo town which houses Sony Sugar Company[2] (SONY) a sugar milling company and is about 350 kilometers from Nairobi city, Kenya’s capital.

After about two kilometers walk, Mama Joy unloads the pail of water from her head and sits to rest before she continues with the journey. She picks one piece of sugarcane from the surrounding SONY plantation and starts chewing as she laments “since SONY came here, we know nothing but suffering. Our forests were turned into sugar plantations and this has compromised the availability of water and firewood”. Mama Joy continues by saying that today the women in Mariwa village find it difficult to get firewood and water and many families have to allocate money for water and firewood piling pressure on the food budget.

This is the same story in many rural villages in Africa. Like in Mariwa, many of these rural villages were very happy when they saw factories being built in their area. They celebrated as they thought that the problem of unemployment could be solved as their young ones were going to be offered opportunities at the factory. They also believed that most social problems like poor roads and schools could be things of the past. But this was never the case.

Many African countries after independence, Kenya included adopted the Industry First Strategy. This strategy entailed constructing factories in Africa to promote rural development and provide employment and market for farm produce. Although these factories somehow helped ease some problems, with time they collapsed due to high cost of production in Africa,Free Trade, Free Market and Globalization. This meant that our industries could not compete in the dynamic world market. High cost of production meant high prices of the local products and with no effective demand they collapsed.

Worse still during construction of these factories, huge chunks of forest land were cleared to create space. This permanently changed the weather patterns of these areas affecting availability of water and firewood. To create space for SONY, indigenous trees like Acacia Species were destroyed and replaced with sugarcane plantations dotted with exotic trees mostly Eucalyptus Species planted to act as windbreak. Farmers also allocated huge chunks of their farm land to sugarcane plantations leaving only a small percentage for food crops. Soon afterwards the price of staple foods like maize shot beyond the reach of many people exposing them to hunger.

The importation of cheap sugar from COMESA region and South America has further complicated issues for Mama Joy and other small scale sugarcane farmers in the region. This means that now it takes 36 months or more to have the first harvesting done up from 18 months about 25 years ago when you are a private farmer. Contracted farmers wait up to about 24 months for harvesting to be done and although the contract states that payment is done within 2 weeks of cutting, sometimes it takes up to 2 months before payment is done.

The factories hence don’t operate in their full potential and many of the people who were employed in these factories have been retrenched further complicating the situation in these areas like Mariwa.

But when SONY was operating in its full potential, Mama Joy managed to educate her sons from the proceeds got from sugarcane three of them up to University level. The joy she had when her two sons and one daughter graduated soon faded when she realized that five years after her last born daughter graduated they have not been employed due to lack of opportunities and today all of them run small scale businesses.

Corporate Social responsibility [CSR] is one of the ways factories and institutions give back to the communities around them. This includes provision of clean water, construction of good roads and schools among others. In Africa many Factories ignore CSR leaving the villagers badly exposed to side effects of the factories like pollution and HIV/AIDS prevalence due to encounters between the locals and the expatriates coming to work in these factories.

From the Niger Delta in Nigeria where oil companies exploit locals to Mariwa village in Kenya where SONY although having some programs to give back to the community, the impact is still not widely felt as people still live in abject poverty despite their regions having high economic value.

The poor road network in the area is somehow contributed by the heavy sugarcane tracks. Although the Awendo – Mariwa road has being tarmacked, the locals fear that if alternative roads for SONY sugarcane tractors is not sought, it will only be a short while before the road is broken-down.

With many African countries now laying more emphasis on reforestation, many like Mama Joy breathes a sigh of relief but this is just for a while as if the African governments don’t provide cheap clean energy and start an elaborate rainwater harvesting Mama Joy and others will be left to wonder whether they should conserve the trees for water or cut them for fuel wood. This is the water –  tree dilemma.

[1] Not her real name.

[2] SONY Sugar, About Us. Available from:<http://www.sonysugar.co.ke/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=71&Itemid=476#>. [17 May 2015]

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