By Maina Waruru
NAIROBI, May 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A planned $144 million wind farm project in Central Kenya has run into opposition from farmers who fear being forced to sell their land and allege that the wind turbines could cause health problems.
The Kenyan developers of the Kinangop Wind Park clean energy project say they will pay farmers for any land offered, and that no one will be required to sell their property.
They say they have also adhered to international standards in planning the 16-square-kilometre project at the foot of the Aberdare mountain range - and that Kenya needs the energy.
The plant aims to provide electrical power to 150,000 Kenyan homes by 2018.
But protests over the project have left one dead and led to the Nairobi-Western Kenya highway being blocked briefly in February. A lawsuit by farmers seeking to stop the project until their questions are answered has been filed in Kenya's courts, a protest leader said.
Local officials say fears about the project have been fanned by opposition politicians looking for political gain before 2017 general elections in Kenya.
"All the problems around this project are a result of incitement by (opposition) politicians taking advantage of people's ignorance about this project to excite emotions," Waithaka Mwangi, the governor of Nyandarua County, where the project is located, told a public rally in the area recently.
The protests have come as a surprise in power-short Kenya, where the government has made finding new ways to generate electricity one of its priorities.
"The government is here to assure you that this project is for the good of the whole country and is meant to help accelerate growth that we all so badly need," William Ruto, Kenya's deputy president, told placard-carrying protesters in February.
POWER OR FOOD?
But farmers say they are not convinced, and fear they could eventually be forced to sell their rich agricultural land for the 61 megawatt project, which would be one of the largest wind power installations in Africa.
"Our land is for farming, not for power generation," read one protestor's sign; others expressed worries the turbines could create environmental problems or "kill us through radiation."
Experts say the health fear is unfounded, as wind turbines do not produce electromagnetic radiation at levels that harm human health. Kenya's National Environmental Management authority has signed off on the project's environmental aspects.
But protesters say, at minimum, they do not believe the project will bring the area any benefit.
"The developers have not disclosed the full information of this project to us and we think it will do more harm than good to us," said David Njuguna, one of the protest leaders.
In a court filing, protesters charged issues surrounding compensation for land used for the turbines were mired in secrecy, and questioned whether a consistent amount was being paid per acre of land acquired.
The developers, Kinangop Wind Park and Kinangop Wind Park Lease, have blamed opposition to the project on "politics and misinformation by elements in the community opposed to the development of our country."
"This is a huge capital venture that we have taken time and energy to plan and implement while observing all accepted international standards for energy undertakings," said James Wakaba, the chief executive officer of Kinagop Wind Park, in a telephone interview.
LACK OF COMMUNITY BENEFITS
George Frambo , a renewable energy consultant with Clarkson Engineering Corporation, a U.S.-based energy and water firm with operations in East and West Africa, said the problems facing the wind farm could be traced to a lack of local ownership of the project and an absence of discernible benefits for the affected community.
While dismissing health fears resulting from wind turbines, he said any project that a community felt was of no benefit to it or had no relevance to the lives of its people was bound to be met with hostility.
"Are the developers open to local community participation in this project whereby they have a stake in terms of ownership since they are the owners of the land?" he asked.
Asked for comment, Wakaba said he was "open to dialogue with residents" on the issue. But he said farmers who sell their land to the developers will be required to permanently leave it, following a grace period to allow them to move their belongings and find other land.
Frambo said that with existing wind technology it would be possible to allow farmers grow their crops on the project site beneath the turbines without causing any harm to infrastructure.
"Community-based wind farms are a model that has been integrated successfully into wind energy development in the United States and in the Western world and the same can be done in Kenya," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While the wind power project was set to commence generation in mid-2016, opposition could push back that date, Wakaba said. (Reporting by Maina Waruru; editing by Laurie Goering)