KWALE COUNTY, Kenya – In 1989, Nelie Yeri and her late husband bought 6 acres (2.4 hectares) of land in Miembeni village in Kwale County, southern Kenya, and moved there with their six children. They built a farm to grow oranges, cashew nuts, coconuts, mangoes, bananas, pawpaws and Bixa orellana, an orange-red shrub whose seeds are used as a coloring agent in processed foods, and used to bring in about $7,000 a year.
Then, in 2013, the Base Titanium Mining Company began operating just over half a mile (1km) away. Soon after, the air in Miembeni village started filling with dust that choked the crops. The company paid families whose farms were damaged by the pollution to move out of the area until the project was finished, and more than 500 households took up the offer. Now, only 13 families remain, including Yeri’s, and they say they will not go unless the company improves its compensation offer.
Yeri is convinced the company is undervaluing her land and trying to pay her less than she deserves. By staying put, she is taking a stand against the unfair land deal practices to which many women are subjected in Kenya, where women’s property rights are often denied or exploited.
“I have no problem moving, but the company has to compensate us for the disturbance … and dust that has killed our plants, trees and rendered farming impossible,” says the 62-year-old retired teacher.
Pius Kassim, the Base Titanium community relations manager, says the company is aware of the damage the project has done to the village and wants to help the farmers by moving them temporarily to land not affected by the pollution.
“Trees that had never dried up for over 20 years are now drying up.”
“During mining, the winds blow toward Miembeni, and people are subjected to dust, hence the need for relocation for six years, after which we will have relocated our machines elsewhere,” he says. “They will still own everything on their land.”
But Yeri is pushing back, well aware that as a woman landowner in Kenya, she is in the minority in a system that often denies women the same land rights and access as men. “I just can’t give up my entire livelihood for uncertainty,” Yeri says.
Despite the fact that about 32 percent of households in the country are headed by women, only 1 percent of land titles are held solely by women, according to the Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya (FIDA). A recent report by the Kenya Land Alliance says that of the approximately 3.2 million titles deeds issued by the Kenyan government from 2013 to 2017, only about 103,043 were allocated to women, compared to 865,095 titles allocated to men.
But for Yeri, fighting for her land rights is taking a financial toll. The farm’s coconut, mango and cashew nut yields have dropped since the mining began, she says, and the orange trees are dying as a result of being constantly covered in dust. “Trees that had never dried up for over 20 years are now drying up,” Yeri says.
Fatuma Mwakinyezi Ali, a 32-year-old mother of eight, thought she would avoid that kind of financial distress by taking the deal when Base Titanium offered to relocate her from her home in Maumba to Bwiti village in 2013.
Mwakinyezi says she felt they were lucky to get land allocated to them by the company, which they gave to her mother-in-law. Then Mwakinyezi and her husband spent the money they got from the deal to buy a 5-acre (2-hectare) farm for themselves and their children. But they soon found they could not grow enough on the new farm to support the family, and the money from the deal quickly ran out. Mwakinyezi’s husband had to find another job, leaving her to do most of the work on the struggling farm.
When they lived in Maumba, Mwakinyezi was running her own small poultry farm and took part in a local merry-go-round savings group, where weekly or monthly contributions by all the members are paid out to each member in turn. That money helped pay for food and other essentials and allowed Mwakinyezi to have a say in household spending. Now, she can barely make enough to keep the family fed.
“At Maumba, we were economically independent,” she says. But now, “I have no fruit trees to sell from the land. I have turned to maize farming, but it can’t be compared to fruit trees that are in season through the year.”
For Mwakinyezi, her biggest regret about accepting the offer to relocate is having to now depend on her husband for money, something she has never had to do before.
“It’s heartbreaking that I have turned into a bird in a nest awaiting feeding,” she says.