Salt in an island’s wounds

Squatters Guddy and Kai Birkigt fight to deflect a trend of human and natural resource exploitation

World Reports

Robinson Island is either a strip of land along the Kenyan coastline or a 5-mile by 500-meter portrait of deforestation and corrupt politics. It’s the setting for once-abundant mangrove stands, clashing egos, and land grabs. It remains, after 20 years, an open case in Kenya’s high court as a land battle between a former government minister and a squatter named Guddy Birkigt. The squatter and her husband say they don’t want ownership but instead hope to defend the land until it’s recognized internationally as a protected zone.

“It’s to our benefit that [the case is] still open so if others try to grab it, it’s contempt of court,” said Guddy’s husband, Kai.

To preserve traditional ways of life and protect the natural environment of the island from nearby industrial activity, the Birkigts work with the 500 island residents and surrounding mainland communities. They named this community-based organization “Friday’s Arm” after the character who befriended Robinson Crusoe. Guddy belongs to five local environmental committees, and last year, the UN recharged her fight to deflect a ubiquitous trend of human and natural resource exploitation.

“If you can do a good thing on an island, you can showcase it very easily,” said Esther Mwangi of the United Nations Development Programme. salt miners

Last spring, Mwangi’s 15-member UN Global Environment Facility Small Grants Steering Committee chose Friday’s Arm to receive a small grant to plant one million mangroves. After learning of Birkigt’s prolonged struggle against land grabbers, Mwangi increased her support and nominated her as the 2003 UN Kenya Person of the Year, an award Guddy won last October.

For most foreigners, Kenya inspires visions of lions huddled around a kill or a giraffe dwarfing a flat-topped acacia on the horizon of endless savannah – seldom mangroves. But mangroves’ sturdy root systems hold the coastline in place and filter polluted runoff from “up country” before it rushes into the Indian Ocean.

“If you destroy the mangrove, you destroy every major ecosystem in the area,” says Christian Lambrechts, a UNEP researcher who works on deforestation surveys throughout Kenya.

The mangrove is one of the few trees that can survive salty soils. Its forests provide nurseries for ocean fish, homes for crustaceans, and havens for about 40 percent of Kenya’s 1,092 bird species, including migrants.

However, mangroves are grossly understudied and, according to an Aquatic Systems Status and Trends report by the African Center for Technology Studies, their benefits are often little understood by land managers and “they are, therefore, likely to be readily sacrificed for more tangible short-term gains.”

Robinson Island conceals a narrow creek and, according to a 2003 UN report, one of few remaining pristine mangrove forests in Kenya. Birkigt has lived on the island for nearly two decades and still grapples with the memory of the destruction of what she describes as impenetrable forest.

“Even though the mangroves have been cut, there’s still a memory in my mind… it’s a scene I can’t get rid of,” she said.

Guddy Birkigt and Kai teach community members to plant mangroves. To date, Friday’s Arm has planted nearly 450,000. The couple also runs a school with 65 students. The curriculum includes environmental studies, computer training, and courses in Italian and German – practical skills in Malindi, a nearby tourist center and former Italian and German settlement. Kenya’s coast is also a world-renowned sea turtle hatchery, so students and residents often join the Birkigts to protect green and hawksbill sea turtle nests.

Guddy went twice to the former President of Kenya, Daniel Moi, to buffer the island from powerful politicians with bogus title deeds. Yet this struggle slipped to the back of her mind when a chain of salt works replaced hectares of forest and, says Guddy, removed many residents from their homes along the shore.

Here is the conundrum of international-scale business. The salt industry replaced an import – Kenya used to buy 80 percent of its salt abroad – with enough salt to supply local markets and export, according to Aurelio Bolletto, chairman of the Kenya Salt Manufacturers Association. But this degraded human and natural resources at an arguably unsustainable rate.

A single highway serves the nearly 600 km of Kenyan coastline and along its midsection runs a three-km-wide strip of industrialized coast merging with the sea, a seamless line of salt works stretching almost 50 km. It’s a vista of man-made metal structures, shallow square salt pans, and salt mounds like miniature white mountains, complete with local climbers paid to haul their contents.

Through the pans and surrounding dry earth emerge stump remnants of the former mangrove jungle. Locals earn an average of three dollars a day – that’s 250 Kenyan shillings and 2.5 times the national minimum wage, according to Bolletto – to haul 1.5 tons of salt from the pans to the mounds.

“Harvesting is seasonal, it attracts locals and is a bit like a grape harvest in the United States,” said Bolletto.

Bolletto has lived in Malindi since 1960. While the first salt works replaced much mangrove forest, he was not involved in their planning, and he now suggests that people avoid mangrove-rich coastline when planning large-scale operations.

“Apart from the ecological impacts, mangroves are a disadvantage because of their roots and stumps, which require a lot of machinery to remove,” he says. And the swamps created by mangroves make the area inaccessible to construction equipment.

In 1983, Bolletto helped design Malindi Saltworks, the third major salt operation and the first privately owned salt works in Kenya, which he claims destroyed only 10 hectares of mangrove forest. In return, he argues that growth in the local economy from salt works dwarfs any activities of the locals before the operations started. As we drove up the highway, he pointed to schools, mosques, and power lines, all funded by the industry.

Salt, he explained, is a viable export for developing nations, which use 80 percent of their salt for human consumption and 20 percent for industry.

“The main interest of the salt mines is making money and that’s a good thing because that’s what industry is for, but I say that you don’t disregard people there, and they could have considered the community,” Mwangi said.

Guddy says that the local indigenes, mostly ethnic Giriamas, are now deprived of their traditional way of living, because they were once surviving on natural resources.

She and her husband insist that the salt works did much to send the locals into a cycle of poverty and dependence on the salt works for money to buy water, as inland salt buildup has made their wells and rivers brackish. At the salt works, people get water at work and can take jerry cans of water home.A Robinson Island resident walks toward a field of mangrove stumps. Kai Birkigt photo.

The Birkigts say that the coastline once thrived with sustainable practices. Now many people pay almost three times the normal rate to get fresh water from community kiosks.

Bolletto says the agricultural prospects in the area were negligible.

Offering another perspective, Perselelo Kantai, editor of EcoForum, Kenya’s popular environmental magazine, says he hardly compares the “local peasant economy” to the economy created by the salt works. “They’re not producing anything new to bring to the market,” he said.

“We can see some of the things that they can not see because they’re not thinking about anything but money. That’s where NGOs, CBOs, and the UN come in,” Mwangi says.

Emily Lynette Laughnan is a journalism student at University of Wisconsin in Madison, specializing in health and environmental topics.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.