WITU, Kenya, Dec 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Too poor
to buy land where they grew up on Kenya's palm-fringed southern
coast, Sylvester Jefua and his wife migrated 300 kms northwards
to Witu Forest, where they felled seven acres of trees and built
a mud and thatch house for their family.
Ten years later, Jefua, 36, still does not feel secure.
Land prices in Lamu County where he built his home are
soaring as the government buys up thousands of acres for a new
road, port, coal plant, airport and railway line -- and Jefua
doesn't have a title deed.
Last year, an unknown developer served him and other
villagers in Witu, some 75 km (47 miles) southwest of Lamu town,
with eviction notices.
"It was a nightmare," he said. "Where do you settle your
family after almost 10 years of what they have called home?"
The government intervened to protect them, and promised, yet
again, to issue the villagers with title deeds.
But Jefua is still waiting for the precious document, which
he wants to use to get a loan for a motorbike taxi business.
A title deed would also give him security to invest in a
well to irrigate his cassava, maize and cashew nut fields and
save his wife a lengthy trek into the forest to fetch water.
"The government knows that a group of people live in this
area but recognising that it is our land and granting us title
deeds has been the problem," said the father of five, sitting
under a tree, watching a hen tend to her chicks.
Since coming to power in 2013, the government has issued
tens of thousands of title deeds to squatters on the coast, like
Jefua, to reduce landlessness.
But the process is being complicated by a flurry of
infrastructure projects, which are driving up property prices,
attracting an influx of speculators and exacerbating
long-simmering tensions over land ownership.
Untitled land on the coast has long been traded informally,
with buyers and sellers signing agreements in the presence of a
The urgent need to formalise ownership has been brought into
sharp focus with construction of the Lamu Port and the Southern
Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET).
The $25 billion project aims to improve Kenya's links with
neighbouring South Sudan and Ethiopia via a high-speed rail
line, port, oil pipeline, highway, fibre-optic networks and
three new airports.
After the government announced the project in 2008, people
-- known locally as commercial squatters -- started clearing
untitled land, putting up fences and selling it, often to
Many poor coastal residents have also sold their land to
savvy speculators from other parts of Kenya, often armed with
wads of cash, said Amina Rashid Masoud, Lamu County lands
The new owners have acquired title deeds from the lands
ministry in Nairobi, increasing its value tenfold to more than 1
million shillings ($9,800) an acre, raising concerns about where
local people will farm, experts say.
They also point to the risk of further conflict in the
future between investors and locals who are likely to remain
landless after selling all their land.
Despite being a major tourist destination, development of
Kenya's coast has lagged behind since independence in 1963.
Many residents are illiterate, unemployment is high and few
have electricity or running water in their homes.
Before colonialism, Kenya's Muslim-dominated coast was owned
by the Sultan of Zanzibar, who enslaved Africans to work on
plantations, while local Mijikenda inhabitants fled inland.
The British colonialists introduced laws recognising those
who registered their land, mostly Arab and Swahili people.
Many Mijikenda were dispossessed of communally-owned land
and rendered squatters as the British ruled that all
unregistered land belonged to them.
"Before independence, only a small portion of land was
allotted and assigned title deeds," said Mohamed Mbwana,
chairman of the Shungwaya Welfare Association, a civil society
group campaigning for residents to be issued with title deeds.
The British forced Africans off prime agricultural land and
into native reserves, to make way for white settler farmers.
While post-independence governments have settled squatters
on public land and private land that they have bought, this has
not solved the problem, experts say.
Much of the coast is still owned by wealthy foreigners and
politically-connected Kenyan elites who, as absentee landlords,
struggle to keep squatters off their land.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has issued more than 60,000 title
deeds to coastal squatters since 2013, including giving away
2,000 acres of his family's land.
But many coastal people feel they are still being exploited
by richer and more powerful outsiders.
Joyce, who declined to give her real name, is one of the new
breed of migrants who have moved to Lamu County to take
advantage of LAPSSET.
Wearing a floral dress and a blue jacket, she sat outside
her well-stocked hardware shop in Hindi, 26 km from Lamu, that
supplies construction materials to several nearby towns.
Joyce moved here from Kenya's capital, Nairobi, last year
and has bought three parcels of land, totalling eight acres,
half of which is titled.
"I plan to construct commercial houses for lease as well as
sell some land to these investors," she said, adding she has
also helped friends from Nairobi invest in land in Hindi.
The government has already paid compensation to acquire land
from some Hindi residents living along the route of a road which
will run 254 km inland from Lamu to Garissa.
Negotiations over compensation are ongoing for other LAPSSET
The county government is surveying land and drawing up a
spatial plan, designating areas suitable for conservation,
settlement, farming, herding and future development projects.
This will help to speed up the issuance of title deeds,
Masoud said, and reduce landlessness.
"Perhaps this county planning will ensure the government
finally recognises us and allocates us titles," Jefua said.
($1 = 101.9500 Kenyan shillings)
(Reporting by Sophie Mbugua, Editing by Katy Migiro and Katie
Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate
change. Visit news.trust.org)