Biodiversity in Lamu

Potential effects of Lamu coal plant

Coal in Kenya
7 min readApr 15, 2021

Elements of biodiversity

  1. The Lamu coal plant would negatively impact ecologically fragile protected areas across Lamu. Lamu County is home to a number of legally protected marine, forest, and wildlife reserves. South of the project site, Lamu Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site recognized for its significance as the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Northeast of the project site, Kiunga marine and Dodori forest reserves are designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. The Boni-Lungi Forest Ecosystem is part of the internationally-recognised East Africa coastal forest biodiversity hotspot.
  2. Lamu coal plant is surrounded by protected and recognised nature areas within the Lamu-Kiunga Archipelago ecosystem. Kiunga Marine National Reserve — the largest reserve in Kenya — and the Dodori and Boni National Reserves are recognised under Kenyan law. The Witu Forest protected reserve would become host to a 2000-acre limestone concession area for the coal plant. Lamu Old Town has an official government-gazetted buffer zone that includes the Manda and Ras Kitau mangrove skyline and the Shela sand dunes, protected by Kenya’s Forest Act and Water Act respectively.
  3. The marine ecosystem, mangroves, and terrestrial forests adjacent to the coal plant are critical habitat for many vulnerable and endangered species, including East African mangroves; rare coral genera of Siderastrea, Horastrea, Caulastrea, Moseleya (already under threat from climate change); endemic angelfish Apolemichthys xanthotis; and other threatened species including six shark and nine ray species, dugongs, turtles, whales, and dolphins. Of these, one species is Critically Endangered, three are Endangered, three are Vulnerable and one Near Threatened, under the IUCN Red List categories. For instance, the Boni-Lungi forest system hosts the rare hirola, a critically endangered type of antelope. The Ader’s duiker, another species of antelope is listed as Vulnerable by IUCN, among many other threatened rare species. The Witu Forest Reserve is known to hold at least nine species of threatened plants, including the critically endangered Euphorbia tanaensis that is endemic to the Witu forest.
  4. Old-growth forests, both terrestrial dense forests (in particular Boni and Dodori forests) and marine mangroves, cover Lamu County. Indigenous communities have sustainably inhabited Lamu for a thousand years. However, old growth forests will be threatened by the environmental impacts of the proposed coal plant due to the short term and longterm impacts of pollution and climate change.
  5. Lamu island contains an extensive system of natural creeks and water channels whose flow to date has been unaffected by human activity. According to UNESCO, the intertidal environment of the creeks and basins of the region holds 60% of Kenya’s mangrove forests, which comprises about 345 km² across Lamu. The mangrove forests provide important habitat and nursing areas for many plant and animal species. Concerningly, the mangroves encircle Manda Bay, into which Lamu coal plant would release heated, chlorinated water.
  6. Lamu is a marine and coastland ecosystem. Specific protected areas within the Lamu-Kiunga Archipelago include the Kiunga Marine National Reserve, the Dodori and Boni National Reserves, the Witu Forest Reserve, and an official “buffer zone” surrounding Lamu Old Town that includes the Manda and Ras Kitau mangrove skyline and the Shela sand dunes.
  7. Due to water, air, and soil pollution, in addition to other negative impacts on traditional livelihoods, the Lamu coal plant will likely damage the world-recognized cultural and archaeological integrity of Lamu Old Town and other preserved archaeological sites. Inscribed in 2001, Lamu Old Town was recognized as a World Heritage site for its unique local architecture and wealth of historical sites. Its traditional Swahili communities have continuously inhabited Old Lamu Town for over 700 years. Furthermore, neighboring islands have a number of archaeological sites of great historical significance, such as Takwa ruins, Manda Town on Manda island, and Siyu Fort and Shanga on Pate island. The community, and its culture, is intricately tied to the ecosystem.
    The majority of Lamu’s population is indigenous, including the Bajun, Swahili, Sanye, Aweer (more commonly known as the Boni), and Orma, as well as the Giriama, Mji kenda and Kore Maasai, among others, with a history dating back for over a thousand years. Archaeological ruins and meaningful historical and religious sites — often unrecognised and located in uninhabited or seasonally inhabited areas — are dispersed across the archipelago, including historical mosques near the coal plant site. The preservation of the ecosystem is deeply critical and intertwined with Lamu communities’ lives, livelihoods, and culture.
  8. In addition to its rich cultural and archaeological significance, the ecological value and uniqueness of the Lamu-Kiunga Archipelago ecosystem has been recognized by UNESCO a biodiversity hotspot. UNESCO has even recommended that the ecosystem be recognized as potential World Heritage Marine Site by UNESCO . The area also contains a number of at-risk ecosystems, such as mangrove forests and coral reefs.
    While Lamu Old Town has been recognised as a World Heritage site, the cultural integrity of the town could not exist without the region’s rich biodiversity and the broader Lamu community of diverse indigenous groups dispersed across Lamu. Just as the town has been occupied continuously for 700 years, movement and commerce across the broader community has been integral throughout Lamu’s history. The central role and complex value of the ecosystem — whose exceptional biodiversity has been sustained to date through indigenous traditional use practices — has yet to be comprehensively assessed or recognised.

Background on Lamu

Lamu Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized as the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Located on Lamu island, Lamu Old Town has been continuously inhabited for 700 years, and has served as a diverse seaport for Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Europeans. Lamu Old Town is also well known for its unique blend of European, Arabian, and Indian architecture and buildings made of coral, limestone and mangrove poles. However, the proposed 1,050 MW Lamu coal plant threatens to cause Lamu Old Town serious environmental and social impacts.

For instance, the coal plant would harm mangroves, corals, seagrasses, and other marine line and resources, as well as lead to increased air and water pollution, both localised and across a wider area.

A 2020 monitoring report from the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) recommended that the Kenyan government should “not proceed with the proposed Lamu Coal Fired Power Station (Lamu Coal project) as the project will have negative impacts on the OUV [outstanding universal value] of the Lamu Old Town World Heritage property, including also on the livelihoods and culture of its people”.

The negative impacts of the coal plant have attracted international attention due to strong local opposition to the project. Local communities and organizations have objected to the project’s negative environmental, climate, health and social impacts — virtually none of which have been acknowledged or addressed in limited project environmental impact assessments. Local communities and organizations have highlighted that greenhouse gas emissions from the Lamu coal plant would derail Kenya from being able to meet its National Determine Commitments, per the Paris Agreement. Furthermore, recent analysis has shown that energy produced by the coal plant would actually increase the price of electricity in Kenya, and not effectively address energy access issues.

The project has triggered a wave of protests and demonstrations. In 2019, Kenyan courts found that the project developers violated Kenyan laws regarding the need for proper public consultation procedures, and providing key analysis on project alternatives and mitigation measures. These legal issues have led to the project stalling. Shortly after the ruling, the Chinese Ambassador met with environmental and local activists to discuss the environmental, social, and climate concerns of the project.

Local communities in Lamu have called for the project to be cancelled. Since 2016, local environmental network Save Lamu has repeatedly asked the project’s financier, ICBC, to respond to community concerns. To date, however, Save Lamu has reported they have yet to receive any substantive response from the bank.

Further Resources



Coal in Kenya

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