Geothermal energy is widely touted as green, clean, and good news for the planet.

Simply meaning “earth’s heat”, geothermal converts heat from the earth’s crust into electricity. This is generated when the heat produces steam that spins turbines. Environmentalists welcome this form of renewable energy as it produces little or no greenhouse gas emissions.

But for people living next door to geothermal industry, in this case in Kenya, geothermal has brought nothing but misery, land loss, insecurity, and stress. It has led to the forced resettlement of thousands of indigenous and marginalised people to make way for new plants. It has also created many health problems, for both humans and livestock. For people, these include respiratory illness, constant colds, skin rashes, and miscarriage. Noise pollution and the stench of hydrogen sulphide from the plants lead to frequent headaches.

In 2014, 1000 mostly Maasai pastoralists were moved from four villages in the Ol Karia area of Kenya (near Naivasha) to make way for a plant called Olkaria IV, run by the geothermal company KenGen. (Spellings differ; the correct word in the Maa language is ol-karia, meaning ochre.) The reluctant migrants swapped 4200 acres for just 1700. Worse still, the new land is less productive, with poor pasture, full of steep ravines and gullies caused by soil erosion. Cows regularly fall into these gullies, causing injury and sometimes death.

The new village is called RAPland (RAP stands for Resettlement Action Plan), and was specially built by KenGen. Though the houses are modern, and have electricity, people miss their traditional homes made of wattle and daub. They are also culturally unsuitable for Maasai – scattered instead of close-knit, with no space for expanding families. Most people complain they are now poorer than before, partly because the new houses require things like furniture and cooking gas, which the old ones did not.

Also, jobs, shops and services are now far away, transport expensive and infrequent. People had hoped to get jobs with KenGen, but most of these go to “outsiders” from other ethnic groups. Corruption and nepotism also prevent people from accessing opportunities. The scramble for rights and benefits has led to more conflicts in the community.

Olkaria Kenya seeing conflict

“My feeling is like this is the end of the world, it is the end of us. Only a rich man can survive here.” Fatuma, Samburu woman, Kenya

Young people and women in particular feel powerless and hopeless. A 30-year-old KenGen cleaner and mother of four said: I am just keeping quiet in the middle of pain, because I have no power to make sense of these changes.”

What has this got to do with European and other banks? Because Olkaria IV was co-funded by the World Bank, European Investment Bank (EIB), the French bank Agence Française de Développement (AfD), the Development Bank of Germany (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, KfW) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). They also oversaw the resettlement.

Maasai sent a formal complaint to the World Bank in October 2014, only two months after the move. They wrote: “This project have totally affected our lives and instead of uplifting our lifehood [sic] or putting to our previous standard it have even stressed us a lot and many people by now are suffering from ulcers due to stressful life which [we] have been forced to…”

The banks’ independent investigatory mechanisms took action. For the World Bank, this is the World Bank-Inspection Panel (WB-IP), whose EIB equivalent is the EIB-Complaints Mechanism (EIB-CM). Their job is to investigate complaints made by people affected by bank-funded development projects.

In its final report, the WB-IP strongly criticised the World Bank’s failure to classify the Maasai as indigenous peoples (IP); this breached its own policy. If this had been applied, it would have given the Maasai (and other IP living among them, like Fatuma) much greater protection. It also found that the Bank breached its policy on involuntary resettlement seven times. Such policy failures are called non-compliance. The EIB, too, decided not to treat the Maasai as IP, preferring to assess them as “vulnerable people”. The Maasai were consulted about the move; however, the WB-IP found many flaws in the consultation process.

When you ask the banks why they made the decisions they did, it’s hard to get satisfactory answers. They try and shift responsibility onto other funders. Or, in AfD’s case, they say they are unable to share crucial reports with you.

Despite the investigation’s findings, and remedial actions by KenGen and the banks, RAPland villagers are still struggling to cope with their new situation. Some of the worst affected are the poorest, widows and orphans, many of whom (like Fatuma, a divorcee) were not given new houses. She lives in a ramshackle mud hut she built herself, and scrapes a living as a charcoal burner.

Maasai across Ol Karia are not opposed to geothermal industry, or to development. They just want to be fairly treated, and to get a share of the benefits. I feel because we are closer to the geothermal plants, we should get benefit sharing from what [KenGen] is accruing,” said women’s representative Florence Tankaro.

  • Lotte Hughes is an independent scholar and historian of Kenya, who researched this subject for the academic project ‘“Seeing” Conflict at the Margins’:
  • Informants who gave permission to be named have been named, others anonymised.