Kenya conundrum: Kick out Maasai herders to develop geothermal energy?

Maasai sheep graze in front of geothermal wells at Olkaria, Africa’s largest geothermal complex, near Naivasha, Kenya. Photo by Jason Patinkin.

Sitting by his dung hut at sunrise, Daudi Maisiodo, a Maasai herdsman, praises Mt. Suswa, a smoldering volcano on Kenya’s Great Rift Valley where he lives.

“It’s the best land,” Mr. Maisiodo says of the mountain slopes. “There’s firewood. There’s plains with enough space for pasture. You can grow maize….There’s red and white ochre … for rituals.”

The mountain is rich in another way as well. Hot springs and fumaroles, the cracks in the earth’s crust that belch steam, indicate that magma-heated rocks are only a mile below, close enough to be tapped for lucrative geothermal energy.

Suswa holds part of Kenya’s vast undeveloped reserves of geothermal energy, which the government wants to exploit in order to help propel the East African nation to industrialized, middle income status.

Already, Kenya is Africa’s largest producer of geothermal and the ninth-largest worldwide. But the 424 megawatts currently generated represent less than 1/20th of the energy locked beneath a string of volcanic fields in the Rift Valley. Suswa alone has an estimated 600 untapped megawatts.

Realizing Kenya’s geothermal potential would cut energy costs and power economic expansion. But it could come at a high price: displacing thousands of indigenous Maasai people who, after a century of losing land rights, are upset at being moved again.

“We don’t like it,” says Maisiodo of the budding geothermal exploration at Suswa. “We fear many people will come and take our land.” Read more…

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