Pan African Paper operates
a paper mill and forestry operation in Western Kenya in the town of
Webuye, near the Uganda border. The industry began in the mid
1970’s as a project of the Kenyan government with support and financing
of the World Bank. Orient Paper Mills, part of the Birhla group from
India, bought major shareholdings in the operation. Despite the
promise of international investor potential to invest in the improvement
and updating of the mill, pollution and damage to the community and
the local environment has increased.
On September 22, a team of
environmental and human rights investigators from Global Community Monitor
and the Resource Conflict Institute (RECONCILE) drove from Kisumu on
the shores of Lake Victoria to Webuye. RECONCILE is a regional policy
research and advocacy NGO registered in Kenya and implementing programmes
in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. HAKI-MAZINGIRA is the environmental justice
program of RECONCILE, the objective of which
is to promote access to environmental justice in rural areas of Kenya
through legal education and awareness creation, capacity building and
training of communities and individuals. It is this context that
the group and their local community partners, Center for Development
and Education Program (CDEP), have brought in the Bucket Brigade.
Mark Chernaik, Staff Scientist at the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (http://www.elaw.org) received e-mail from RECONCILE director Michael Ochieng Odhiambo this summer, seeking relief for the residents of Webuye. ELAW and RECONCILE have been collaborating for more than ten years to protect the environment through law in East Africa. Mark connected Michael to Global Community Monitor. Mark is providing critical scientific analysis, including interpretation of the shocking test results. ELAW provided key support for the Toxic Tour and the training program in Webuye.
Upon entering the valley where
the town of 80,000 is located, we crossed the raging Nzoia River, swollen
from rains and colored of milk chocolate. Within a short distance
the stacks of Pan Paper’s huge mill begin to dominate the skyline.
We are greeted by the stench of ‘rotten cabbage’ coming from the
mill’s emissions of odorous sulfur compounds. Our guides from
RECONCILE, Maurice and Anastacia note the small amounts of smoke from
the usually billowing stacks is due to the incumbent President of Kenya’s
visit to the region with legions of news reporters and cameras in tow.
The Pan Paper mill is a political hot potato that serves as an embarrassment
to politicians who have either looked the other way or become part of
the rampant corruption that grips the country.
We arrive at our accommodations
to be greeted by members of the local group, CDEP
and after a brief break, we start the “toxic tour” of the area.
Leading our tour are the group’s chairman, Eliud Kakai, a paper scientist
and Rhoda Barasa, the town’s former mayor. Mr. Kakai, confirms the suspicions
of the RECONCILE staff, that the mill is operating at about 10% of normal
operations in order to appear clean because of the Kenyan President’s
visit yesterday. He states that this is routine for the Pan Paper
officials to lower production dramatically when outside visitors or
inspectors are in the area.
Mr. Kakai explains the multiple
operations of Pan Paper’s operation which has changed over time due
to depletion of raw wood supplies from the region’s forests.
Many of these forested areas were protected but were targeted and devastated
by the growing hunger of the mill. The mill now also contains
various processes to use waste paper and wood which contain toxins like
lead and mercury. The chemical agents used in the various processes
are manufactured at an adjacent facility and a power generating station
is also part of the operation. The liquid and solid wastes are
dumped and stored in the open air environment.
Most impressive in terms of
gross pollution are the waste ponds which dominate the landscape leading
down gradient to river. Acres of land are covered with foaming
acid smelling wastes off gassing into air. Dried foam from the
waste ponds blows off the site onto homes, farmlands and public spaces,
burning the skin and lungs. There is no noticeable difference
in the color, odor or pollution of the liquid wastes as they travel
from the first treatment pond into the lower ponds. At the final
stage of ‘treatment’, the water is covered in a half meter of acid
foam as it pours into the river. It is clear that there is little
or no pollution removed from the liquid waste before it enters the river,
with the exception of gases and foam which blow offsite uncontrolled.
We were greeted at the ponds
site by curious nearby neighbors and members of CDEP, who
invited us to see the pollution effects on their homes, lands and health.
Mr. Kakai introduced us to four families living adjacent to Pan Paper’s
waste ponds and mill. All the families showed us the metal sheets
of their roofs were being corroded in a matter of a few months due to
the acid pollution. Crops were stunted and plant life browned
by the exposure as well. This situation has left many families
without income and even subsistence food. As we entered one of
the homes, we could see that the acid had eaten through the internal
roofs and walls of the home. All of the neighbors complained of
breathing problems, skin disorders and a variety of ailments they associate
with the emissions of the Pan Paper operation.
As we toured the area, a ‘snowstorm’
of foam droplets from the waste ponds clouded the sky and burned our
skin and noses. The stench of sulfur gases was intense and we
cut our visit short to this area.
The CDEP team took
us through a variety of downwind areas of Webuye which all showed the
characteristic corroded metal roofs, browned and stunted vegetation
and poverty evident in the previous impact zones. The area of
impact is very large as the mill’s emissions are located at the bottom
of the river valley in Webuye and remain trapped in the bowl created
by the surrounding mountains.
The following day, GCM staff
held a day long training session with five CDEP leaders and
RECONCILE staff Maurice and Anastancia. Elements covered
were the basics of air pollution, types of air pollution, sources and
health effects. CDEP members produced a series of community
maps of pollution hotspots and impact zones, which were used to identify
potential sample locations. Then the group built and tested 4
air pollution “buckets”. A six month action plan was
developed by CDEP and RECONCILE to educate the
community and stimulate their involvement in efforts to clean up the
According to Mr. Kakai, CDEP’s
goals are: (1) Reduce pollution from Pan Paper, (2) Increase Corporate
responsibility of Pan Paper’s owners (3) Provide more jobs and benefits
to the residents of Webuye (4) Compensate the worst victims of past
pollution from the mill. The former mayor, Rhoda, stated their
goal would be to take what they learned at the training and “empower
residents with a powerful weapon for justice.”
Joyce, who works as a medical
technician at the local hospital, spoke from her experience as to the
serious nature of the problems. “I have been directly
affected by living next to Pan Paper and we have suffered for a long
time. It is very difficult for common people to reach up and be
heard by the leaders at Pan Paper. My husband died and it is difficult
for a widow to forge ahead for the safety of the family. People
tell you to be keep quiet, but now it is the right time to speak out.
Babies are being born with chest and breathing problems. Our children
will have no future is they are born sick into this world.”
Mr. Kakai related a story of
how after media reports several years ago, he was able to confront officials
from the World Bank with some of the facts of the
mill’s problems. He pointed out that their water monitoring
point for the discharge was 53 kilometers from the point of actual discharge.
However, when he suggested that the officials immediately accompany
him to the mill for an unannounced inspection, the meeting abruptly
ended and no further follow up has occurred. Mr. Kakai hoped that
air and water samples now planned as part of the new effort would be
effective in exposing the truth about the pollution and harm from Pan
The training was adjourned
until 10 PM in order to await Pan Paper’s nightly pattern of heavy
pollution and operation. As we approached the mill the sound of
intensive manufacturing, venting and operations were deafening as compared
to daylight hours. The plumes of smoke and mists were many times
greater as were the odors of sulfurs, caustics and acids. Despite
the heavy night production, the winds were very strong following
early rains, so the team was unable to capture
a sample and we prepared to return in the morning to
The team reconvened early and
we could still see the heavy plumes spewing out of the mill in the distance.
The plumes traveled a kilometer or two and then dropped to the ground
causing a heavy and noxious fog in downwind farms and homes.
Shifting winds made it difficult to chase the fog and capture a sample,
so we returned to the area adjacent to the mill to take a sample near
the source. Finally we had success after about 20 minutes of team
We then moved on to the ponds
to attempt to capture a sample of the powerful off gassing near the
waterfall into the lower ponds. As we drove down the road,
the foam from the ponds again caused another ‘snowstorm’ of burning
acid across several square kilometers. Due to shifting winds when we
arrived at our sample site, the CDEP and RECONCILE team had
to risk life and limb by leaping across the top of the toxic waterfall’s
step stones about 3-4 feet apart. It was clear the team would
not be deterred by a little shift in the breeze. Once the team
was downwind of the falls, the pump ran out of power on the bucket and
the team took turns using their lungs to suck in and create vacuum pressure
inside the bucket. After about ten minutes of huffing and puffing,
the team opened the bucket to reveal a fat bag of Pan Paper’s odorous
air had been successfully gathered for a sample.
Following our work to gather
the first two bucket samples in Kenya, the team completed the chain
of custody forms that accompany the samples to the shippers and the
lab in California. After a short celebration, we gave Mr. Kakai
and Mr. Mukasa souvenir Bucket Brigade baseball caps
and headed off to Kisumu.
Before leaving Kisumu by plane,
we were treated to a meal of whole cooked Tilapia from Lake Victoria,
covered in tomatoes and fresh greens. The local maize dish, ugali,
a bit like hard white polenta, made an excellent side dish. Later
we took an hour boat cruise to Hippo Point on Lake Victoria on an old
20 foot wooden fishing boat with the local captain, Kennedy. We
look forward to continue to help the people of Webuye with their struggle
for justice from Pan Paper, the government of Kenya and the World Bank.
BACKGROUND: Kenya: Pan African
Paper Mills spread sickness
Pulp and paper production in
Kenya is presently dominated by one firm, Pan African Paper Mills (Panpaper),
which is a joint venture between the Kenyan Government, the World Bank’s
private investment arm International Finance Corporation (IFC), and
Orient Paper Mills, part of the Birhla group from India. The pulp mill
was established in 1974 and is based in Webuye town, with a population
of some 60,000 people, on the banks of the Nzoia River which drains
into Lake Victoria.
From the start, despite the
potential environmental impacts concerning plantation establishment,
liquid effluents, air emissions, sludge and solid waste disposal, the
project did not benefit from a full environmental assessment. The IFC’s
Environmental Review Summary simply stated that the project was designed
to meet all applicable World Bank policies, and environmental, health
and safety guidelines.
However, fears have proved
right. A report from the local newspaper East African Standard denounced
in 1999 that local residents had accused the paper mill of having turned
a vast area of countryside into an environmental wasteland and of being
an economic and social burden. Pollution of the Nzoia River on which
residents depend for their water needs was so severe that bathing in
the river had become a health hazard and animals drinking the water
died. As a result of the chemicals produced during pulping, the area
around the mill was enveloped in foul smelling air. Acid fumes and fly
ash were resulting in the corrosion of the corrugated iron roofs of
the houses in the vicinity of the mill. In addition, the mill’s solid
waste, which was dumped on fields as manure, had led to a decline in
local agricultural production.
At the time of the establishment
of the mill, the Webuye area used to be a heavily forested region and
formed part of the Kagamena Indigenous Forest. The mill’s demand for
wood had turned the area barren and the company trucks now had to travel
for over one hundred miles for raw material.
In 2003, the mill's impacts
continued unabated. People in Webuye complained that the smell emanating
from the mill, mainly caustic, chlorine and sulphuric acid was hazardous.
Webuye is now viewed as a “sick town”. Experts said purification
process of the waste from this factory was inadequate and that effluent
was emitted into the River Nzoia halfway treated. Such half-purified
effluent could be catastrophic for the river or lake’s aquatic life
as its high oxygen demand would suck the gas in the water bodies causing
mass aquatic deaths.
The most recent event is the
serious pollution of Lake Victoria, leading to investigations by the
Ministry of Water. Effluent from factories including Panpaper are believed
to have endangered aquatic life in the lake.
On the other hand, logging
has been a major cause of destruction of the forests of Kenya, a country
of environmental and ethnic diversity. The Ogiek People, inhabitant
of the forest, have been suffering the loss of their homeland and livelihood,
especially from the 90’s onwards. Panpaper is exempted from a government
logging ban and is allowed to fell trees to produce pulp for paper,
being one of the actors held responsible by the Ogiek (see WRM Bulletin
However, as recently as May
of this year, a Director of PanPaper Mills, Harri P. Singhi, called
on the government of Kenya to assist the company in solving the problem
of shortage of wood supply. Would that mean more forests to be degazetted?
This, as well as Singhi’s appeal to the government to assist the company
to reduce its cost of production lowering the electricity tariff, make
up the typical fiscal incentives which include tax exemptions, investment,
grants, subsidies, on which the global pulp and paper industry develops.
For its globalization it has counted also on direct or indirect subsidies
coming from bilateral agencies, State investment, multilateral development
banks, among other actors.
In the case of Kenya, the IFC
had invested 86 million in the pulp, paper and packaging production.
According to Singhi, Panpaper is working closely with IFC to expand
the paper mills. The IFC Chief Special Operations officer, Mr. Erick
Cruikshank, confirmed that the institution would continue working closely
with the government as well as other industries including Panpaper Mills.
Meanwhile, the Ogiek lose their
lands, local agriculture is endangered, deforestation increases, the
environment is destroyed and the quality of life of local residents
worsens. For the sake of job creation, says the official discourse.
But the local labour component created in pulp and paper mills is minimal
and in many cases restricted to casual labourers working under conditions
which put their health at serious risk.
Source: WRM's bulletin
Nº 83, June 2004 - World Rainforest Movement
Maldonado 1858 - 11200 Montevideo
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