BY LINAH MUSANGI
12TH FEBRUARY, 2018: In Mwingi North constituency, at a place known as Ngaaie in Kyuso Sub-County, lays Ngaaie hill which is endowed with huge deposits of limestone. The hill is believed to be a very crucial asset in the transformation of livelihoods of the people of Mwingi and the economy of Kitui County at large.
Limestone was discovered at Ngaaie hill in 1960s during the colonial era and no progress have ever been done in the process of mining the mineral until the inception of devolution in 2013. This is the time when the issue of limestone in the area resurfaced.
It is until 2015 when an agreement was signed between the National government and Athi River mining company, allowing the company to mine limestone from the hill. Initially the company planned to do mining in the area but transport the raw materials to their plant in Athi River for manufacturing of cement.
A liaison which was supposed to spearhead the interests of the community was elected in the same year and the current MP Eng. Paul Nzengu was elected as the chair to the committee.
However, the move faced a lot of resistance from the locals and the county government of Kitui under the leadership of former governor Dr. Julius Malombe, who advocated for the company to construct a new plant in Kitui so that the locals may benefit fully from the project.
The main challenge which faced Athi River mining at first was the issue of land demarcation and lack of title deeds among residents of the area, as proper documentation was crucial in determining the amount of compensation to be awarded to families if affected by mining in the area.
Due to this, the national government sent surveyors in the area who worked alongside another private surveyor working for the company so as to undertake land demarcation and pave way for issuing of title deeds to residents.
But the thorniest issue arose in the issues surrounding compensation. Residents of Ngaaie differed on the best amount which could be paid to the locals whose land lies within the buffer zone and could be affected by mining in the area.
According to Mary Muthui who is a woman from Ngaaie area, at first the issue of mining was received well by residents but the problem arose when the issue of compensation emerged. Some residents accepted to receive the Ksh. 150,000 which Athi River mining had offered, while others refused claiming the minerals in their land were worthy much more than the money offered.
Ms Muthui says that a lot of wrangles arose among residents at family level whereby some family members supported the idea accepting the money being offered, while the rest were against it. In cases where men accepted the money, women were the quite unlucky as women have no entitlement to land in the area.
Rachel Mutinda, another woman from the area says that women were totally excluded in issues surrounding mining and even during compensation, men got all the money alone and left women to live under their mercies. This prompted women from the area to come up with women groups through the aid of civil society organizations who have so far helped them much in fighting for their rights.
Ms Mutinda said that although residents of the area were supposed to purchase pieces of land in other areas due to displacement, some residents have youso far spend all their money and life would prove hard to them especially when they will be required to vacate their land.
James Kyalo, a resident who owns land on the hill beliefs that only proper sensitization to the local community can help the locals to be firm when defending their rights, whenever issues surrounding limestone mining are being discussed.
Since 2015 to date, nothing much has happened due to the controversies surrounding the mining as some residents completely refused to take the amount offered as compensation, forcing the company to stop all its operations in the area until common agreement with the community is reached.
Resistant by some locals can be said to be the reason why mining of limestone in this part of Kitui is unlikely to take place unless the county government of Kitui under the leadership of Governor Ngilu quickly intervenes and resolves the underlying matters in order to ensure that mining kicks off and it happens for the benefit of the locals.