Sabahi (Washington, DC)

Kenya: Drought Turns Wajir Herdsmen Into Limestone Miners

Wajir — Yunis Mohammed Mahat, 47, props himself up on his shovel under an acacia tree as a lorry approaches Guguf, a limestone-rich site in Kenya's Wajir District.

When the truck safely parks, Mahat and about 10 other fellow miners start loading 25-kilogram gunnysacks of limestone.

They are among hundreds of former herdsmen who turned to limestone extraction after losing their livestock to drought in North Eastern Province. The new opportunity offers them a source of income as demand for limestone is on the rise due to the province's booming construction sector.

"I have been coming here for the past year to dig for limestone to earn a living," Mahat told Sabahi. "If we sit down and wait, we will not survive."

Mahat said his life as a pastoralist was ruined when he lost 80 livestock to drought in 2011. "I turned into a beggar and relied on food hand-outs to feed my family of five," he said.

He eventually met a relative who had lost his livestock in 2006, and had re-built his life as a miner. In January 2012, Mahat joined him. "Today, I make enough money to support my family needs, including education," he said.

Adan Abdi Dahir, 45, who extracts limestone in Makaror on the western periphery of Wajir town, said he lost hope after losing his last 50 livestock in 2011, eventually venturing into limestone mining because it did not require start-up capital.

"I spent almost my entire life rearing livestock, and yet at the end of it, drought came and killed all my animals," he told Sabahi. "But thank God, because He opened another way."

Dahir said former pastoralists, who lack formal education, have few other opportunities but to dig for limestone.

"We will not stop because it is the only means for us to earn money to buy the necessities that our families need," he said, adding that on a single day, he often earns more than 3,000 shillings ($35).

Minister of State for Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands Mohamed Elmi said more than 10,000 people have dropped out of livestock farming over the past five years.

"About 500 have ventured into limestone mining and others went into other income-generating activities like farming to eke out a living," he told Sabahi, adding that finding work for thousands of former pastoralists is essential to spur economic development and reduce poverty.

He said miners can sell limestone for about 130 shillings ($1.50) per 25-kilogram gunnysack, a sizeable sum in a region where most people live on less than 87 shillings ($1) per day.

Elmi said the newly devolved governments will look to resources like limestone to aid the local economy and to export to other parts of the country.

Environmental concerns

Elmi also said he expects the new county government that will be elected on March 4th to embark on building a cement factory in Wajir. He said this factory should implement new technology for extracting limestone because current methods have environmental drawbacks.

Current methods require high temperatures, and miners cut down local trees for fuel, said Wajir District National Environmental Management Authority Co-ordinator Sheikh Abdikadir Ahmed.

The miners have targeted trees such as acacia and a tree known by its scientific name delonix ellata, he said. "These trees take years to grow and their unabated felling spells danger to an environment still under threat from charcoal burners," he told Sabahi.

"We have reached an agreement with the miners that instead of cutting down the entire tree, they should cut the branches and collect dead wood in the scrub lands," he said.

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