As Kenya hails its first oil discovery, in a DW interview renowned Kenyan paleontologist Richard Leakey urges people to put pressure on the government to avoid the mistakes made in other oil-rich African nations.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki has announced the discovery of crude oil in the north of Kenya where British company Tullow Oil has been doing exploratory drilling for the past year. The commercial viability of the desposit is still uncertain.
DW spoke with Richard Leakey, outspoken conservationist, fossil expert and former Kenyan politician about the prospects and concerns surrounding the oil find.
DW: Richard Leakey, do you welcome this oil find in Kenya?
Richard Leakey: I think given Kenya's economic situation, the discovery of oil has enormous potential to help but it has significant potential to hinder. I think we've got to be very cautious and very mature about how to proceed.
You've suspected for some time that there is oil below the surface. Why has it taken so long for this discovery to be made?
Well, I first thought there might be oil when I saw deposits containing bones of dinosaurs almost forty years ago. It has taken a long time because the price of oil was so cheap until relatively recently and the oil companies were just not interested in investment that was too expensive to get out of the ground. But I think now with crude at over $100 a barrel, these deep, deep diggings look more profitable. And I think this is what has sped up the process.
What will this mean for the people who live in the area?
Well, I think we have to be a little careful. I mean, they have found oil but the quantities they showed us was a cupful…. The people who are living in the area are living in a very (peripheral) part of Kenya, like southern Sudan and southern Ethiopia, and I think the governments of all three territories have to be very careful that there is a fair sharing arrangement in terms of revenues. I think if they don't, they are going to have another civil war on their hands in the northern part of Kenya. And I really hope that the powers that be will understand people have a right to some development funds from this.
What about the potential environmental hazards that are associated with this find? What does one have to look out for?
Well, I think the environmental hazard is there. Lake Turkana could be affected although at the moment the sites that they are looking at are some distance from this. But oil spills from broken pipes are a worry. And I have seen nothing that has persuaded me at the moment that the government has adequate contingency plans. These are things that we have to lobby hard for. And I think civil society, NGOs, public opinion have really got to put the pressure on now for the government of Kenya, in particular, to pull together some policies that have been tested elsewhere and give us a better chance to avoid the terrible mistakes that have been made elsewhere.
What policies are you referring to?
Well, policies that give the communities a return on resources that are being taken out of their semi-desert or desert land. The idea that the nation takes the money and the money is redistributed in a way that the national exchequer does, that doesn't really work for people below the poverty line and the people need more than that. When you are talking about pipelines, you have to have rescue services and proper clean up services in place before these things happen. And I think there are a number of measures that we haven't even thought of in Kenya that need to be put in place.
How worried are you that this discovery of oil could change Kenya for the worse?
I wouldn't say I am worried, I am concerned. I would say there is a tendency in a poor country to start spending money you haven't got, and there is a tendency of people who want things to act as if you are going to get all the money you want. And so you end up with oil flowing and a huge debt to pay off. I think you've got to be very cautious not to put the oil on the market until it is actually flowing. And you have to put it on the market in such a way that it enhances Kenya's development potential, particularly in the northern areas where you have many opportunities but have never had energy to supply it.
Interview: Mark Caldwell
Editor: Susan Houlton / rm