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  • Hanna Bajwa

A Tale of Tea and Tragedy in Kenya

Britain is facing its biggest tea-related crisis since the 1773 Boston tea party fiasco. Kenya is Britain’s biggest supplier of tea yet the fertile soils in and around Kericho which allows for this supply of tea is under threat. The problem? A Kenyan governor, Paul Chepkwony, is demanding reparations for the land that was ‘stolen’ during the 1930’s, alongside the threat that he will seize up to two-thirds of the farmland which is now owned by commercial giants such as Unilever (the company behind Lipton tea). Mr Chepkwony states that the land was ‘stolen’ by British settlers from indigenous clans including the Talai, which reportedly were deported from the tea country in 1934 and forced to live on barren land. The governor has demanded the return of not just the plantations but all profits ‘illegally earned’ since 1902, which he claims to stand at around £15 billion.

Britain has once before paid compensation to Kenya in 2013 - £20 million to more than 5,000 elderly Kenyans who were tortured and abused during the uprising in the 1950s. That being said, Britain did refuse to compensate another legal claim involving Kenya on the grounds that the events had taken place too long ago for there to be a fair trial. These grounds could therefore be used again in order to avoid paying the £15 million Mr Chepkwony wants.

Somewhat more concerning, Mr Chepkwony has ominously warned that he will no longer be able to restrain the younger generation of locations who have become ‘more militant and restless’ from invading the tea plantations if Britain and its tea companies do not comply quickly. Mr Chepkwony's legal adviser, Kimutai Bosek. "If the law fails, people will move to extrajudicial methods," he said. This could be seen as referring to the land grabs in Zimbabwe when thousands of white farmers were forced from their farms, sometimes violently, between 2000 and 2001 under a government programme of land reform. The land grabs however failed to increase prosperity in the south African country, leading to a decline of agricultural revenue and exports, and to millions of refugees escaping economic crisis and chaos. If this happens in Kenya, the UK can expect detrimental knock on effects on tea companies and prices.

Although a variety of companies, some Kenyan, own plantations on land taken from the Kipsigis and Talai tribes, Mr Chepkwony has focused his attention on three big British firms: George Williamson, Finlay’s and Unilever. The firms once thought they could safely ignore Mr Chepkwony, assuming they would be protected by Kenya’s president because of the vital role they play in the Kenyan economy as tea is one of Kenya’s biggest exports and also its largest foreign exchange earner. However with the backing of the government’s National Land Commission, Mr Chepkwony has been able to begin taking back much of the tea companies’ land. With this said, British firms have refused his demand to hand over title deeds and have gone to court to appeal the land commission’s ruling which has left people seething. More than 100,000 people have signed the official complaint, which accuses the UK government of failing to make amends for the colonial injustice.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, representatives of British tea corporations say they hope an amicable settlement can be reached to safeguard a trade important to Kenyan economy. Linda Oluoch, legal manager for the TeaGrowers Association worries about the impact this will have, saying, “We are scared that with more political involvement we will go the same way as other failing agricultural sectors.”

Although some are sceptical about who will take the land if the governor gets hold of it, many believe the effects will not be positive. However, the main reason for this unsettlement is for reparations in the form of money compensation and a formal apology. Although Chepkwony has filed a complaint with the United Nations, Kenyan lawyers plan to shame the British government into paying by demonstrating the widespread human rights abuses that were committed.However, the likelihood of an apology from the UK government is slim, meaning this situation will continue to rumble on.

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