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[NAIROBI] The Kenyan courts are considering halting the first stage of a US$370 million biofuel project that aims to replace up to 20,000 hectares of coastal grassland with irrigated fields of sugarcane.

A judicial review of the project, based at the Tana River Delta on the northern Kenyan coast, was granted last month (11 July) after a campaign from environmental groups such as Nature Kenya and the East Africa Wildlife Society,and nomadic cattle-farming groups.

The project is intended to generate electricity — up to 34 megawatts a day at its peak — from sugar refining and up to 20 million litres of ethanol fuel annually from molasses.

The Tana River Development Authority, under the Ministry for Regional Development, and Kenya's biggest sugar miller, Mumias, are partners in the project.

The National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) approved the first stage of the three-stage project on 19 June this year, with only 500 hectares of farmland affected in this first stage, according to Ruth Musembi, communications manager at NEMA.

NEMA commissioned agroforestry researcher David Mungai, from the University of Nairobi, to carry out an environmental impact assessment of the project in September 2007. Mungai found negative environmental impacts could be mitigated using the best available practices and strict compliance with the national regulations.

Proponents of the project say it will reduce fuel prices, lower foreign exchange losses from importing 200,000 tonnes of sugar annually, create 20,000 jobs and put biofuel-powered cars on Kenyan roads. 

But conservationists such as Paul Matiku of Nature Kenya say the lack of project design documents — required by Kenyan environmental law — has been a critical omission in the assessment process.

A report commissioned by Nature Kenya in May found that developers' plans overestimated profits, ignored fees for water use and pollution from the sugarcane plant, and disregarded the loss of income from wildlife tourism.

"We cannot just start messing around with the wetland because we need biofuel and sugar," Kenyan peace prize Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai said, according to Engineering News.

Hellen Omondi, high court judge in the town of Malindi, is currently reviewing the decision-making process of government departments such as the Tana and Athi River Development Authority, the Tana River County Council, the Lands and Water Resources Management Authority, and NEMA.

Mumias sugar company has also been ordered to submit its documentation to the court. No deadline has been set for the court's decision.