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Drought, indigeneity and land conflict in Northern Kenya

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Drought, indigeneity and land conflict in Northern Kenya

Earlier in the year drought caused traditional herdsmen to steal pasture from landowners, burning down tourist lodges and grabbing the attention of the world media in the process. In Laikipia county, 300km north of Nairobi, ongoing unsustainable land management is revealing the darkest side of unfair access to resources. The current drought is a trigger point to a major unresolved land conflict and a concern in the context of an upcoming presidential election. Pamela Leiva Jacquelín from the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) investigates.

In Kenya, the people who identify with the indigenous movement are mainly pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, as well as some fisher peoples and small farming communities. According to IWGIA, pastoralists are estimated to represent 25% of the national population, living in the north and towards the border with Tanzania in the south. Pastoralists are nomadic and base their economy on livestock production, seasonal movement being a defining element of their culture and lifestyle.

Laikipia has experienced unprecedented grazing pressure in the last year. Indigenous pastoralists have lost access to grazing and water, thus being unable to continue preserving their traditional production systems. This pressure on their livelihood is not random. It comes hand in hand with the interests of landowners, ranchers, conservationists and extractive industries expanding their activities, and further forcing pastoralists away from their lands. As these actors expand over the land, with the support of the government, indigenous communities have gradually been forced into a corner. Consequently, pastoralists are left with only a small portion of land to practice their communal use.

Pushed by a severe drought affecting the region, pastoralists have made their way into private lodges, farms, and conservation areas, actions that caused violence and conflict earlier in the year. This is not the first time that climate shocks systematically trigger violence over land rights in Northern Kenya. The chain of events is pretty straightforward: when there is no water, no grass grows and pastoralists’ cattle starve to death. This puts indigenous peoples’ food security and well-being directly at risk. The ongoing conflict has been on the rise and now affects over 200,000 people. Between 25 to 50 individuals are estimated to have been killed so far. The case of author and conservationist Kuki Gallman, who was shot at her ranch last April, brought the issue to international headlines.

Where the violence begins

The predominant narrative on the conflict is very simplistic, depicting a fight between “dangerous and violent nomadic herders” and “hardworking farmers and conservationists”. However, the scenario is way more complex. The current land conflict does not always arise between pastoralists and the private farmers themselves. They usually manage to agree by means of peaceful negotiations and unofficial arrangements, but things are greatly complicated by government intervention.

So far, the response of the government has been clear-cut militarization in the west area of Laikipia. The military is shooting pastoralists’ cattle and burning down entire villages to suppress a clear demand for land rights. Without harming the people directly, the military shoots their cows, knowing that by killing their animals, they will go back home empty-handed.

The political battle does not offer pastoralists any concrete solutions. With general elections approaching in August, pastoralists are a target for politicians looking for easy votes. In the past, a normal practice has been to arm or resettle them. According to IMPACT, a local indigenous organization, these tactics have also involved arming in disproportionate ways indigenous communities, to fight and exacerbate violence for military intervention.

Extraction at the top of development agenda

It is not only the political agenda that corners pastoralists. Simultaneously, there is increasing pressure from extractive industries, infrastructure projects, wildlife conservation and beef producing ranches. They are slowly cornering pastoralists and limiting the mobility routes for their livestock. Megaprojects such as the LAPSSET Corridor Program -which is East Africa’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure project bringing together Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan- are at the forefront of land grabbing, enabled by lucrative public polices. This is evident in the figures. According to IMPACT, land prices have seen a 100% annual increase over the last 6 years. This has produced an unseen subdivision of land affecting local communities.

Kenya’s development agenda is aiming at capitalizing from the global attention following the discoveries of minerals including significant deposits of oil, gas, coal, iron ore and rare earth minerals across the country. In the name of profit, land rights seem to be forgotten. Now minning is the champion sector promoted by the government, with an expected raise from 1% to up to 10% of its GDP national contribution. What is more, Kenya still remains in the early stages of mineral exploration.

These activities affect local cultures in fundamental ways, especially indigenous traditional livelihoods and their social cohesion. All available institutional mechanisms place pastoralists at a disadvantaged position and seem to fail them in any kind of possible negotiation.

Urgent need for land formalization as territory shrinks

Land is a key issue in the country’s new constitution (2010) and also the Community Land Act that was finally adopted in September last year. This legal framework recognises three types of land in Kenya: public, private and community. The last one is vital for indigenous pastoralists and yet is not precisely defined, especially in areas where there are overlaps with public land. The Community Land Act gives full responsibility to the Minister for Land and Settlement to launch and implement a community land adjudication programme. However, it is not yet in place and the state avoids meeting their obligation of protecting pastoralists’ land rights.

The lack of implementation of the current legal framework generates a vacuum that endangers pastoralists. “Today there is an urgent need to formalize community land ownership, otherwise pastoralist’s lands are open for land grabbing and dispossession,” explains Marianne Wiben Jensen Senior Advisor on Land Rights in Africa for IWGIA. For her, the Community Land Act has been a victory of indigenous peoples’ advocacy. The law has now been in place for less than one year and the processes of adjudication, demarcation and registration are expected to take considerable time. Especially taking into consideration that in 2014, the Ministry of Land reported over a million parcels were awaiting title under existing adjudication cases.

A way forward protecting the most vulnerable

As we approach the end of June, the conflict has cooled off and moved into Laikipia’s eastern region, explains Director of IMPACT Mali Ole Kaunga. Even though there is still military presence, the conflict level has considerably decreased. “The government needs to take the lead, they cannot escape this issue,” says Kaunga. For him the facts speak for themselves: over 6 million people in Kenya depend directly on livestock. One way or another, this should compel the government to enter into a dialogue with pastoralists. According to the latest statistics, pastoralist livestock production contributes 10% to the GPD of the country.

So, what is on the horizon for Laikipia? Pastoralists’ supporters talk about a peaceful resource planning approach. This would entail that the local and national government recognize and grant pastoralists land rights for continuing their traditional production systems. What this new cycle of conflict is showing is that both the government and conservationists rely heavily on pastoralism as a mode of production to be sustainable in the long run. For this, pastoralism needs to be considered in all economic planning activities as a valid and sustainable mode of production, as well as the people who practice it as their only means of survival.

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Written by New African Magazine

For over 45 years New African provides unparalleled insights and analysis on African politics and economics, via an African perspective, always. With in-depth monthly reports, New African brings Africa closer to the world and is ideal for those looking to gain a better understanding of the most important issues affecting Africa.

  • Jahrateng Skabelli

    Greed over commonsense and justice cloaked in the lingo of development, conservation, foreign exchange, property rights (not for pastoralists) CAPITALISM. Not very complex. Just GREED, VANITY & TREACHERY of the ruling class.

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