The annual World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought was marked last Thursday. Declared in 1994 by the United Nations General Assembly, it’s an opportunity to highlight the urgency to curb the spread of deserts and droughts, serious environmental threats in Africa that threaten community and national stability.
In Kenya, northern frontier counties, the coastal region and many parts of the Rift Valley are already experiencing early signs of the desert march.
A common denominator to these processes is the removal of topsoil and vegetation cover. This is a threat to the rangelands, which constitute 80 per cent of the land area and are the bedrock of our livestock, wildlife and tourism economy, contributing more than 20 per cent of GDP.
17 million sheep
They are home to 14 million indigenous cattle, 17 million sheep, 28 million goats, 2.9 million camels and almost all the national parks and reserves, not to mention that they host up to 20 million people.
Competition for water and pasture, manifested in frequent conflicts, is common. A recent conflict between two pastoralist groups in Buffalo Springs National Reserve resulted in six deaths.
The conservancy concept taking root in Kenya might offer practical lessons in curbing desertification and minimising the effects of drought and climate change. It’s simply meant to mainstream conservation outcomes in land management.
Establishing a conservancy requires land, marine area, wetland or forest owned by a single or multiple landowners or a community. Their management regime, supervised by the conservancy board, grazing committees and community rangers, allows the areas to keep top soil, allow vegetation recovery and thereby sequester carbon, mitigate climate change and minimise impacts of drought.
Contrary to misinformation, conservancies actually encompass grazing plans based on traditional norms, allowing livestock to be less selective in the open grazing blocks while allowing rest and regeneration on the closed blocks. This is how pastoralist communities maintained the land in a functional state, only this time it’s formalised and institutionalised to address internal forces such as weakening traditional norms that regulated grazing.
The arrangements vary, depending on rainfall and livestock. But negotiated community rules allow the conservancy to make optimal use of grass.
There is scientific evidence that non-managed open access areas, where traditional grazing management is weak, plant diversity and productivity has declined and the ability of the rangelands to recover from drought and flood shocks is compromised. These are early signs of desertification.
The conservancy model of land management promises a practical way to mitigate drought and curb desertification, hence managing climate change.
But there is a need to expand geographical coverage, governance effectiveness and investment from the public and private sectors, and a stronger participation by beneficiary communities.