Pastoralists are not enemies of nature

Black rhinos rest under a tree at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy on September 22, 2016. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Nomadic herders in the semi-arid north have lived peacefully with wildlife for centuries; they are the unsung heroes of wildlife conservation.

  • Therefore, pushing them out of their traditional lands will only escalate the battle between the mainly conservationists and pastoralist communities.
  • Striking a balance where both can benefit is very important, especially in reducing the perennial conflicts between pastoralists for limited pasture and water.

There is an ongoing massive eviction of pastoralists from their traditional grazing lands in counties such as Isiolo by those running wildlife conservancies and nobody is raising the alarm.

These struggling and weak pastoralist communities in the vast semi-arid northern Kenya region are being systematically overrun by powerful conservationists who have set their insatiable appetite on the grazing land in the name of conservation, mainly being done for tourism and not for heritage.

10M HECTARES

The problem began in the early 2000s when the government started involving communities, especially those inhabiting wildlife dispersal areas such as Isiolo, Samburu and Marsabit, in the national conservation programme.

This was inspired by the need to preserve ecosystems and wildlife habitats that happen to be on lands owned and held by the local communities. The effort was later entrenched in law following the review and enactment of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013.

In the arid north, the biggest advocate of this conservation model is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), an organisation that is largely funded by several European countries and the United States, as well as international NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and private trusts and individuals.

As a result, the NRT has managed to set up 39 conservancies across the northern and coastal regions that cover more than 51,000 square kilometres or 10 million hectares, eight per cent of Kenya’s land mass.

In Isiolo, NRT has its headquarters at Lewa and runs and facilitates about 10 conservancies. The organisation has also established several large conservation parks in the county, bringing the area under conservancy to more than half a million hectares.

LAND GRAB

This has massively reduced the land that can be used by pastoralists to graze their livestock in the dry season. Often, nomadic communities are not allowed to graze their animals in the protected areas.

These are people who make a substantial contribution to the national diet and economy and depend on their treasured livestock for survival. However, wildlife conservationists perceive pastoralism as a poor land use method with little or no economic value which is detrimental to wildlife and tourism. On the other hand, pastoralists see wildlife conservation as a large-scale theft of pastoral land which denies them grazing land.

NRT argues that the conservancies are community-led initiatives that help pastoral communities to work productively towards Kenya’s conservation and development goals as some locals even secure jobs as conservancies managers, security guards and cooks in these protected areas.

However, those opposed to the NRT model see them as a massive land grab from pastoralist communities by wealthy foreigners with local connections. They also argue that the conservancies prioritise wildlife over the welfare of human beings and livestock, resulting in conflicts between pastoralists as they fight for limited pasture.

When communities are displaced, they rarely get to share in the benefits of conservation. The best most of them get from such ventures is being tour guides, while they get very little or even nothing from the lodges that tourists pay a premium to stay in.

CONFLICTS

But it is not just the conservancies that are pushing the poor Kenyan herders out of their ancestral lands. Pastoralist communities have been displaced by successive governments in favour of creating national parks, game reserves, ranches and private conservancies. Examples of this abound in Laikipia and Kajiado counties.

According to recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), areas managed by indigenous peoples in the world — and in the Kenyan context, like Isiolo, Samburu, Marsabit, Turkana and West Pokot — are the oldest form of biodiversity conservation, and often the most effective.

Well, the resources may not always be enough for both livestock and wildlife. However, striking a balance where both can benefit is very important, especially in reducing the perennial conflicts between pastoralists for limited pasture and water.

Nomadic herders in the semi-arid north have lived peacefully with wildlife for centuries; they are the unsung heroes of wildlife conservation. Therefore, pushing them out of their traditional lands will only escalate the battle between the mainly White settler conservationists and pastoralist communities occupying the neighbouring northern rangelands.

Mr Letiwa is a reporter with the Daily Nation. [email protected]

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