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January 22, 2019

Why rangelands crisis is ignored

One of the great mistakes we make as a nation is to confuse our aspirations with what we really are.

Opposition leaders will routinely speak of Kenya as “a great nation”, which has been mismanaged into unending poverty by the government of the day. This kind of remark always ends with a pledge to “restore lost glory”.

And likewise, Kenyan presidents (or even Prime Ministers, when we have had them) will mention “our great nation” in just about any speech they make.

Both sides of the divide overlook the fact that a nation in which deadly famines are routine cyclical events; in which property rights (especially for marginalised communities) remain subject to the arbitrary dictates of those in power.

They are also subject to marauding armed militias in remote rangelands; in which roughly 50 per cent of the population lives in absolute poverty by global standards. Such a nation may well aspire to greatness, but cannot be said to be great at this point.

And speaking of marginalised communities, there was recently a suggestion – at the height of the invasions of the large ranches and conservancies in Laikipia county – that the principal reason for the nomadic pastoralist communities in that region being in general so poor, was that their “ancestral land” had been grabbed by the “white ranchers”, leaving them little land for their herds to graze on.

Such a view overlooks the basic facts of that region’s geography as well as land use patterns.

The facts are that despite all those impressive maps of Tsavo National Park (for example) seeming to stretch out endlessly in the Upper Coast, and other parks also seeming to take up large chunks of rural acreage, Kenya’s gazetted national parks only add up to about 5.5 per cent of the total land area, and national reserves add a further 2.5 per cent.

So, all Kenyan lands set aside for the protection of animals in parks and reserves add up to about eight per cent of our total landmass. Tanzania has 30 per cent. Hence the need for private or community conservancies to expand the area of protected habitat for wildlife.

Even within the four pastoralist counties - Laikipia, Samburu, Baringo and Isiolo - which have been at the centre of the controversy, the total land set aside for large private ranches and wildlife conservancies is roughly 900,000 acres (mostly in Laikipia).

This seems like an incredibly large parcel of land, true enough, but is just five per cent of the total acreage of the four counties combined.

So, what does this really mean?

Primarily that the problem of lack of grazing land cannot be blamed on the five per cent of the total acreage that has been set aside for private ranches and wildlife conservancies within this expansive zone.

On the contrary, these ranches and conservancies are a principal source of economic opportunity in the Northern rangelands, creating many jobs and helping in the building of local infrastructure.

However, it’s all very well to argue that the wildlife conservancies and large ranches are not the problem in this region. The question remains of what is to be done to economically empower these nomadic pastoralist communities.

As a few commentators and researchers have already pointed out, the first challenge – and undoubtedly the greatest – is to change the mindset of these communities so that there is an acceptance that stock should be reared to be sold as a product instead of being accumulated as wealth in the form of ever-increasing huge herds way beyond the carrying capacity of the overgrazed land.

Modern methods of livestock husbandry could then allow them to earn an income from serving the huge external markets outside Kenya as well as the local domestic markets for meat products.

The economic empowerment of these communities will not be easy. And – most unfortunately – these communities, with their relatively small populations, are all marginal in terms of demographic weight when it comes to Kenyan presidential politics.

That is why you will not see large cheques of billions of shillings being handed out to their community leaders in this election campaign season, when so many other places have seen “projects” being “launched”.

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