• Former Rift Valley Regional Commissioner wondered how hundreds of cattle could disappear into thin air at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy never to be traced.
• Question is, are these conservancies and ranches displacing local populations from their productive lands in the name of ‘conservation
The fact that until now, nobody has come out to allude cattle rustling and banditry menace to the existence of ranches and conservancies with the exception of Trans Nzoia Governor George Natembeya.
Natembeya, a former Rift Valley Regional Commissioner, wondered how hundreds of cattle could disappear into thin air at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy never to be traced. That got my head spinning.
In my endeavours to get a firm understanding of cattle rustling and banditry, I came across a report titled Stealth Game “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya written in 2021 by a California-based organization, The Oakland Institute.
The report contains explosive revelations: “Over the years, conflicts over land and resources in Kenya have been exacerbated by the presence of large ranches and conservation areas.”
Question is, are these conservancies and ranches displacing local populations from their productive lands in the name of ‘conservation and community driven initiatives’ leaving communities fighting for survival on the remaining limited resources and then call it cattle rustling and banditry?
It is astonishing that 40 per cent of Laikipia county’s land is occupied by large ranches and conservancies, controlled by just 48 individuals as cited in the report. This is against a population of 518,560 in the county based on the 2019 census.
The loss of grazing land for pastoralists, which fuels conflict, can partly be attributed to community conservancies. This is due to the prioritisation of wild animals, which leads to the establishment and privatisation of tourist facilities on land that is deceptively taken from communities. These lands are then fenced off and protected, thereby cutting the local communities off from their own land. This is clearly not done for their benefit.
While tourism can generate significant revenue that can be used to support conservation efforts, there are concerns that the benefits of tourism may not always reach the local communities in a meaningful way.
For example, some of the revenue generated by tourism is repatriated at the expense of local communities who are most affected by wildlife conservation efforts. Conservancies should not use tourism as the justification for conservation as the dollars from tourism rarely benefit the intended communities in a transformative way. This is corroborated by Laikipia Governor Joshua Irungu, who has acknowledged that, “The tourism sector’s contribution to the devolved unit’s revenue is negligible, despite the conservancies occupying more than half of the land mass.”
He adds, “It is true we are endowed with immense resources, including the Big Five, but there is little gain to the ordinary person.”
At the centre of these machinations is the amorphous Northern Rangelands Trust, which cumulatively has 43 community conservancies covering about 63,000 square kilometres, which is nearly eight per cent of Kenya’s landmass.
Protests over NRT activities continue to grow focusing on losing grazing land to conservancies at the cost of pastoralist livelihoods and continued harassment and killings by NRT rangers. The report reveals a “nexus of collusion between private conservancies, state officials, foreign investors, and donors along with a shared outlook on conservation involving the corporatization and militarization of the commons.”
But NRT has successfully, using its public relations machine, duped local populations and the world at large (donors) that it “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.”
In most cases the transformation is aimed at creating a skilled pool of cheap labour, including rangers and hospitality staff to serve and work in the conservancies. While they have posted their achievements on how they have impacted a few locals, majority of the communities look at it differently and accuse the group of dispossessing them from their land in favour of protecting wildlife and zoning tourist’s sites.
According to the report, NRT has faced fierce criticisms from local communities with Turkana county expelling it in 2016, while communities in Isiolo and Samburu are against it activities in the region for taking over grazing lands, limiting the freedom of movement of pastoralists and denying them access to water sources.
NRT has also been reported to be involved in inter-ethnic conflicts in the region, thereby casting shadows on their operations. The symbiotic relationship between NRT and the Kenya wildlife Services need to be overhauled as it gives the NRT the wherewithal to keep impoverishing the local communities out of existence. Critics argue that this partnership has given NRT too much power over the management of natural resources, leading to the exclusion of local communities from decision-making processes.
Worth noting is that pastoral communities have lived and adapted to co-exist with wildlife for centuries, even before the idea of conservancies was borne. These communities have developed intricate systems of land use and management that allow them to use natural resources sustainably while also ensuring the continued existence of wildlife.
These systems are often based on traditional knowledge and practices that have been passed down from generation to generation. The idea of conservancies, which are areas set aside for the conservation of wildlife, is a relatively new concept that has been introduced in recent years. While conservancies may be a useful tool for protecting wildlife, it is important to recognize that they are not the only way that pastoral communities have traditionally managed their lands and resources.
Partnerships between conservancies and local communities have been alleged to be shrouded in opaqueness, with the ordinary pastoral population unaware of their contents and terms. Those who sign on behalf of the communities are often compromised.
Therefore, partnerships between conservancies and local communities should be transparent, and the local population should be fully involved. Otherwise, there is a risk of perpetuating inequality, servitude and denying local communities access to the resources they need to survive.