One of the big fallacies about pastoralist communities is that they cannot be trusted with protecting wildlife, and hence the need to create conservancies where the animals can be guarded against marauding herders and their livestock.
Yet, for centuries pastoralists such as the Maasai and the Samburu have lived harmoniously with wildlife – they do not generally kill wild animals for food or trophies.
The hunting of wildlife in Kenya began when white colonial settlers turned it into a hunting ground, and more recently, when poaching became a lucrative business.
After independence, when it was no longer politically correct to hunt wildlife, and when white settlers with huge tracts of land needed a justification to hang onto their property, the former hunters became game wardens, turning their ranches into “wildlife conservancies”.
Some of this land was acquired more than a hundred years ago through treaties such as the 1904 Anglo-Maasai Agreement, where the locals “willingly” ceded their territory in the central Rift Valley to white settlers.
Since then, attempts by the Maasai and other pastoralists to reclaim their ancestral land have been largely futile.
In 2004, when the Maasai called for the restitution of their land, the government dismissed their demands and herders who drove their cattle into a ranch in Laikipia were shot at by police.
The international media, as journalist Parselelo Kantai reported, racialised the story, comparing it to the Robert Mugabe-supported invasions of white farms in Zimbabwe.
The recent invasions by Samburu herders of large white-owned ranches in Laikipia are being perceived in a similar way, with the herders being described as primitive hordes, who have no respect for private property or wildlife.
However, these are not Zimbabwe-style invasions. In Kenya, white-owned ranches (now known as conservancies) have had the full support of the government for decades.
In fact, according to a controversial article by journalist John Mbaria that was published in last month’s New African magazine, not only are white-owned ranches getting government support, but many are also being funded by influential donors through what is known as the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a conservation outfit managed as a non-profit organisation.
Mbaria claims that this trust controls 10.8 million acres of land in northern Kenya and the coast region, or eight per cent of Kenya’s total land mass.
The acquisition of this land has been facilitated by local leaders and politicians, who have been coopted as members of the trust’s board.
The NRT has been hailed as a success story, where landowners and local communities share a vision of protecting wildlife and the environment.
This partnership is viewed as being mutually beneficial: the NRT gets to protect the fragile ecosystem in these semi-arid regions while providing employment to locals.
The problem is that when there is a drought, pastoralists are not allowed to use the land for grazing.
This has led to the kinds of land invasions we see today. According to Mbaria, many of the conservancies have managed to acquire UN-protected status, which means they cannot be converted to other uses.
And with the added financial backing of rich Western donors, the NRT’s activities are “largely insulated from public scrutiny”.
Predictably, the issues raised by Mbaria have been vehemently denied by members and supporters of the NRT.
The CEO of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association stated: “Conservancies amidst the increasing complex social and economic pressures, have been used as an avenue to bring together warring communities to co-manage resources, develop enterprises to enhance livelihoods, diversify tourism, secure grass banks for livestock during the dry seasons and create jobs for the local communities.”
Elodie Sampere, the chairman of the Council of Elders of the NRT, called Mbaria’s story “fake news” that “risks causing reputational damage to NRT in the context of a highly politicised atmosphere of drought and elections”.
The conflict between pastoralists and ranch owners is bound to escalate as drought ravages large parts of the country, and as more pastoral land is converted into conservancies.
In the oil-rich Turkana County, Tullow Oil Company has apparently donated $11.5 million to the NRT to establish and operate conservancies.
Oil revenue and population pressure could add another dimension to conflicts in the future.