As the signs of dawn emerge over the Isiolo rangelands, low voices are heard inside wattle homes planning for a new day. Every word is amplified in the stillness of early morning. A child cries for food. An old man coughs and livestock are heard bleating in their pen.
This tranquillity is shattered by the crack of firewood being hewn for the breakfast fire. Mrs Amina Guyo, a mother of five, a traditional calabash in hand, opens the cow pen and takes a few pulls at each swollen udder to get the family’s share of milk.
It is the dry season in her village of Biliqo, located about 15 kilometres from Isiolo town. In the afternoon, the scorching sun dances dizzily in the sky with a strange cruelty. Four months ago, there were signs of good rains. But it was not a steady downpour, just a thin, misty drizzle that only softened the soil.
The implacable sun soon sucked the last drop of moisture out of the earth.
“We last had rains in March this year. We are now preparing to move to other areas where we can get good pasture for our livestock,” says Mrs Guyo.
However, Mrs Guyo and other nomadic pastoralists in Biliqo village have nowhere to move to in search of pastures and water since most of the land where they grazed their stock during dry periods has been taken over by conservancies.
Like elsewhere in the semi-arid areas of the North, pastoralists in Isiolo county are losing access to their traditional lands and their movements in search of pasture are increasingly getting restricted.
Thousands of acres of land are being taken up by conservationists.
“In spite of the fact that livestock keepers in Isiolo and other parts of Northern Kenya make a substantial contribution to the national diet and economy, those engaging in conservation regard the pastoral sector as inconsequential,” says Mr Skamo Loltianya, a pastoralists’ rights activist based in Isiolo.
As a consequence, adds Mr Loltianya, conservationists favour the preservation of wildlife at the expense of pastoralists, who largely depend on their livestock for survival.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a rise in the involvement of communities, especially those inhabiting wildlife dispersal areas like Isiolo, in the national conservation programmes.
This was inspired by the need to preserve ecosystems and wildlife habitats that happen to be on lands owned and held by local communities. The effort was entrenched in law following the review and enactment of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act in 2013.
According to a report by the Waso Boran Professional Forum, the biggest proponent of this conservation model is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), an organisation that is largely funded by several European countries and United States as well as international NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC), private trusts and individuals.
As a result, the NRT has managed to set up 39 conservancies across Northern and Coastal regions that cover 51,000 square kilometres or over 10 million hectares, about eight per cent of Kenya’s total land surface.
Isiolo County, which borders Samburu, Laikipia and Meru counties, is dominated by low-lying terrain, acacia trees, shrubs and isolated dwarf bush grasslands. The county has eight conservancies that include Biliqo Bulesa, Nakuprat-Gotu, Nasuulu, Leparua, Oldonyiro Narupa, Oldonyiro Nanapicho, Oldonyiro Naapu and Oldonyiro Nannapa, all under the management of NRT.
These conservancies are mainly in remote places where the Kenyan government has little or no footprint. The NRT has been trying to fill the void by adding to its initial conservation mandate a number of activities including security, prevention of cattle rustling, meeting the needs of the communities and marketing of livestock.
Over time, however, there have been numerous complaints from local communities who accuse NRT of human rights violations. They accuse the organisation of increasingly imposing restrictions on how communities exploit their natural resources, prompting Isiolo Governor Mohamed Kuti to step in.
“In my last 18 years in leadership, I have maintained that NRT is causing animosity through the conservancies. They give people vehicles, guns and communication gadgets, which cause insecurity,” Mr Kuti said during a press conference in Isiolo.
NRT, however, denies the governor’s claims, insisting their activities are geared towards empowering the communities and not oppressing them.
According to Ahmed Abdullahi, the chairman of the Borana Council of Elders, insecurity in the region has been compounded by the entry of NRT, which has altered the power and traditional governance structures of the local communities by appointing conservancy managers, security scouts and members of the conservancy boards who have effectively taken over the traditional decision-making roles of the community elders.
“NRT has imposed its influence on the management of resources by reducing the grazing area of pastoralists. And a good example is the Biliqo-Conservancy where herders mostly from the Borana community were moved out and they no longer have access to their traditional grazing land,” says Mzee Abdullahi.
The communities interviewed claimed that they were not fully aware of the implications of setting up conservancies in the vast area and they were also not consulted before it was established.
According to Ibrahim Ali Kunno, a former member of the conservancy board, Mr Kuti had warned local elders against embracing the conservancy idea as they risked being exploited.
However, his advice was disregarded after Mr Ian Craig, NRT’s founder and member of Kenya Wildlife Service board, convinced the elders otherwise, leading to the signing of an agreement between NRT and the community.
But most of those interviewed said they had neither seen the agreement nor are they aware of its provisions. The Biliqo-Conservancy was set up in 2005.
The local community remains highly suspicious of NRT’s intentions, with many feeling that it is more interested in securing minerals-rich sites within the conservancy, fears Mr Tom Lalampaa, the NRT chief executive, is quick to rubbish.
“NRT’s mandate is not and will never be to exploit the communities. Community conservancies in areas like Isiolo have created employment for hundreds of locals, improved livelihoods and security both for human beings and wildlife. We are now giving bursaries to the needy students through income from the conservancies,” he states.
But from the interviews, community leaders accuse conservancies of violating their land rights.
Recently, the dominant Borana community protested after the NRT identified and embarked on constructing five tourist camps in resource-rich areas of the Chari Rangeland.
“Pastoralism is our economic mainstay and 80 per cent of the Isiolo population depend on it. Taking out the best of our rangelands for other use that undermines pastoralism will threaten our very existence as a community, and will push us to poverty and vulnerability in the end,” says Mumina Bonaya, a gender and development expert.
The conflicts have occasionally resulted in herders being shot and injured by security teams guarding the conservancies for grazing their animals inside the restricted areas.
“Herders are accused of invading conservancies but the question that is not being answered is: Who is killing and harassing the herders?” asks Mr Loltianya.
Those interviewed accuse the NRT anti-poaching unit called 92 for the killings and injuries.
“They operate like policemen, they are armed. They have gone from protecting and monitoring wildlife to killing and injuring herders. They also work with the police. It’s a very sad situation here and we have nowhere to go to because this is our traditional land,” says Pius Leparmorijo, an elder in Kipsing trading centre.
James Lekalalie, a former chairman of Oldonyiro Conservancies, also questions the manner in which NRT carries its conservation activities.
“It’s complex to understand. There are people within NRT who are not interested in conservation. I can say without fear of contradiction that 92 is no longer monitoring wildlife. It’s killing and harassing local herders.”