Once upon a time, in one of my assignments as a budding journalist, I was privileged to tour a handful of districts, now counties, along the Kenyan northern frontier. Turkana was one of them. And over a decade later, I could still describe the features that defined the area ¬ rugged terrain, thorny shrubs, open swathes of fallow land, sparsely spread homesteads and the heavy sandy soil cover. It was a pastoral region where indigenous community members significantly depended on livestock. I learnt that their lifestyle was meticulously shaped by centuries-long mobility from one location to another in search of water and pasture for their herds. Their open land was a rangeland, that not only fed their livestock, but also a symbol of the value of attachment to their homeland.
I recently returned to the county only to be welcomed by the fully-fledged town that Lodwar has become. I also travelled to Lokichar and saw first hand how the oil find has opened up the area to social and infrastructural development.
However, while residents in many areas close to the oil fields now have better access to social amenities, the discovery and extraction of oil has posed a great challenge to the people’s traditional grazing lands.
The corridors created to transport the crude oil, the flaring gas and the associated pollution have interfered with grazing patterns and cycles. The anticipated construction of the 850km oil pipeline from the Lokichar oil wells to the Lamu port along the LAPSSET corridor is expected to run through potential migratory routs predominantly used by livestock during their movements in search for pasture and water.
Already 8,000 hectares of land have been hived off and Tullow in their 2019 report planned to drill 300 more wells in their exploration program. The massive Lake Turkana Wind Power Station located within Loyangalani, also scoops an average 40,000 acres of the natives’ land in Marsabit County, a significant rangeland within the greater Turkana basin.
Even though other dynamics such as climate change and new land tenure also conspire to wipe out the rangelands, the isolated manner in which the government and private investors continue to invade the indigenous land is a leading course of concern. Their failure to seek social license by winning community trust and consent has perpetuated a feeling of seclusion and highhandedness in the sustainable management of natural resources. Free Prior Informed Consent is an effective principle where collective goodwill of a community and stakeholders feeds well into the broader development agenda of a region.
Most of the local communities in Turkana rely heavily on their pastoralism more than they possibly ever will on oil. As such, a clear, structured approach that values their land as a cultural and identity asset is critical. While Tullow Oil’s recent move to incorporate the interests of the local community by structurally engaging with them might be a little late in time, it will, however, go a long way in winning the goodwill of the community. Efforts such as establishing a Community Trust Fund in Lokichar to cater to small scale businesses, compensation for livestock killed during the activities, among other host of CSR interventions, are initiatives in the right direction.
The proposed decommissioning legislation by the government is laudable. If implemented to the letter, it will, to a great extent, restore the once-affected pastoral pathways and offer the local communities dependent on livestock, a chance to move with their livestock normally. Companies intending to invest in the region should ensure that an agreeable pact is reached with communities before commissioning or commencing any project to rid of potential conflict and interference with the traditional way of life.
Government must move with speed to identify steps in addressing the sustainable land use and management of the existing rangelands. The proposed plans to gazette rangelands will be critical in legalising and protecting the vital livelihood source of the indigenous community in the basin. The government, both national and county, should consider, in close partnership with the local Turkana community, corporate and mining companies, to establish and strengthen pasture user groups as a way to consolidate pastoral rangeland management efforts for posterity. The government should equally value rangelands as a national investment. Undervaluing rangelands have in the past resulted in the disappearance of resources for local livelihoods.
On the global front, there is a knowledge gap on rangelands. A grounded knowledge foundation will enable countries to develop working frameworks for sustainable use and management of rangelands. The government should localise the 19th March United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Programme on innovations in sustainable rangelands and pastoralism that called for the restoration of rangelands on a par with the restoration of other ecosystems such as forests. Through this, our scramble for energy and other minerals will not cloud our collective responsibility as a country to safeguard critical environmental ecosystems that have a negative bearing on community and global wellbeing.
Joseph Odongo is a media and communications consultant based in Nairobi.