Kenya 2022: Beyond Safari postcards lies colonial-era land grabs

By Christine Mungai
Posted on Thursday, 7 October 2021 07:43, updated on Tuesday, 12 October 2021 14:16

Virgin Group's billionaire founder Richard Branson cuts the tape to open the new facility at the Sekenani primary school in Maasai Mara game reserve
Virgin Group's billionaire founder Richard Branson cuts the tape to open the new facility at the Sekenani primary school in Maasai Mara game reserve, south of Nairobi, May 17. 2008. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Kenya's blissful safari holidays have a sombre side: local communities shunted into low paid jobs, stigmatisation of cattle herding instead of investment in agricultural productivity, and a healthy dose of 'white saviour industrial complex'.

This September, Mahali Mzuri, a safari hotel in Kenya’s Maasai Mara owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, was ranked the number one hotel in the world. The daily newspapers reported the award as a welcome mark of distinction for a tourism industry that has been struggling for years, even before the Covid-19 pandemic dealt a blow to travel worldwide.

However, behind the feel-good honours is a much darker story of enduring colonialism, land grabs, violent conflict and disenfranchisement in Kenya’s arid rangelands, that is ever more urgent to address in the lead up to next year’s general elections.

Local politicians are once again inciting violence, and calling on the Masaai community to rise up against ranch owners.

Beyond the electoral cycle, as climate stress becomes increasingly frequent, and national and global calls for racial justice become ever louder, it [land grabbing] is something no incoming Kenyan leader can afford to ignore.

Kenya has an enduring image as a haven for safari adventures, with its pristine wilderness and vast array of wildlife. The picture postcard can obscure how tense and fraught this seemingly timeless beauty really is.

Over the past 20 years, privately-owned and community conservancies have overtaken state-run national parks and game reserves as the largest kind of ‘protected areas’ in the country. There are over three dozen conservancies in Kenya today, totalling about 11% of the country’s land area – over 6.3 million hectares – that host numerous luxury hotels and lodges.

I cannot think of more unimaginative trickle-down paternalism than trumpeting game scouts and beadwork as flagship economic empowerment outcomes, while there [are] also many other high value economic activities that women and youth can do.”

More often than not, these conservancies are ostensibly owned in ‘partnership’ with local communities: they are promised schools, boreholes, markets for their beadwork and curios, and jobs as cooks, cleaners, rangers and security guards in the high-end hotels – in exchange for ceding the land to the conservancy management and only having controlled access to grazing pastures.

It is, uncritically, assumed that these formal jobs and modest opportunities are better than anything that the pastoralist lifestyle has to offer.

Still, the management and conservation model in the country’s conservation areas is not homogenous across the board, says Resson Kantai Duff, deputy director of Ewaso Lions.

Mixed bag of interests

Kantai has studied the tenure systems and management models in Kenya’s conservancies and finds that there is a distinction to be made between the privately-owned conservancies, most commonly found in Laikipia, and community conservancies.

While the promise of community conservation is often to deliver true ownership and natural resources management on their lands across Africa, the results for pastoralists and other indigenous communities have been a mixed bag. In some cases they [the pastoralists] find themselves having a seat at the table, but the agenda – of how they can move across the land and use it – is set by other controlling interests.

Currently, there is tension in Laikipia because of the ownership structure that’s in play on ancestral pastoral lands.

“In Laikipia, we’re talking about ranches that are private property, owned by families who struggle with issues of extreme privilege, legitimacy and belonging,” says Kantai.

“In places like the Maasai Mara in southern Kenya, most community-owned conservancies are very much geared towards tourism, […] so in many cases, they have given up their land and increasingly their pastoralist way of life to investors, for the promise of tourism revenue. In northern Kenya (aside from much of Laikipia) the trend is more complex. Pastoralists are not giving up their land,” she says.

“However, with parallel governance structures of both traditional leadership and conservancy management at play, ensuring there is true ownership and inclusion, and that the culture of pastoralism (which really is synonymous with conservation) endures remains a challenge,” says Kantai. “Competing interests have sometimes led to elite capture. The pastoralist lifestyle continues, but their collective agreement of how they should use their land, and who decides [this] remains contested.”

However, over the past five or so years, the power – and racial – imbalances in this conservation model have become increasingly stark, starting with the publication of The Big Conservation Lie by wildlife ecologist Dr. Mordecai Ogada and journalist John Mbaria in 2016.

“Drain on the economy”

The crux of their argument is set early in the text: “The wildlife conservation narrative in Kenya, as well as much of Africa, is thoroughly intertwined with colonialism, virulent racism, deliberate exclusion of the natives, veiled bribery, unsurpassed deceit, a conservation cult subscribed to by huge numbers of people in the West, and severe exploitation of the same wilderness conservationists have constantly claimed they are out to preserve,” the authors say.

In some ways, Mbaria and Ogada’s book has sparked a level of soul-searching in certain conservation circles, even as its major weakness was its poor structure and at times rambling prose.

Even though Kenya’s drylands make up more than 80% of the country’s landmass and are home to a third of its people, historically, they were classified as ‘low potential areas’ by Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 – an important policy paper by the government of a newly independent Kenya that set the stage for decades of marginalisation and impoverishment.

“The assumption that pastoralists are a drain on the Kenyan economy still stands, even to this day,” Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, an expert on governance, security and peace in the Horn of Africa region tells The Africa Report.

Far from being an empty wasteland waiting for someone – usually white and wealthy – to put it to good use, the economic contribution of pastoralism is frequently undervalued.

Mutually exclusive?

When the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) recalculated official data, it found that livestock’s contribution to Kenya’s agricultural GDP was 2.5 times higher than previously thought, and its contribution to national GDP at 13%, more than twice the previous estimates. By contrast, manufacturing contributes just 10% to the country’s GDP.

The untapped potential of pastoralism is even greater, and there needn’t even be a trade-off between livestock and wildlife conservation. Drawing from KNBS data and taking into account the value of the livestock and its products, economist David Ndii outlines the gap, and shows that the average productivity value of the pastoralist economy in Kenya today is about $10 per acre.

The conservancy model is often presented as providing alternative livelihoods to low-productivity livestock-keeping, but taking the example of one of the most famous conservancies, Ol Pejeta (which spans just over 89,000 acres), Ndii argues that cattle, conservation, tourism and farming needn’t be seen as mutually exclusive.

“Ol Pejeta prides itself as a model for conservation by doing all four successfully,” Ndii says, in reference to the conservancy’s annual report in 2019, in which a combined trading income of $6.5m was reported. This works out to a productivity value of $73 per acre, or more than seven times the average productivity of pastoralism in Kenya today.

At Ol Pejeta, livestock sales brought in revenue of $1.65m, or $18.6 per acre – in other words, twice as much as the productivity of pastoralist production in Kenya today; the conservancy also grows pasture and crops alongside tourism and keeping livestock.

Poverty wages

“The enclosure of rangelands under the pretext of conservation is highly suspect. The challenge of the pastoralist economy is underinvestment in productivity. There is no magic or miracles in Ol Pejeta,” Ndii says. “I cannot think of more unimaginative trickle-down paternalism than trumpeting game scouts and beadwork as flagship economic empowerment outcomes, while there [are] also many other high value economic activities that women and youth can do.”

To illustrate this, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), under whose aegis are 39 community conservancies in Kenya spanning 10.3 million acres, state in their annual report that beadwork artisans – one of those much-touted ‘alternative livelihoods’ – earned $93,000 from the sale of beaded products in 2020. However, reading further into the report reveals that this was earned by 1,250 beadwork artisans, working out to just over $77 earned by each artisan per year, or six and a half dollars a month. That is nothing above poverty wages.

Since 2015, NRT’s Conservancy Livelihoods Fund has provided more than $3.4m in member conservancies, benefitting nearly 70,000 people, which at first glance may seem like a lot, but in reality translates to $48 per person over the entire five years, or less than $10 per year. Meanwhile, nightly rates at Sarara Camp in Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy under the NRT start at $930 per person per night.

Nevertheless, for Kantai, even these calculations are uncomfortable. “I have a problem [with] the economic arguments that attempt to place value on pastoralism, that are concerned with drilling everything down to commodify every single part of the pastoral way of life. That makes me very sad because there’s so much more to the culture than any sort of figures that any economist can come up with. It has had value for thousands of years so can’t just be about the numbers.”

Halakhe points to a deeper, philosophical problem. “We tend to conflate tourism and wildlife conservation in this country, especially in ‘official’ discourse. There’s an assumption that tourism and wildlife conservation are necessarily dependent on each other, and pastoralism is this third, unwelcome factor that needs to be disciplined.”

“But historical and empirical evidence points otherwise. Pastoralists have been conserving wildlife for generations, without necessarily being driven by that impetus for tourism or for the white gaze. Pastoralism necessitates a complex interaction with weather patterns, geography and water systems, careful management of their grazing animals [to] replenish the soil, which benefits wildlife. Pastoralists have known this all along,” he says.

Trigger of election season

What is clear is that the status quo will not hold, says Halakhe, especially with an election coming in less than a year. The election may just be a trigger that sparks the drama, but the real driving force would be the structural issues that remain unsolved.

On the one hand, there’s the control of rangelands by outfits such as NRT, and on the other hand, the increasing presence of government ‘development projects’ including prospecting for oil and mining, the building of roads, railways, and security installations.

2017 was a particularly deadly year in Laikipia County, where pastoralism, farming and wildlife conservation already exist in a tense truce. Four years later, the country is deep in another election cycle.

“It is no coincidence that the worst violence in the area has occurred [during] the election season, with politicians seeking to exploit the situation for political advantage,” says Murithi Mutiga, project director, Horn of Africa, International Crisis Group.

“While much of this is fanned by politicians vying for office at the local level, the response of national authorities is also shaped by politics because they seek to avoid alienating important local constituencies,” Mutiga says.

Last month, two politicians were arrested in connection with intensifying clashes in Laikipia, Tiaty MP William Kamket and ex-MP for Laikipia North, Mathew Lempurkel. For the latter, it is not the first time he’s been implicated: in 2016, the director of public prosecutions charged him with incitement to violence – the case is ongoing.

This time, he’s accused of hate speech and incitement, for urging the Maasai community in Laikipia to rise up against ranch and conservancy owners in the county, as well as local farming communities.

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