By Margo Geddes
The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) has been working in the remote arid and semi arid lands (ASAL) of Northern Kenya since 2004 to develop community conservancies that approach conservation and biodiversity through building sustainable communities. The NRT has taken a collaborative approach involving local leaders, government entities, and conservation organizations to collectively work with communities to create sustainable enterprise, peace and security, while working to establish an ecological balance between human and wildlife needs (http://www.nrt-kenya.org ). The communities of northern Kenya are primarily pastoralists, with cattle herds that they seasonally move through the region dependent on water and pasture.
The pastoralist communities have historically been marginalized on the national level. During colonial times they came to resent wildlife and the conservation of landscapes as it took away their pasture lands and restricted their ability to move their cattle to prime grazing lands (Triche, 2014). In Northern Kenya inter-ethnic conflict and wars in bordering nations have lead to conflict, a rise in small arms in the regions, and lack of security. These conflicts have contributed to poaching and increased cattle rustling (Pkalya et al, 2003). Conflict between communities arises primarily over pasture and water for their cattle. While cattle rustling has its roots in tribal structures, where young warriors proved themselves by stealing cattle and for bride price, today the influx of small arms and the commercialization of thievery has led to an increase in deadly conflicts (Chopra, 2008).
Climate change in ASAL regions has led to erratic rainfall and increase in temperatures, these effects have led to increased pressure for resources for pastoralists. There are more frequent droughts and political borders make it difficult for pastoralists to move their herds to resources that might sustain them (Pkalya et al, 2003). In 2011 the Horn of Africa experienced its worst drought in 60 years (Shilling et al, 2014). Pastoralists are particularly affected by drought and their historic adaptive capacity has been limited by political boundaries. Restricting their ability to move their herds to better pasture has led to high death rates for their herds and further economic instability. The NRT has been working with conservancy members to develop sustainable grazing plans that maximize the available resources and bring in contemporary cattle management practices to help pastoralists more effectively manage their herds. Finding ways to build collaborative strategies for rangeland management between tribes and avoid conflict is essential to sustaining the pastoral lifeway (Schilling et al, 2014).
Working to build peace and security for communities through developing frameworks by which conflicts can find resolution has been key to reducing poaching and creating economic resilience through diversification of income sources. The NRT has taken a multi pronged approach to building peace and security, most prominently in the development of peace committees. Evolving with traditional tribal structures in mind with a respect to tribal elders but also working to incorporate young men and women at the table and infuse negotiations with a democratic process, peace committees are changing how conflict is managed. The peace committees have worked to avoid conflict through meetings between communities as well as averting cattle raids through rapid response teams. By including young warriors (often the perpetrators of cattle theft) in the efforts to promote peace and educating them on the negative impacts of cattle rustling and the benefits of healthy community interaction, the NRT is helping to shift the mindset of the next generation of elders (http://www.nrt-kenya.org/peace/ ).
The NRT has created a rapid response team, dubbed, 9-1 after their radio call sign, that deals with violence in the area from inter-tribal conflict to poaching. By deriving the team from multiple tribes, they are able to gain the trust of villagers and more effectively resolve conflicts (King, Craig, 2016). The 9-1 teams are part policemen, part wildlife guardians. One part of the NRT’s efforts in the conservancies is increasing biodiversity in the region and bringing a diversification of economy to communities through conservation and ecotourism. Pastoralists and wildlife have coexisted for a millennia. Under colonial rule they were driven off their lands in the name of conservation and only recently has the perspective shifted toward a recognition of the interconnectedness of humans and wildlife in their landscape. Pastoralists and their cattle are an essential element to the rangeland ecology; the cattle break up the soil allowing more grass to grow for all the animals (Yurco, 2017). The shift in focus to one that includes humans in the larger landscape as positive ecological influencers helps preserve the pastoral lifeway and wildlife.
Beyond policing and conflict resolution building positive cross community connections is an essential part of reducing conflict. In 2011 the Kom Peace Marathon was held to help communities cross the cultural divides that separated them. It was a very successful event that found youth from different tribes sitting down to a meal together and sharing dance and stories. Enabling communication and connection through events like this builds peace and understanding between tribes (King, Craig, 2016)).
The NRT conservancies are landowner associations made up of tribal constituents. Developing a governing strategy that focuses on peace through conservancies builds social capital for communities (Pellis et al, 2015). Recognition of land ownership by pastoralists has given communities a new sense of stewardship and the NRT is working to guide them in the development of a diversified and resilient interconnected landscape of people and wildlife. By coming together to form these conservancies they are establishing their importance as primary stewards of the ASAL’s of Kenya. As an evolving cultural landscape, the people, wildlife, and landscape of Northern Kenya sit at the precipice of change. They face many challenges; from those out of their control like climatic shifts to development proposals for oil and gas exploration from which they may benefit if managed in a manner that retains for them a healthy landscape. Creating these conservancies and working toward peaceful solutions to conflict will allow them to face the decisions ahead with a unified voice and a sense of cultural identity as unique and valued contributors to the dialog on the balance between development and conservation.
Margo Geddes holds an MFA in Photography from the University of Oregon. Currently, she is pursuing a Master’s in Museum Studies and Digital Curation at Johns Hopkins University. She is a practicing artist and garden designer living in Missoula, Montana. Her research interests range from human relationships to the plant world and the history of gardens to the wider landscape of the west and human interactions with borderlands.
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