Understanding socio-ecological complexity in pastoral Kenya

Written by Ryan Unks, PhD, PASTRES post-doctoral researcher

Pastoralists are well-known for their remarkable ability to adapt their livelihoods to variable, complex ecological conditions.  Specialised breeds of livestock, flexibility of rules and norms of land access, and social relations of mutual assistance, among numerous other factors, contribute to an ability to “live with” and even “live off” uncertainty. 

Despite historically being subjected to a suite of limitations in the wake of colonisation, pastoralism in Kenya has continued to support millions and has remained remarkably resilient. However, a suite of social, political, economic, and ecological changes have all created new uncertainties and constrained ongoing adaptation of livelihoods. My post-doctoral research linked to PASTRES and based at the Socio-environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) at the University of Maryland, also in collaboration with the Wilson Lab at the University at Buffalo, will explore these themes.

Adapting to changing conditions

My previous research in central and southern Kenya has focused on how historical changes have had an impact on pastoralists’ abilities to adapt to changing conditions.  Among Maa-speaking pastoralists in Laikipia and Kajiado counties, mobility has decreased over the past century for a variety of reasons.  Restrictions due to colonial era land grabs of high productivity rangelands, post-colonial state wildlife conservation, conflicts between different pastoralist groups, privatization of collectively-titled group ranches, and more recently, NGO-led wildlife conservation have all played a role in related livelihood changes

These changes in mobility are also closely related with many other social and economic changes.  For example, in Laikipia and Kajiado alike, as market forces have become more influential on livelihoods, there have been sweeping changes in reciprocity and sharing of labour that have strongly influenced husbandry practices

Livelihood dynamics are also closely related to economic changes, where people have become increasingly reliant on access to cash to buy non livestock-based foods and livestock medicines, and to pay for school fees, grazing access, and herding labor.  Herders in Kajiado have also begun regularly supplementing livestock with grains and transporting livestock and water with vehicles during droughts.  In turn, many that are unable to sustain cattle through these means now rely on alternative livelihood strategies. 

Depending on the location, this can involve waged labour, farming, or placing greater emphasis on small stock that are more drought tolerant but also more easily sold for access to cash.  However, while these alternative strategies can decrease uncertainties with respect to droughts, they can also lead to increasing uncertainty with respect to market variabilities, as well as have localised ecological impacts.

Multi-level governance: strategies for living with uncertainty

I am currently expanding this work to understand how recent interventions at multiple levels of governance are having an impact on the ability of pastoralists to live with and from uncertainty under already complex changing social, political, economic, and ecological conditions in Kajiado and Laikipia. 

Spearheaded by NGOs, so-called “community-based conservation” in various forms has been widely proposed as a pro-wildlife alternative for land arrangements and livelihoods.  These interventions on paper often claim to be fostering ecological sustainability of rangelands, enhancing livelihoods through marketing and breeding programs, and supporting continued co-existence between wildlife and livestock.  However, these interventions in practice often have unclear impacts on pastoralist livelihoods and self-governance, and their success is often primarily centred on wildlife conservation goals.

Drawing attention to questions of power is of course vital, as pastoralists have a long history of marginalisation in Kenya, and the lack of robust consideration of pastoralist knowledge systems in conservation and development is well documented. However, there remain also significant transdisciplinary barriers between the social and natural sciences and practitioners to bringing different knowledge systems into dialogue in the context of conservation and development interventions. 

Thus there is an increasing need to pay attention the ways of knowing (epistemologies) and ways of being in the world (ontologies) that pastoralist peoples understand and respond to uncertainty.  Governance arrangements must become framed from a plural perspective and consider how both conservation and development actors and pastoralists understand and experience interventions. My work with PASTRES is therefore taking a multi-scalar, mixed-methods approach that draws from diverse threads of inquiry, including landscape ecology, environmental governance, and science and technology studies.

Social and ecological connections in a complex system 

As part of my post-doctoral fellowship, I will be working to link these social and livelihood changes to my research on ecological dynamics and landscape change.  Spatio-temporal variability in rainfall and vegetation is a key source of uncertainty in livelihoods; but increasing variability of rainfall, as well as changes in the relationship between rainfall and vegetation responses, are creating new uncertainties. These rainfall-related changes, coupled with changes in the composition and structure of vegetation, are having sweeping impacts on livelihood strategies, especially surrounding mobility decisions and choices around what livestock species to keep.  

My goal over the next two years is to work toward connecting different understandings of social and ecological complexity.  I will use qualitative and quantitative analysis of social data and herding patterns to develop a spatially-explicit analysis of forage access in relation to vegetation dynamics and change.   I will then use qualitative analysis to explore how differentiated use patterns relate to land use and governance interventions, but also how different households experience ecological change and how these changes are interacting with livelihoods. 

Another key element will focus on the often contrasting knowledges of pastoralists and different conservation and development actors.  Drawing from science and technology studies, I will explore how different knowledges of livelihoods and ecological change inform discussions around heterogeneous conservation landscapes in Kenya.

Through this work, I hope to contribute to new approaches for developing nuanced understandings of social and ecological change that are also attentive to power and how emphases on certain ways of knowing translate into implications for pastoralist livelihoods under conditions of uncertainty. Look out for updates on this blog!

Photo Credit: Ryan Unks

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