Conservancies in Laikipia and Zimbabwe: PR, communities and controversies

by Ian Scoones, PASTRES principal investigator

Last week’s post reported on a visit to a ‘conservancy’ in Laikipia, Kenya. Conservancies offer a model which aims to combine wildlife, tourism, and mobile pastoralism: some are big businesses, offering high-end experiences for tourists. But there are conflicts and problems too.

Kenya is not the only country where conservancies have been used. In the weeks before visiting Laikipia, I had been in Zimbabwe. There are of course many resonances with the land story there. Similar settler colonial histories, a racialised pattern of landholding, populist political rhetoric about land access, and a deep inequality in who has land, especially better-quality land.

Having studied land reform in Zimbabwe over many years, seeing such vast areas in Kenya still under ‘white’ control was striking. How could this still be the case?

Conservancies have been used in Zimbabwe too as a route to assert land control, with the case being made that high-value tourism generates foreign exchange and that wildlife needs conserving in ways that under-funded national parks cannot. The bringing down of fences across vast areas, such as the Save Valley, occurred in Zimbabwe from the late 1980s, part of what many thought, was a tactic to offset land claims through growing moves towards reform.

‘Community’ outreach and projects in neighbouring areas in turn were seen as a route to offering ‘development’, based on a wider commitment to the area, although of course never assuaging land hunger or dealing with deep inequality. In the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe that I know well, this has been quite a successful ploy, and even at the height of the land invasions in 2000-01, key conservancies were protected, including from the very top.

Community work and public perception

Although of course not articulated in this way, the Laikipia conservancies have followed a similar route, bolstered by the new legal status, and so formal recognition, of conservancies. Although not the case for our hosts who receive no external funding, many receive huge amounts of subsidy from international conservation organisations and even massive grants from aid agencies, in support of their ‘community’ work. Some even have TV deals with global channels to profile their animals and the great work they are doing. With the political-business-international donor elite from Nairobi regularly visiting, Laikipia is valued as a major national asset, and leading political families (as seems inevitably the case in Kenya) have stakes in the area.

Some conservancies have exceptionally good PR machines, with hagiographic books profiling owners, alongside great international press coverage highlighting the wonderful work being done, with glossy pictures of threatened charismatic animals and their conservation. With royal patronage thrown in (the future king and queen of England apparently proposed to each other on one of the conservancies in a very fancy lodge), there is a very high level of support which disgruntled pastoralists, even when agitated by local politicians, cannot confront.

Yet the inequalities are stark between pastoralists suffering drought and conflict in the areas around Laikipia and the plentiful resources and rich lifestyles of those who reside and visit there. The Nanyuki airstrip is full of small planes and helicopters, ferrying tourists to amazing lodges and kids from the farms to their private schools in Nairobi. However, such stark inequalities cannot be hidden completely and, given the historical origins of these places, memories of violent dispossession are of course still present.

Despite the international backing, the huge foreign investments and the hold that the conservation organisations have over land and politics in this area, recalling the Zimbabwe experience, you have to wonder how sustainable this is for the longer-term.

‘Community’ approaches

To counter any agitation towards land reform, and in moves aimed at shoring up the conservancy ‘model’ and so protecting the core private lands of Laikipia, the community conservancy approach is being very effectively sold as a solution to ‘sustainable development’ in the northern areas of Kenya by the NRT. And, as we found, there are well-articulated arguments both, for and against.

In our study areas to the east in Isiolo County, some community conservancies have already been established and others are being planned. However, these plans are highly divisive. Accepting the challenges of pastoral production and especially conflict, some local pastoralists are avid supporters. In particular, the appeal of increased security through the supply of guns and guards to local areas is seen as a great advantage. Many areas of grazing have been out of use for years – if the conservation people can fight off the ‘enemies’, then it will be an improvement, and meanwhile, we can earn money from tourism, so the argument goes.

Others object: our life is based on pastoralism, we already have problems with wild animals, how can we encourage more? And will people really want to fly in to have a holiday in Kinna, rather than one of the lodges on the white people’s ranches? And yes, stopping conflict is definitely a priority, but will peace come through more guns, night vision equipment and armed guards? Surely this will result in abuse, as we’ve seen elsewhere? The debate continues to rage, but currently, there is very little common ground, with accusations flung from all sides.

Future directions?

A very short visit can inevitably only give a partial view, but it was sufficient to touch on some of the controversies surrounding the Laikipia conservancy approach, and its extension into community land. The troubled histories of former settler economies in Africa cannot be brushed under the carpet with slick PR campaigns, backed by the global conservation elite; nor can the very dramatic, racialised inequalities be ignored.

Yet, nevertheless, the arguments for integrated use of land in the face of recurrent drought and climate change are good ones. The challenges of the pastoral economy, especially for younger and poorer people unable to accumulate large herds, are very real, while the benefits that can be derived from tourism and wildlife are tangible.

Beyond, the polarised debates a more open deliberation about the future of the drylands – and the role of both pastoralism and wildlife use within this – is clearly required, as the future of Laikipia and the conservancies remain highly contested. 

This is the second of two blog posts on conservancies in Kenya and Zimbabwe. You can read the first here

All photos: Ian Scoones / PASTRES project

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