Complicating narratives of changing livelihoods and shared lands in Southern Kenya

by Ryan Unks, PASTRES

Narratives about Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya often frame it as an “ecological island” in the centre of the wider Amboseli landscape that is threatened by fragmentation.

This semi-arid landscape is well known as home to an abundance of mammalian and avian biodiversity, thanks to a mosaic of grasslands, savannas, swamps, and volcanic soil forests, not to mention long-standing Maasai pastoralist land use practices. There have long been similarities in patterns of both wildlife and Maasai with their livestock, migrating across this landscape and benefitting from different areas, depending on the season. However, exclusion from formerly accessed national parks, conservancies within Maasai land, and privatised land has limited pastoralist mobility, and farming, fencing, and extractive industry pose very real threats to wildlife populations.

One of many important but increasingly restricted wetland grazing sites.

Troubling ‘just so’ narratives

However, there is also something troubling about this ‘just so’ narrative, because it implies that fragmentation of the Amboseli landscape is being driven primarily by choices among Maasai to give up mobile pastoralism, to settle, and to maximise their incomes by dedicating their land to intensive cash crop agriculture or other industrial uses.

Increased support for wildlife conservation is often portrayed as the logical solution to this dilemma, as it is argued that these practices benefit pastoralist livelihoods at the same time that they benefit biodiversity by helping to sustain open land. Taking a surface view, wildlife conservation seems to provide a simple solution, by providing new sources of income to pastoralists and funds for infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

However, this narrative of problem and solution relies on a distortion of the history of changes in relationships between Maasai, their land, and wildlife over time. In particular, it obscures important historical events over the past 100 years that have had impacts on the way Maasai use and benefit from land, from interventions by colonial and post-colonial governments to recent political reforms in Kenya to the growing influence of non-governmental actors in everyday life in communities in Amboseli.

This narrative also gives a misleading impression of important asymmetries in abilities to access and benefit from land and to influence the new shape of land rights currently taking form. It neglects how problems with wildlife conservation practices have contributed to negative views of collective land. It is important to clarify what is driving changes in land tenure underway in Amboseli at a moment of devastating drought, ongoing changes in temperature and rainfall, forced exclusions of Maasai in Tanzania in the name of wildlife conservation, and the role of carbon sequestration agreements in Kenya all making the future increasingly uncertain.

Plains in a dry season grazing area

Asking open-ended questions

In this and another post to come next week, I will briefly summarise research from 2018 and 2019, when I spent a year in Amboseli. I do not claim to speak for the Maasai individuals who generously shared their perspectives with me, and my perspective is steeped in the power dynamics of someone with United States citizenship, from a settler lineage, and trained in two disciplines at the heart of the colonial project (ecology and anthropology). Indeed, similar discussions have often been dominated, framed, and distorted by people with a similar background to myself.

My goal as a researcher has not been to enter this conversation as someone prescribing ‘solutions’ for the Maasai, but on trying to understand better what happens when programmes centred on environment and development, supported by international development agencies and corporations, encounter the people and non-humans who they claim to provide ‘solutions’ for.

I began this research by asking open-ended questions about ongoing changes in Maasai access to land amidst numerous other changes in political, economic, and social power relations, and I offer that my perspective here might contribute to the ongoing discussion.

View of Mt. Kilimanjaro from within fenced land

Barriers to livelihoods and complex new systems of benefits

In a recent article, together with coauthors, we focused on the complex relationship between access to and benefits from Maasai land on what are today known as ‘group ranches’, or collectively titled pastoralist land surrounding Amboseli National Park.

The late Esther Mwangi showed how Maasai rules and norms of managing and benefitting from land had been systematically undermined since the colonial era in Kenya. Her work, which focused on how rules and norms supported collective action in the Maasai ‘commons’ prior to a series of colonial and post-colonial interventions, helped to show the problematic logic underpinning the argument that a ‘tragedy of the commons’ was inevitable if the land was not either privatised or placed under the control of a state government.

Our research, while indebted to hers, makes a subtle departure from the literature on ‘commons’. Instead, it focuses on how a diverse mix of rules and norms of land management mediate different people’s abilities to benefit from land, and are always part of wider political and economic processes. This helps to highlight the role of social, political, and economic power relations in shaping rules and norms of land use, as well as who benefits, and how, from changes in these rules and norms of land use.

In group ranches in Amboseli, the rules and norms of managing, accessing, and benefitting from land have all increasingly been shaped by interests of international wildlife conservation actors, as well as politicians at various levels of government keen to profit from agriculture, extractive mining, and tourism.

For example, changes in grazing rules that have accompanied the leasing of collectively titled land for wildlife conservation and tourism have, over time, tended to restrict the way that different areas of the landscape were used. Historically, the Maasai had created a system of mobility that optimised livestock health in response to seasonal rainfall patterns, and strategic use of watering points and forage when it was at its most nutritious.

This system was also flexible in response to variability in rainfall from year to year. Changes in this system were directly caused by different colonial and post-colonial state policies that were intended to coerce the Maasai to live in permanent settlements and to discourage mobile pastoralism in favour of crop farming. As in many pastoralist societies undergoing sedentarization, there has been increased farming, as well as important socio-cultural changes around sharing of labour, and increasing inequality in who is able to sustain large mobile livestock herds.

However, importantly in Amboseli, increasing inequality also has a close relationship with new land uses such as conservation and sand harvesting for cement. All of these changes are part of a new system of rules and norms that shape how different people can access and benefit from land and creates important new differences in livelihood outcomes.

For example, families who have a member who is employed at a conservation NGO have a new type of income from land that is often closely related to practices of setting aside areas as conservancies that often impose new restrictions on when and how they can be accessed by livestock. This can lead to those with direct incomes from conservation having an advantage in being able to pay for access to privatised grazing land outside of group ranches, to pay to transport water and feed for livestock, but also being able to avoid selling animals when market prices are low, and being able to invest in farming.

All of these factors, in turn, can lead to those who directly benefit from conservation and other new land uses having an overall advantage in how they benefit from other land that is used collectively. Additionally, there are very close connections in Amboseli between who benefits most from land and who is able to have the most influence over decisions about collective land. Importantly, as we show in the article, these inequalities have all contributed to a majority of Maasai favouring the division of collective land into a system of individualised tenure.

One of the growing number of mining sites in Amboseli

Challenging binary framings of collective vs private land

An implication of our research is that to understand the complex changes that have happened in recent history across Amboseli and other pastoralist systems, we need to reconsider common academic and policy-oriented problem framings.

One of these is policies that seek to sustain mobility, but that are not attentive to both inequalities within pastoralist societies and how past interventions have created numerous constraints on livestock mobility. Well-intentioned thinking that is based in romantic ideas of pastoralists gaining equal benefits from ‘commons’ that are inattentive to these dimensions can exacerbate inequality, and also reinforce historical injustices.

Also, pastoralist livelihoods in Amboseli today rely on access to a mix of collective, state, or private property, and livelihood outcomes are intertwined with other new land uses that powerful interests seek to benefit from. Policies that are intended to generally benefit pastoralism need to be grounded in an understanding of the relationship between multiple types of property and the overlapping rules and norms that shape how pastoralists manage, access, and benefit from the land today. New types of uses within collectively-titled land, such as conservancies, mining, and carbon sequestration projects, are becoming increasingly common. So it is important to consider these changes as entwined with the socially and economically differentiated ways that pastoralists are able to benefit.

Finally, as researchers studying pastoralism, we need to consider how our own problem framings might be uncritically shaping debates about ongoing interventions on pastoralist land. To this end, in the next post, I will focus on wildlife conservation interventions in Amboseli in hopes of helping to develop new critical tools that can be used to evaluate projects that claim to offer universal benefits for both biodiversity and pastoralists.

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