Can pastoralists benefit from wildlife conservation in Kenya? A case study from Amboseli

by Ryan Unks, PASTRES

In a previous post, I summarised a recent article that I wrote with colleagues on the changing system of access and benefits within Maasai land in southern Kenya. This post only hinted at ongoing changes in land tenure, and the closely related, extremely complex issue of wildlife conservation interventions. However, with wildlife conservation interventions continuing to expand in Kenya, and  ‘community conservancies’ now covering about 11% of Kenya’s landmass, much of which is within pastoralist land, the relevance of these changes for pastoralist livelihoods cannot be overstated.

In another recent article, I highlighted how a wide range of international actors working in Amboseli under the loose banner of ‘community-based conservation’ have been brought together by the idea of migratory wildlife and Maasai livelihoods mutually benefitting from open rangelands within Maasai group ranches. Wildlife conservation in group ranches surrounding Amboseli National Park has long been held up as a model of an alternative to exclusionary ‘fortress conservation’. Following the prohibition of the Maasai’s seasonal temporary settlements near swamps within the national park in the late 1970’s, these practices sought to gain support for conservation and to secure habitat connectivity for migratory wildlife on group ranch land.

It is claimed that these practices can turn wildlife into an ‘asset’ for pastoralists and foster land uses that are mutually beneficial for both pastoralist livelihoods and wildlife populations. In many ways, Amboseli provided an early model for projects aiming to secure wildlife mobility outside national parks. Similar practices have since rapidly expanded on pastoralist land across Kenya, seen prominently in the activities of the Northern Rangelands Trust.

Mixed herds of buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, and gazelles grazing in a swamp in the centre of Amboseli National Park

Overlooked realities of livelihoods, governance, and land rights

One key aspect of these projects that is sometimes absent from popular dialogues about conservation interventions is that, as implied in the previous post, they are reinforcing differences in livelihood outcomes.

Many Maasai in Amboseli see decisions about their land and its use as heavily influenced by wildlife conservation practices but often do not see themselves benefitting from these practices. As observed more widely by others, significant pastoralist lands are often set aside for conservation in Kenya and Tanzania, but incomes to pastoralists tend to be extremely low. Furthermore, these new sources of income from land are also often concentrated amongst a subset of Maasai. These changes have led to common perceptions among Maasai that elites and government officials are the primary beneficiaries of wildlife on pastoralist lands (referred to as ‘owners’ of this wildlife), while at the same time, pastoralists continue to be excluded from important drought grazing reserves.

Secondly, because pastoralist lands tend to support large wildlife populations, they have attracted the attention of wildlife conservation NGOs who seek to influence the configuration of land. However, wildlife conservation has, in policy and practice, been considered distinct from underlying problems with the land tenure and governance system in pastoralist lands in Kenya. The problems of post-colonial land tenure systems in Kenya have been well documented in the work of Esther Mwangi and many others, including the influential legal scholar Hastings W.O. Okoth-Ogendo. While group ranches are often discussed as ‘commons’ in a way that highlights the long-standing practices of Maasai sharing and managing their land, it is important to draw attention to how the collective land tenure system has consolidated power and decisions about land in the hands of a small subset of representatives.

Thirdly, new influxes of capital, the structure of conservation projects, and new relationships between NGO representatives and communities have all had sweeping implications for local politics and power relations. Wildlife conservation projects frequently invoke language about how they are participatory and incorporate Maasai knowledge about wildlife. However, the main decisions made about conservation planning, land use, and finances that have been central to implementing these projects are typically made by group ranch representatives who have close relationships with representatives of international NGOs. Thus, conservation practices have often relied on the unique legal properties of group ranches, where group ranch representatives have the legal power to make decisions about land for the community as a whole. While these representatives are members of the ‘community’, they have made many of the key decisions about the shape of wildlife conservation projects within collectively-titled lands behind closed doors, working closely with NGO representatives and government officials.

Power relations and unintended consequences of land reforms

As I mentioned in the previous post, the majority of collectively titled group ranches were subdivided into individualised tenure, in part because it was a legal option for addressing inequalities that had been exacerbated by group ranch authority structure. In Amboseli, sustaining collective tenure has been a key objective of conservation interventions. This has created tension between wildlife conservation and a range of alternatives to the group ranch land tenure and governance system that Maasai have been advocating for.

The Community Land Act of 2016 was passed as a reform to the Kenyan tenure system, with particular relevance for pastoralist ‘trust’ lands and group ranches. This law was intended to address problems with systems of representation, lack of tenure security, tendencies of group ranches to subdivide, and disturbing trends of land grabs and increasing landlessness among women and youth following subdivision. As the law has been implemented, understanding how relations between Maasai leaders, wildlife conservation actors, and the state have dominated decisions about land in Amboseli provides insights about new types of agreements around the land that are taking effect.

As discussed in detail in the article, reforms under the Community Land Act have now officially brought the group ranches as a legal structure to an end; however, the tenure reforms that were intended under this law appear to have been pre-empted in Amboseli. Group ranches have instead been subdivided under the rules of the previous legal system, and the resulting land configuration appears to heavily constrain Maasai land use and prioritise wildlife corridors and the financial interests of powerful actors. These plans appear to be at odds with the alternative system of managing and sharing the land that most Maasai I interviewed had envisioned before subdivision. These plans also do not appear to include any provisions that will ensure that the new tenure configuration will continue to support pastoralist livelihoods or prevent widespread losses of land.

Map of group ranches, conservancies in the process of formation, and wildlife corridors being prioritised during subdivision

These changes in land tenure draw attention to the need for increased scrutiny of the practices of NGOs working in Kenya, and beg important questions about the US and European conservation and development agencies that support them with grants.

The NGOs that conservation and development agencies and corporations support are often registered in both Kenya and the US or Europe to facilitate funding, which is often secured abroad and then transferred to an entity registered in Kenya. Many people working within these NGOs (who include a range of people, including those from European ethnic backgrounds who are settlers in North America and Africa, as well as non-Maasai Kenyans and Maasai group ranch members) are often motivated by a moral imperative to preserve biodiversity and often feel that conservation can contribute to Maasai livelihoods in general. Wildlife conservation NGOs often present themselves as enabling projects that are benefiting both wildlife and local livelihoods, and that have broken with colonial legacies of dispossession, coercion, and political marginalisation. The perspectives expressed by representatives of NGOs, however, often contrast with Maasai who do not work for or otherwise benefit from wildlife conservation activities.

A recently cleared farm plot, under preparation for growing tomatoes for export to Nairobi

To many Maasai, wildlife conservation interventions on group ranches are seen as ongoing, long-term processes of gradually losing access to land. In Amboseli, this has ironically contributed to Maasai wanting to separate themselves from wildlife, as similarly is seen in the nearby Maasai Mara. I argue in the paper that, although there is increasing recognition of pastoralism as a sustainable land use that has many synergies with wildlife, and today there is more recognition and inclusion of Maasai culture and knowledge in wildlife conservation projects, the main logic of wildlife conservation projects in Amboseli remains focused on using multiple types of direct and indirect practices to constrain Maasai behaviour and land use.

While these projects in Amboseli at first glance seem ‘participatory’, in their efforts to sustain land in an ‘open’ state and to prevent the expansion of intensive land uses such as tomato cultivation, they have extended a logic and set of practices that developed during the colonial and post-colonial eras with the intent of constraining and transforming the way Maasai relate to land and wildlife, relying on romanticised ideas about both ‘commons’ and Maasai livelihoods. It therefore should not be surprising that, for many Maasai who live in Amboseli, their views of both wildlife and shared land have become inseparable from changing political, social, and economic power relations related to wildlife conservation practices.

However, importantly, this should not be seen as a condemnation of endeavours to preserve and enhance biodiversity across pastoralist contexts, so much as a need for a call for increased attention to the way similar projects are being implemented. This work points to the need for dramatically different approaches to conservation in pastoralist lands and the need to think extremely carefully about how these interventions are inherently bound up with ways of reconfiguring governance, and notions of land, rights, and access to resources. It is imperative to advocate for increased scrutiny of both ongoing projects in Kenya and the processes that international agencies and corporate sponsors extend support through; and to continue to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions about what these projects are doing in practice.

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