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Communal land tenure can improve pastoral livelihoods

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In Kenya, 67% of the total land is under communal land tenure, and supports about a quarter of the country’s population (10 million persons) and 70% of the livestock population. A large majority of these lands are characterised by arid and semi-arid conditions such as high temperatures and low rainfall. As such they have been inhabited by pastoral communities who practise extensive livestock production systems that are well-suited to these conditions. These communities have used communal land tenure to manage the lands. Communal land tenure systems not only facilitate this type of livestock keeping but also play a key role in determining the social, economic and political status of pastoral communities.

From the colonial period, pastoralism has been misunderstood by the authorities. The colonial government implemented land policies such as the East African Royal Commission 1953-1955 and the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, which advocated for individualisation and privatisation of land tenure. They viewed pastoralism as retrogressive, inefficient, and did not lead to investment in land. Instead private land tenure was seen as the best form of promoting investment in land and improving productivity. They argued that private and individual tenure was a key step towards improving environmental conservation, reducing herd size and improving livestock breeds, thereby improving productivity and livelihoods.

The post-independence government maintained these policies and further, the Lawrence Report of 1966 recommended privatisation of land tenure in pastoral areas. With support from donors, the government in the 1960s and 1970s established group ranches starting in the now Kajiado County, before spreading out to other Maasai lands i.e. Narok and Laikipia Counties and further to other pastoral communities. Although the formation of group ranches was inconsistent with the pastoral communities cultural norms of land ownership and access, for example, the Maasai believed that land was a birth right accessible to all, they did not oppose the formation of group ranches mainly because they wanted to protect their ancestral land from “outsiders” and the government also provided additional incentives such as provision of water and disease control. Despite the establishment of group ranches, the communities used customary laws to manage the land. For example, the elders became leaders of the ranches and communities maintained cultural access norms with no restriction on use of land. On the other hand, land that was not adjudicated was held in trust by local governments on behalf of the communities in those locales.

In the 1980s, group ranches started collapsing. The grazing controls and herd quotas envisioned by the government never materialised. Pastoralists kept as many animals as they could. Children in the 1960s had matured to adults with own households in the 1980s and sought to be recognised as members of the ranches. In addition, there was huge pressure to follow what had happened in crop growing areas where the government advanced loans to farmers using land as collateral. Further, most group ranches were mismanaged, with no accountability measures in place. Annual General Meetings were never held and the leaders, who were elders in the community, could not be questioned or held to account for resources in group ranches. Where land was not adjudicated, local governments allocated land to individuals for private use without consulting the community for whom they held the land in trust. Further external pressure such as proximity to urban areas and potential for change in land use catalysed the collapse of group ranches and individualisation of land tenure. In Kadiado County, areas such as Kitengela, Kisaju and Isinya, which were group ranches, became subdivided into individual parcels and were further fragmented to satisfy the demand of land due to expansion of Nairobi city.

Pastoralists are now facing more pressure than before on their land. First, increasing population has led to a decline in the land available as animal herds have remained largely unchanged. There has also been an increase in fragmentation and individualisation of land tenure. Communal lands have been targeted by the government, private sector and other actors for large scale agricultural developments and public sector investments, mineral extraction and other uses. This is because of perceptions that there are low investment in pastoral lands and that they are largely underutilised. Decline in grazing land has exacerbated overgrazing and impeded improvement of livestock, which would have led to improved productivity and incomes for pastoral households. In addition, investments in public goods delivery have also been low in pastoral areas compared to other parts of the country.

Maintenance of collective land tenure provides an opportunity to improve livelihoods in pastoral communities. However, this can only happen if community’s mechanisms to manage land are strengthened. One way of achieving this is by incorporating customary laws in the legal framework. The community land bill, currently in parliament, provides for this. Further, the communities need to be supported through investments in delivery of public goods such as infrastructure, schools, livestock markets and veterinary services. County governments in pastoral areas have a great opportunity to achieve this through use of the equalization funds. Finally, strengthening community’s governance institutions to be transparent and accountable will ensure that pastoral communities are able to manage their land more effectively and efficiently.

Written by Dr. Timothy Njagi – Senior Research Fellow,

Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, of Egerton University



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