For over 10 years, the Northern Rangelands Trust, a Kenya-based conservation initiative, has been acquiring land in the arid north of the country. Today, it controls almost 10% of Kenya’s land mass. Environmental journalist John Mbaria investigates.
In its dying days, the Obama Administration pumped massive amounts of money into supporting a powerful NGO accused of using below-the-radar tactics to control a huge amount of Kenyan land, thereby using conservation as a subtle tool for dispossessing tens of thousands of pastoralists, who have unwittingly participated in their own dispossession.
Much of the land, whose control is enforced by local well-armed militias, has recently been granted UN-protected status. And with financial backing from powerful Western donors, the Northern Rangelands Trust’s (NRT) activities are largely insulated from public scrutiny.
Unless the new Trump administration discontinues the US government’s support to wildlife conservation in Africa, the NRT is set to continue having a say over vast, mineral-rich lands in the north and coastal areas of Kenya.
Most of these lands have been identified, in official documents, as areas of immense potential capable of becoming the very basis of the country’s future economic progress. These areas are also crucial to the maintenance of the extensive livestock husbandry practised by millions of pastoralists in northern Kenya.
Today, the NRT effectively controls 44,000 km2 (or 10.8m acres) of land – that’s roughly eight per cent of Kenya’s 581,309 km2 landmass. Interestingly, the organisation appears to have acquired a decisive say over these lands by co-opting the local leadership. Consequently, NRT’s control of the lands in Kenya’s Upper Rift, North and Coastal areas is facilitated by local political and community leaders, some of whom are co-opted as members of the organisation’s Board.
This has been done through community wildlife conservation, a model in which landowners assert the right to manage and profit from wildlife on their lands.
Conservancies have proliferated across pastoralist, wildlife-rich areas in northern and southern Kenya. They are also an extremely attractive funding prospect for Western donors in the conservation sector.
All the cash is handed over, not directly to the landowners, who have constituted themselves into 33 community conservancies, but to the NRT, which acts like a middleman and which has taken up not just conservation, but other roles (including security arrangements) that are ordinarily performed by national governments.
Among the biggest financial supporters of NRT, the former Obama administration consistently extended tens of millions of dollars to the organisation through the United States Agency for International Development (USAid). As if to underscore how important the NRT’s work was to the Obama Administration, the organisation’s Chief Programs Officer, Tom Lalampaa, and its founder, Ian Craig, were among the people given the privilege of making short presentations about their work when the former US president visited Kenya last July.
America’s latest support to the organisation was announced in a press statement released by the US Embassy in Nairobi in late November 2016. In the communiqué, the US Ambassador to Kenya, Robert F. Godec, said
the US’s new 5-year, $20m support was meant “to help expand” the NRT’s operations in Coastal
He hailed NRT’s partnership with the communities, terming it “a shared vision of protecting ecosystems and promoting peace for a better future”. He added that the cash would be used to support the work of community rangers, to conserve wildlife and fisheries, improve livelihoods, and advance women’s enterprises.
For its part, NRT, through Craig (who signed off as the organisation’s Director of Conservation), said the cash would be used to fund the opening up of new conservancies and create a conservation trust fund.
The former Obama administration consistently extended tens of millions of dollars to the NRT through USAid.
Though the US government believes that the NRT shares “the visions of protecting ecosystems” with the communities in Upper Rift, the North and on the Coast, recent developments in Kenya have proved otherwise. Indeed, the US support comes at a time when some well-armed herders, from some of the same communities the NRT has helped to form community conservancies, have invaded sprawling private ranches in Laikipia and elsewhere, leading to human fatalities, the killing of wild animals and forcing the deployment of specialised security units from the Kenya police.
The work of NRT and the West’s support to conservation in some of Kenya’s arid-and-semi-arid lands has altered the human/ wildlife dynamics in some areas. This has also invited curious concern from conservation experts, who believe that the US and other countries in the West have been supporting a controversial organisation that has been usurping the role of Kenya’s human and wildlife security organs, as well as destroying the age-old ability of tens of thousands of herders to live off their land.
As New African found out in extensive visits and interviews with different people in the affected areas, the NRT-inspired community-conservation model is simple and can be quite attractive for anyone ignorant of its implications, especially for the lives and livelihoods of local people.
After co-opting the local leadership, the NRT appears to have crafted MOUs with the communities owning the vast tracts of land. In most cases, the communities’ land-ownership claims are based on the most rudimentary rights – an ancestral claim to the land.
Community members are also reputed to retain significant respect for, and allow themselves to be guided by, local leadership which, in most cases, uses its standing in communities to advance, and persuade “lesser” members of communities to conform with the wishes of the NRT.
This is not so difficult as the organisation has come up with quite an attractive package for the communities, including securing for them investors interested in developing lodges and other tourism facilities, once they agree to set aside some of their lands for exclusive use by wildlife and the investors.
NRT also promises bursaries for school children, employment for community members, a ready market for the livestock and the setting up of a grazing plan to prevent livestock deaths through drought in the drylands of Kenya.
“NRT’s approach is quite attractive to communities who have been neglected by successive governments in Kenya since the country attained independence from the British,” says Daniel Letoiye, a Samburu County resident who previously worked as a programme officer with NRT.
However, hidden in the fine print are consequences that are considered grave for the pastoralist groups in Northern Kenya. “Even when droughts occur, many of the pastoralist groups [who have signed up to the agreements] cannot access part of their lands that are now set aside for wildlife conservation and which constitute community conservancies,” says Michael Lalampaa, an official with the Higher Education Loans Board who hails from Samburu County.
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Samburu comunity elders discuss their perspectives with the author in Samburu County
Lalampaa complains that the NRT compels communities to set aside the best portions of their lands for the exclusive use of wildlife and the tourist investors. Lalampaa says that the organisation usually identifies leaders and elites within relevant communities who aid in persuading the pastoralists to set aside big parcels of land for conservation purposes. “Once the agreements are put in place, it becomes impossible for the herders to access some areas with pastures in the conservancies … they are confronted by armed scouts who evict them.” He adds that it is “sad that at times, livestock ends up dying simply because the owners cannot graze the animals in what used to be their own lands.”
This has proven problematic especially since vast sections of the relevant rangelands have been depleted year-in, year-out by overgrazing and are inhabited by people who have become increasingly vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of livestock end up competing over the remaining patches of grasslands and dwindling water sources such as the Ewaso Nyiro River.
This happens, as copious reports show, in an area largely ignored by the Kenya government, inhabited by morans, have taken up cattle- rustling as a traditional pastime.
Claims have also been made that NRT’s activities have far-reaching implications on the entire country and therefore need to be handled with more than casual attention by Kenya’s allies across the world, the government as well as the people of Kenya.
“The sheer geographical, financial, cultural, and political scale of this intervention calls for a lot more thought than has been given to it thus far,” said Dr Mordecai Ogada, a conservation consultant based in Laikipia County.
Dr Ogada believes that the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has “abdicated” from its responsibility to inspire the formation and sound management of conservation activities outside Kenya’s protected areas. But top officials at KWS – which has lately been experiencing financial difficulties – deny this, saying that they see no problem with the operations of the NRT.
However, KWS appears critical of recent moves by foreign governments to fund the NRT. “Conservation NGOs like NRT have recently benefited from funding from development partners, following the paradigm shift where development partners and other governments prefer to fund communities through NGOs rather than governments directly,” said Paul Gathitu, KWS spokesperson and head of corporate communications.
Attempts by New African to elicit comments from NRT met with no success. Nevertheless, on its website, the organisation – which calls itself a “movement” – announces that it has been raising funds to aid the formation and running of conservancies.
NRT also says that it supports the training of relevant communities and helps to “broker agreements between conservancies and investors”. It claims that it provides donors with “a degree of oversight” by participating directly in how community conservancies and incomes accrued are managed. This was evident as New African toured eight conservancies in Isiolo, Marsabit, Samburu and Laikipia, where NRT has appointed its own managers who are in charge of the day-to-day running of the conservancies.
Besides the managers, there are the members of the Board and grazing committees who are, on paper, supposed to be making decisions that suit the needs of the true owners of the land.
However, there is evidence that main decisions are made by NRT and that the organisation has maintained little or no engagement with the owners of the land and local public institutions.
Besides the US, NRT’s activities are funded by a host of other private companies and bodies in the West. Some of the principal donors to NRT include the Danish Development Agency (DANIDA); the Nature Conservancy (a US-based international NGO); and Agence Française de Développement (AFD) of France. NRT is also bankrolled by other donors who fund its long-term programmes – including Fauna & Flora International, Zoos South Australia, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ of Germany), US Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego Zoo, International Elephant Foundation, Saint Louis Zoo, Running Wild and others. These latter donors have boosted what NRT terms a pooled conservation fund that has a lifespan of more than five years.
The Tullow Oil Company, that has been involved in oil prospecting in Turkana County, has funded NRT to the tune of $11.5m in a five-year project meant to aid the latter in establishing and operating new conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot counties.
Seventy per cent of the money was meant to go directly to community conservancies’ bank accounts for meeting operational costs (i.e. staff salaries, the purchase and running of vehicles, the acquisition of computers and other equipment), while 30% was to enable the formation and management of the conservancies.
The NRT has maintained little or no engagement with the owners of the land and local public institutions
But this did not go down well with the Turkana County government, which declared the relevant conservancies illegal, with the County Executive for Energy, Environment & Natural Resources ordering NRT to stop its operations there.
Later, the County Governor, Josphat Nanok, termed NRT’s move to establish conservancies in Turkana as “ill-advised with a hidden agenda”.
Dr Ogada believes that the millions of dollars in grants given by the US and other countries in the West have made NRT a “launch pad” for what he terms “a new conservation paradigm” in East Africa.
“NRT has championed this model of conservation very actively for the last decade [resulting] in a situation where challenges or mistakes aren’t spoken about by donors or implementers because of the sheer scale of professional and financial investment in an institution [which like all others] does have inherent weaknesses,” he added.
The NRT’s security function is considered one of the most controversial aspects of the community conservancy movement in Kenya. Usually, maintenance of security within countries is a preserve of governments. But on its website, the organisation says that it inspires community conservancies to “tackle insecurity holistically”.
This includes conducting anti-poaching operations, wildlife monitoring and providing what it terms “invaluable [support] to the Kenya Police in helping to tackle cattle rustling and road banditry”.
The organisation says that by 2014, it had facilitated the training of 645 rangers who operate in the conservancies while Dickson ole Kaelo, the chief executive of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, reported that over 2,300 community rangers have been trained so far.
Normally, the organisation selects community members and takes them for training by the KWS’s personnel at the wildlife agency’s Manyani Training School, close to Kenya’s biggest national park, Tsavo.
Here, the rangers are taught “bush craft skills, as well as how to effectively gather and share intelligence, monitor wildlife and manage combat situations”. The involvement of KWS in the training of the community rangers was confirmed, but downplayed, by Michael Kipkeu, KWS’s Senior Assistant Director in charge of the Community Wildlife Service. “The KWS law enforcement academy provides tailor-made community scouts’ training.”
After being trained by KWS, the rangers are given more advanced training than what is posted on the NRT’s website. For instance, according to the Save the Rhino NGO, the rangers are given Kenya Police Reserve accreditation and “sufficient weapons handling training”.
Such advanced training involves tactical movement with weapons, ambush and anti-ambush drills, handling and effective usage of night-vision and thermal-imaging equipment, and ground-to-air communications and coordination.
There are also suspicions that the bigger scheme is to ensure that Kenya unwittingly “forfeits” some of the lands under the NRT by getting them declared by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
The scheme to have UNESCO declare some of the biggest private game ranches and wildlife conservancies in Laikipia, Samburu, and islands in the Coast as World Heritage Sites is now being pursued in earnest.
“Legally, the move may not amount to much but knowing how lobbying is done, if the government were to [seek to] change ownership, listings would be put up to demonstrate how special these ranches are and why they should remain with the present landowners,” said Njenga Kahiro, a former Programme Officer with Laikipia Wildlife Forum. The aim, Kahiro avers, is “to create a super-big protected area … all of it [covered by] the World Heritage Convention.”