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Scientific evidence strongly affirms that arid and semi-arid ecosystems are key frontiers for shifting resource rights and increased exposure to global challenges such as climatic risks. A large share of Kenya’s land is classified as ASALs (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands) with different forms of ecosystems including ranches, community-based conservancies and game reserves, among others, all of which contribute to community livelihoods and resilience as well as to the national economy. As the world grapples with the underwhelming resolutions of COP26, there is increasing need to pay attention to climate justice as a fundamental basis for achieving the Paris targets and sustainable development goals.

This will require that keen attention be paid to the shifting resource rights of ASAL communities. In effect, resource management decisions have often been accompanied by strong claims that these communities have been involved in the decision making process, that consent has been obtained and that they are happy with the decisions taken.

However, what has not been revealed is the manner in which consultations and engagements with these communities have been used to shift rights from communities to other powers. Community engagement is a fundamental platform through which community voices are included in the decision-making process, and therefore, understanding how these engagements are being used to shift resource rights is critical to strengthening the engagement capacities of the affected communities.

This blog provides a reflection from fieldwork undertaken in Samburu County, Kenya, that focused on how land rights intersect with adaptation strategies. The fieldwork was carried out under the Rights and Resilience Project funded by Danida. The project aims to investigate resilience and land rights in the context of pastoral adaptation in Kenya. More specifically, the project looks at how adaptation strategies interact with land needs. The implementation of the project is led by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, The Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, University of Roskilde, the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

How are community-based conservancies are established? 

The concept of Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) underpins the establishment of community-based conservancies (CBC), mainly by communities with an interest in particular outcomes. Conceptually, pastoralist communities, including those living in the ASALs, are expected to drive the establishment of conservancies as a means of preserving resources and supporting their livelihoods both during normal seasons and in times of shocks. However, the process is not a purely community undertaking, but is often catalysed by actors posing as “good Samaritans” who either bring experience, resources, or information to support the process. For instance, the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT), a Kenyan conservation NGO, has led and financed the establishment of some 23 CBCs covering about 1,687,985 hectares in the Isiolo-Samburu-Laikipia landscape since 2004, involving an estimated 400,000 community members.

A study of the Sera Conservancy situated within the Losesia and Sereolipi Group Ranches in Samburu shows how communities lose their rights to the CBC through a relatively obscure and predatory engagement process. The conservancy was established in 2001 and covers an area of 339,540 ha.

According to community members, the decision to establish the conservancy was driven by the changing ecological conditions (e.g., shifting weather patterns), increasing population and resource scarcity. This meant that the community had to rethink and embrace new ways of managing their resources, inspired by the awareness campaigns carried out by established conservation NGOs such as the NRT. In establishing the conservancy, parts of the group ranches were delineated as wildlife corridors while specific areas were designated for livestock usage.

Communities lose their rights to the CBC through a relatively obscure and predatory engagement process.

The fundamental idea behind the creation of the conservancy was to preserve its ecological and resilience value and promote the resilience of both the conservancy and the community by regulating the availability of feed during the different seasons. This approach to building resilience is widely recognised in international policy on climate change as part of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA). EbA involves a wide range of ecosystem management practices to increase resilience and reduce the vulnerability of people and the environment to climate change.

Transitions in engagements: from decision makers to mere public participants 

The establishment of CBCs is anchored in the community’s support for conservation that involves conservationists providing training and creating awareness among selected community members – mainly the leaders of the various community ranches. The need to establish CBCs is then mooted as an option for ensuring a more effective management of the resources of pastoralist communities especially given the changing climate and the increasing population. This often culminates in some form of negotiation between the community leaders and a promoter (e.g. the NRT). These negotiations begin with initial meetings with community elders and representatives of group ranches where the ideas around CBCs are discussed and the associated benefits highlighted. Community leaders then relay the information to the wider members of the group ranches who are called to attend meetings with selected political leaders such as members of the county assembly and where they are informed about the need to conserve the resources available for pastoralism.

According to members of the Losesia Group Ranch, discussions in community meetings are often based on the understanding that the CBC idea is driven by the community. Yet the reality is that the process is driven by conversations held elsewhere outside the community. The early-stage experiences in initiating the Sera CBC raise key questions around whether the CBC concept as framed in literature and policy is really community-led or are just a model approved by the community. Whatever the case, this represents the first juncture at which rights begin to shift within the engagement space. In this case, the community’s right to decide the best model of conservation for its resources is weakened as the process is driven by conversations initiated outside the community. Indeed, it has been argued elsewhere that the creation of CBCs is motivated by the rich wildlife resources on the community lands rather than by the interests of the community. Yet at the CBC initiation stage community rights still remain relatively high because they still have the power to make and question decisions since no deals have been struck at this point.

Figure 1: Illustration of the critical junctures along the community engagement process where rights shift from the communities to other powerful actors
Figure 1: Illustration of the critical junctures along the community engagement process where rights shift from the communities to other powerful actors

Once a community agrees to the establishment of a CBC, it develops the rules and regulations that will govern the organisational engagement with the CBC. These rules include delineating specific areas for wildlife and others for livestock. Community leaders, in conjunction with the conservation NGO, ensure that the areas demarcated for wildlife become relatively restricted to community access. At the same time, the movement of livestock in certain parts of the conservancy is systematised to ensure that pasture is managed and preserved for use by all during the different seasons. At this point, community rights still remain relatively strong given that most decisions, including the CBC’s rules and regulations are made by the community. However, narratives around wildlife conservation begin to strongly emerge as part of the CBC discourse within the community.

The creation of CBCs is motivated by the rich wildlife resources on the community lands rather than by the interests of the community.

Community members have said that while they appreciate the value of wildlife conservation as part of their culture, they do not have a clear understanding of what rights they have over the conserved wildlife. They are merely informed by their leaders about its potential value in terms of tourism and revenue generation to support various community projects. On the other hand, they are clear about the value that their livestock is able to attract even though livestock is controlled and pushed to the periphery by the drive to delineate wildlife areas.

Therefore, while the communities still feel that they have rights to the CBCs and the associated benefits, whether from wildlife or livestock, their rights are increasingly weakened as they commit to set aside a section of their land for wildlife conservation while they have little control over the expected activities and benefits. Moreover, it is the community itself that will have placed restrictions on access to the designated wildlife areas. This is a clear illustration of how community engagements serve to open up avenues for loss of resources, especially when communities become eager to align to changing conservation models or when they mainly focus on beneficial opportunities without interrogating the inherent consequences.

However, it must be noted that most community members do not have the capacity to interrogate such issues. In cultures that reproduce elites and confer powers differently to different categories of social groups, the collective voice of the community to interrogate emerging issues is relatively weak, and there is a general reluctance to do so because such questioning is seen as going against one’s own culture.

The areas set aside for conservancies are in truth the major frontiers for the further erosion of community rights as new interventions begin to leverage the economic value of wildlife. Several studies have raised concerns about this, equating the designation of wildlife areas to the commodification of wildlife for economic gain. To date, about ten lodges and hotels have been established within CBCs, occupying a significant share of the areas set aside for wildlife conservation. These investment deals are negotiated with community members who all along believe that they are in control of the CBC without realising that they are systematically losing control in this sphere of engagement. Negotiations regarding investments in CBCs are mediated and facilitated by particular conservation NGOs, such as the NRT in the case of Samburu, a conservation NGO which already has very strong connections with donors and investors at the international and domestic levels, as well as with policy and business actors. It is at this juncture, therefore, that powerful new actors are introduced into the community engagement space. This means that decisions at this point are no longer under the remit of the community but rather under a wider cadre of interests with different powers.

Several studies have raised concerns about this, equating the designation of wildlife areas to the commodification of wildlife for economic gain.

According to the Losesia community, representatives of the ranches negotiate with the investors based on their constitution, which allows community members to lease out parts of the conservancies. Various economic advantages are touted during these negotiations, resulting in the perception that the community has given its consent through the local elites who are culturally perceived as representing the interests of the community but who in reality have become self-seeking gatekeepers to community land. In presenting the potential economic benefits, however, the financial details are often concealed from the relatively uninformed community members and it is often simply agreed that a certain percentage of the revenues collected will be ploughed back to support conservation. Community members are also promised jobs and other benefits.

While the constitution encourages interventions that promote the conservation agenda, it is relatively vague on issues of rights and benefit sharing and management. Moreover, there are no clear mechanisms to ensure that investors adhere to the conservation principles enshrined in the CBC agenda. This provides a huge window of opportunity for investors to pursue different agendas and further infringe on the rights of the community. Consequently, community members feel that the investments made within the conservancies have actually shifted focus from conservation to pure profit generation to the exclusion of the community members themselves. Some community members highlighted that investors have often expanded boundaries beyond the agreed areas, have introduced new recreational activities—including illegal game hunting—that are detrimental to the ecology of the conservancies, and in most cases have become less transparent about the revenues they generate. Furthermore, new physical boundaries are established, creating a permanent sense of exclusion from the conservancies.   

Yet this new trajectory, while clearly infringing community rights, is gaining support from the authorities, particularly at the level of the county government where the interest centres on revenue collection. The county government is expected to provide an enabling environment for investors while at the same time protecting the rights of the community but investors’ interests systematically take precedence over community rights. Moreover, concerns have been raised that some county governments are currently developing county conservancy laws aimed at completely shifting the management of conservancies from communities to the counties. Some community members have also raised concerns that conservation NGOs and investors who initially consulted them closely no longer engage them directly but go through the county government. The common interest around revenues and profits has therefore resulted in a powerful coalition between the investors, the county government, and the NRT, that has taken over the management of the conservancies to the near-complete exclusion of the communities.

New physical boundaries are established, creating a permanent sense of exclusion from the conservancies.

This effectively means that communities are no longer in direct control of the conservancies as was originally envisaged. The community engagement process is no longer about the community decision-making process; it has now become merely a public participation exercise. Community members are invited to meetings pertaining to the conservancies as public participants rather than as interested parties with a stake in decision-making. A community member observed that while the CBC retains their name, it is no longer theirs.

What role does policy play in the shifting community rights? 

At the national level, Kenya has developed a range of developmental policies targeting the management of these resources. Additionally, Kenya’s climate change policies such as the National Climate Action Plan, the updated Nationally Determined Contribution, and the Adaptation Action Plan, focus on adaptation and building resilience. These policies acknowledge the role of conservancies in improving livelihoods and the broader economic development, but are more focused on using resources for development rather than for enhancing livelihoods and the resilience of communities. Therefore, national development and resource management policies do not pay attention to the fundamental resource rights necessary to protect local communities from powerful actors. The policies also lack room for strengthening local governance. While the Community Land Act exists to strengthen the role of communities in managing their resources, this law seems to be increasingly superseded by other national and county-level legislations.

The value of traditional and communal resources and rights is less articulated in contemporary conservation policies. This has exposed resilience-building resources such as community conservancies to powerful economic interests that tear apart the communities’ resilience-building social structures, creating further inequalities and social vulnerabilities.

Some county governments are currently developing conservancy laws aimed at completely shifting the management of conservancies from communities to the counties.

At the county level, county governments are expected to provide an enabling policy environment for the conservation interventions, and to protect the rights of the communities within the conservancies. However, the case of Sera CBC shows that county governments are motivated by the developmental goals tied to revenue collection rather than by community rights. For instance, the Samburu County Integrated Development Plan acknowledges that CBCs are resources that can be harnessed for increased revenue collection and county development. This also aligns with the narrative at the national level where conservancies are viewed through the lens of tourist attraction, foreign exchange, and GDP enhancement. As already highlighted above, some counties are developing county conservation laws aimed at putting conservancies under the direct control of county authorities, which is seen as a threat to the rights of the communities concerned.

What are the implications for resilience? 

The loss of these rights is leading to an accumulation of social injustice such as gender imbalances. Community governance is also weakened by the community’s exclusion from the decision-making process, leading to the loss of resilience-building resources in pastoralist communities. The loss of rights is exacerbated by the state-centric approach to resilience planning, an approach that has been associated with capitalistic ambitions to control resources and the subsequent resource grabs from vulnerable communities, a phenomenon that has created new cycles of climate risk accumulation. Consequently, the proposed development and resilience-building options are yet to encompass the lived realities of the communities that they seek to help.