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The Unjust Valuation of Pastoralists’ Land in Kenya

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The government has passed laws that routinely undervalue pastoralists’ land and undermine pastoralism as a system of production and main source of livelihood in the drylands.

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The Unjust Valuation of Pastoralists’ Land in Kenya
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Kenya’s constitution classifies all land in Kenya as either public, community-owned or private. More than 65 per cent of Kenya’s landmass is estimated to be community land. Such land is occupied and used mainly by the pastoralist communities in the northern drylands of Kenya. This area produces roughly 89 per cent of the beef produced in the country; mutton and chevron are not included in the government statistics. Beef is by far the most popular meat consumed in Kenya. It represents more than 70 per cent of all the meat consumed by volume due to urbanisation and a growing demand from the middle class in Kenyan cities.

Pastoralism, as practiced on the unregistered community lands by the indigenous people in Kenya, is of significant economic worth. The annual national pastoralist livestock offtake was valued at US$0.189 billion, while the yearly meat offtake was estimated at 154,968 tonnes and valued at US$0.389 billion. There is consensus that pastoralism contributes about 13 per cent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with approximately 13 million people directly benefiting from the livestock value chain. Over 75 per cent of cattle herds in Kenya are kept by pastoralists, who supply the bulk of the meat consumed.

But the economic contributions of pastoralists are hardly reflected in the government’s strategies or national development plans. As a result, pastoralism continues to face setbacks that hinder the realisation of its full potential. Further, the absence of accurate or, in some cases, the use of outdated data and inappropriate valuation methods, leads to an underestimation of the contribution of pastoralists to the economy.

The constitution protects a person’s right to own property individually or in association with others without any form of discrimination. Further, the state cannot deprive any person of their property or interest in a property unless it is in accordance with the constitution and the established statutory law.  In the case where land, whether registered or not, is compulsorily acquired by the state for a public purpose or in the public interest, the constitution requires that it be done on the principles of just compensation and prompt payment of its total value.

Pastoralists rarely obtain just compensation for land acquired compulsorily by the state because the system of community land valuation is unjust towards the people.

Community land governance

The Land Act 2012 is the primary framework that governs public and private land administration and management while community land governance is addressed under the Community Land Act 2016.  The Community Land Act repealed the Land (Group Representatives) Act (Cap 287) and the Trust Lands Act (Cap 288), which previously provided for the administration and management of community lands in Kenya.

The Community Land Act defines a community as a consciously distinct and organised group of users of the community land who are citizens of Kenya and share common attributes. These attributes are common ancestry, similar culture or unique mode of livelihood, socio-economic or other similar common interests, geographical space, ecological space, or ethnicity.

Pastoralists rarely obtain just compensation for land acquired compulsorily by the state because the system of community land valuation is unjust towards the people.

The Community Land Act 2016 provides for the recognition, protection, and registration of community land rights. Community land in Kenya is owned and vests the power to appropriate in the community. The Act further stipulates that the communities shall hold the communal land as family or clan land, reserve land, or any other category of land recognised under the Act or other written law. In addition, community land can be held in land tenure systems such as customary, freehold, leasehold or any other tenure system recognised by law. Community land includes all land owned by the former group ranches, community forests, grazing areas, shrines, land traditionally held by hunter-gatherer communities, land lawfully held as trust land by the county governments, and any other land legally declared to be community land by law.

Any parcel of community land that is not registered under the Community Land Act remains unregistered community land to be held in trust by the county governments on behalf of the communities. The county is prohibited by the Community Land Act from selling, transferring or disposing of any parcel of unregistered community land or even converting it into private Land.

Compulsory land acquisition

The statutory provisions under the Land Act 2012 guide the determination of compensation for compulsorily acquired community land rights. In addition, subsidiary legislation in the form of rules to guide assessment for just compensation has been developed by the National Land Commission (NLC) and approved by the national parliament.

The Kenyan government introduced an unfair adjustment to the Land Value Index Laws Amendment Bill 2019 that was hurriedly passed by both houses (the National Assembly and the Senate) and assented to by the president. The Land Value Amendment Bill aimed to amend various sections of the Land Act 2012, the Land Registration Act 2012, the Prevention, Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Act, and provide for the assessment of Land Value Index with regard to compulsory land acquisition. Pastoralist communities raised concerns through the Kenya ASAL Advocacy Group (KAAG) regarding the amendment’s serious implications for the just and fair compensation for pastoralist rangelands.

The amendment effectively entrenched unfair government policies and practices that include zero-rating the value of pastureland and legitimised unjust compensation practices of acquiring community land by keeping secret the full appreciation of the rangeland value. 

Moreover, parliament passed the Land Value Index amendment law without the usual scrutiny by the members of the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG). The PPG is the largest parliamentary caucus representing the pastoralist communities of 15 counties in Kenya. The members of the national parliament founded the PPG to provide political leadership and protect and safeguard the interests of the pastoralist people at the national level.

By the passing such laws and policies, the government routinely undervalues and undermines pastoralism as a system of production and main source of livelihood in the drylands. Government statistics undervalue land used by the pastoralists, contributing to higher poverty indices and environmental degradation in the pastoralist region. Government-generated indices and valuation models do not capture the total value of rangelands and their uses, violating the constitutional protection of the pastoralist communities’ right to its common property.

Valuation practice in Kenya

The valuation practice in Kenya is governed by the Valuers Act Cap 532, which provides a Valuers Registration Board that regulates registered valuers’ activities and conduct. Any person registered by the board must be a full member of the Institution of Surveyors of Kenya (ISK).

Being members of the ISK, valuers in Kenya are required to subscribe to the International Valuation Standards (IVS) set by the International Valuation Standards Council. These standards specify the concepts, approaches, and bases for undertaking valuation in Kenya. The standards, guidelines, principles, and ideas are expected to promote consistency and transparency in valuation practice in Kenya. The standards prescribe three approaches that underpin these valuation methods: the market approach, the income approach and the cost approach.

The government’s statistics undervalue land used by the pastoralists, contributing to higher poverty indices and environmental degradation in the pastoralist region.

The market approach derives the value of an asset by comparing the asset with comparable (similar) assets for which sale price information is available. It assumes all assets are sold and bought in an open market. The income approach establishes value by converting future cash flow from an asset to a single present value, taking account of time value for money. It assumes assets are held for investment purposes.

The cost approach seeks to determine the value of an asset using the economic principle that a buyer will pay no more for an asset than the cost to obtain an asset of equal utility, whether by purchase or by construction in normal circumstances. Based on the foundations of these approaches, the following valuation methods have been variably applied in the valuation of assets in Kenya: Direct Sales Comparison (Comparable); Income Capitalization (Investment); Profits (Accounts); Replacement Cost; Reproduction Cost; summation (Contractors).

Valuation in community rangelands in Kenya

What is to be valued?

Valuation of community lands can be located from the constitution’s definition, which, as stated earlier, holds that community land include land registered in the name of group representatives (group ranches); land lawfully transferred to a specific community or declared to be community land by an Act of Parliament; land lawfully held, managed or used by specific communities as community forests, grazing areas or shrines; ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherer communities; and land lawfully held as trust land by the county governments. On the face of it, the issue seems straightforward enough, but the practical disaggregation of attributes and interests in context is complex and displays excellent heterogeneity.

Turkana community system

The topography of Turkana County is varied, comprising of lowlands, plains, and mountains. The soils are sandy, volcanic, clay, alluvial and mixed types. There is fertile farming land (both irrigated and non-irrigated) on the lower Turkwel river basin, grazing pasture lands, forests, wildlife areas, caves and historical sites, mining and petroleum production areas, fishing sites, and beekeeping sites. Land use outside the urban areas varies depending on the ecological and geological characteristics, cultural and traditional practices, and government and non-governmental influences.

Significant land use practices include livestock keeping, fishing, subsistence farming, beekeeping, hunting and gathering, mining, cultural ceremonies and social gatherings, worship, tourism, and forestry. These uses may change depending on the seasons and climatic conditions.

Farming land is, for instance, converted to grazing land during the dry season and after crops have been harvested. The physical extent of community land is not defined by conventional administrative or cadastral boundaries but on cultural, use and control bases. Cultural definitions of boundaries vary depending on the rights under consideration. For instance, the more significant territorial boundary includes the areas occupied by the nineteen (19) Turkana subgroups (the outer boundary). Each of the subgroups also has its boundaries within the area that is covered by the external boundary. Families also have their boundaries defined by trees under the Ekwar system.  Individuals also have control areas known as Eree. 

The Turkana cultural property rights over this land are a continuum that includes territorial control, and ownership is collective. All subgroup use and control, family use and control, Individual use and control, individual ownership and control in irrigation schemes, access for members across and within subgroup-controlled areas, access and use by neighbours and friends of families for some resources such as water from wells (Akare) and use by neighbouring communities outside the territorial boundary, migratory rights, all these rights are exercised within customary rules and regulations that are not in writing but are well known and respected by all community members.

Community land ownership and management in Marsabit County

The land within Marsabit County comprises diverse landscapes, including high altitude mountains with rain forests, other forests, farmlands, grasslands, deserts, lakeshores and desert oases. The landscapes are characterised by volcanic, loamy, sandy and clay soils, and rock outcrops. Significant land uses vary across these landscapes and include livestock keeping, fishing, subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, social and cultural activities including traditional religious practices, extraction of traditional medicines and herbs, forestry, tourism and wildlife.

Some areas have mixed uses, like agro-pastoralism, while others have a specific use such as pastoralism. The land outside the municipal territory is traditionally owned by four specific ethnic communities: Borana, Rendille, Gabra and El Molo. Each of these communities has different territorial zones that they have historically controlled and used. The boundaries of the territorial zones are identified by geographical features that are historically acknowledged and known and respected by all. The land is not under a formal cadastral and land administration system.

Each of the communities has a different cultural background and clear customary rules governing land use and occupation.

Despite the various communities having distinct land control and ownership rights, they have developed reciprocal use rights for pastureland and water resources. The elders of the respective communities administer the customary practices. The clans, families and individuals in these communities have collective ownership rights, occupation rights, and user rights for pasture and other natural resources in the rangelands.

Families also have their boundaries defined by trees under the Ekwar system.

The community exercises control over any settlements even though it practices pastoralism that is characterised by temporary settlements. As a rule, communities may not graze in one area for more than three months continuously to avoid degradation. Permanent settlements are mainly found in the urban areas and market centres.

Neighbouring communities have mobile access and use rights subject to the customary rules and regulations of the host communities that are often overseen by individual elders appointed by the community’s traditional council. The various landscapes have different uses at different times. For instance, the desert is used for grazing during the rainy season, whereas the highlands are used for grazing during the dry season. All communities share the oases through appointed community regulators. At times cultural events affect land use. For instance, the circumcision period among the Rendille community may dictate where the animals, especially the camels, will be allowed to graze. The land is viewed as a symbol of community identity and the physical features of historical and cultural events.

The Dheda system of the Borana of Isiolo County

The Merti rangeland comprises the areas outside Isiolo central, which are largely dry season grazing areas. There are also wet season grazing areas, small subsistence farming areas, several small pastoralist towns with markets, and one growing urban settlement. The Borana people classify areas using the term Dheda.

The landscape is primarily savannah grassland with some hills and plateaus and varying vegetation cover. The soils are mainly sandy and mixed soils. The dominant land use is livestock keeping, complemented by small-scale subsistence farming along the Ewaso Nyiro riverbank, social amenities, and cultural and traditional shrines. In addition to these uses, the land is the central defining feature for community identity and the foundation of the traditional livestock production system (pastoralism).

The boundaries for the rangelands are determined by geographical features that are historically recognised by the communities, such as hills, seasonal rivers, rangeland water points and other types of rangeland resources related to pasture within each Dheda.

The clans, families and individuals in these communities have collective ownership rights, occupation rights, and user rights for pasture and other natural resources in the rangelands.

The rangeland is mainly occupied and controlled by the Borana community. The clans, families and individuals do not have direct control over the rangelands. Elders govern it on the basis of customary rules and regulations. Families and individual members have user and access rights.  Community members cannot dispose of land by sale or exchange since the land is considered an intergenerational community asset. Neighbouring communities from Marsabit, Wajir, Garissa and Samburu have migratory use and access rights that are defined by the Borana community’s rules and regulations. These rights are seasonal, and the neighbouring communities cannot establish permanent settlements in the grazing areas.

There are community boreholes situated in different locations to provide water for both livestock and people. They are controlled by elders to avoid use during unauthorised seasons or as a disincentive to permanent settlement. This ensures that the grazing patterns are maintained to prevent land degradation or depletion of pasture before the onset of the rainy seasons.

From the case studies of these three communities, it is clear that the subject of valuation should vary across these different communities taking into account their specific customs and practices, the physical attributes of the land, and the region’s economic activities. The valuation should have legal, economic, social, cultural and environmental dimensions that will vary depending on the purpose, the community’s context, and timing. Community land valuation variables are not only influenced by the host community but also by the interests of neighbouring communities, including access, user rights and their social-economic activities. Some of these variables, such as those related to culture and spiritual practices, may not be directly quantifiable in the national valuation framework.

Neighbouring communities from Marsabit, Wajir, Garissa and Samburu have migratory use and access rights that are defined to the Borana community’s rules and regulations.

Besides state interests and frameworks, the rights and tenure arrangements that comprise the subject of valuation also contain several bundles that include individual, family, clan, ethnic subgroup, ethnic group and neighbouring ethnic groups. In the process of valuation, the physical scope should be ascertained by social mapping that considers cultural and social dynamics. However, the government’s current cadastral system does not allow for this. 

In light of the foregoing, it is necessary to review how community land valuation for the purposes of compulsory land acquisition is done in Kenya. Whether relying on real estate background, livelihood safeguards or ecological management, the statutes that guide valuation in the case of compulsory community land acquisition by the state must adopt new guidelines that comply with constitutional requirements and legal and policy changes.

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Jarso Mokku is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Drylands Learning and Capacity Building Initiatives (DLCI). A Kenyan NGO Promoting the Resilience of the Drylands Communities through Policy and Practice Change in the Horn of Africa and East Africa.

Politics

Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya

The fortress conservation model, created with support from some of the world’s biggest environmental groups and western donors, has led to land dispossession, militarization, and widespread human rights abuses.

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Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
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With its vast expanses and diversity of wildlife, Kenya – Africa’s original safari destination – attracts over two million foreign visitors annually. The development of wildlife tourism and conservation, a major economic resource for the country, has however been at the cost of local communities who have been fenced off from their ancestral lands. Indigenous communities have been evicted from their territories and excluded from the tourist dollars that flow into high-end lodges and safari companies.

Protected areas with wildlife are patrolled and guarded by anti-poaching rangers and are accessible only to tourists who can afford to stay in the luxury safari lodges and resorts. This model of “fortress conservation” – one that militarizes and privatizes the commons – has come under severe criticism for its exclusionary practices and for being less effective than the models where local communities lead and manage conservation activities.

One such controversial model of conservation in Kenya is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). Set up in 2004, the NRT’s stated goal is “changing the game” on conservation by supporting communities to govern their lands through the establishment of community conservancies.

Created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of the elite white minority during British colonialism, the NRT’s origins date back to the 1980s when his family-owned 62,000-acre cattle ranch was transformed into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Since its founding, the NRT has set up 39 conservancies on 42,000 square kilometres (10,378,426 acres) of land in northern and coastal Kenya – nearly 8 per cent of the country’s total land area.

The communities that live on these lands are predominantly pastoralists who raise livestock for their livelihoods and have faced decades of marginalization by successive Kenyan governments. The NRT claims that its goal is to “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.”

However, where the NRT is active, local communities allege that the organization has dispossessed them of their lands and deployed armed security units that have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Whereas the NRT employs around 870 uniformed scouts, the organization’s anti-poaching mobile units, called ‘9’ teams, face allegations of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, among other abuses. These rangers are equipped with military weapons and receive paramilitary training from the Kenyan Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Academy and from 51 Degrees, a private security company run by Ian Craig’s son, Batian Craig, as well as from other private security firms. Whereas the mandate of NRT’s rangers is supposed to be anti-poaching, they are routinely involved in policing matters that go beyond that remit.

Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife.

Locals have alleged the NRT’s direct involvement in conflicts between different ethnic groups, related to territorial issues and/or cattle raids. Multiple sources within the impacted communities, including members of councils of community elders, informed the Oakland Institute that as many as 76 people were killed in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy during inter-ethnic clashes, allegedly with the involvement of the NRT. Interviews conducted by the Institute established that 11 people have been killed in circumstances involving the conservation body. Dozens more appear to have been killed by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and other government agencies, which have been accused of abducting, disappearing, and torturing people in the name of conservation.

Over the years, conflicts over land and resources in Kenya have been exacerbated by the establishment of large ranches and conservation areas. For instance, 40 per cent of Laikipia County’s land is occupied by large ranches, controlled by just 48 individuals – most of them white landowners who own tens of thousands of acres for ranching or wildlife conservancies, which attract tourism business as well as conservation funding from international organizations.

Similarly, several game reserves and conservancies occupy over a million acres of land in the nearby Isiolo County. Land pressure was especially evident in 2017 when clashes broke out between private, mostly white ranchers, and Samburu and Pokot herders over pasture during a particularly dry spell.

But as demonstrated in the Oakland Institute’s report Stealth Game, the events of 2017 highlighted a situation that has been rampant for many years. Local communities report paying a high price for the NRT’s privatized, neo-colonial conservation model in Kenya. The loss of grazing land for pastoralists is a major challenge caused by the creation of community conservancies. Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife in the name of community conservancies, and to subsequently lease it to set up tourist facilities.

Although terms like “community-driven”, “participatory”, and “local empowerment” are extensively used by the NRT and its partners, the conservancies have been allegedly set up by outside parties rather than the pastoralists themselves, who have a very limited role in negotiating the terms of these partnerships. According to several testimonies, leverage over communities occurs through corruption and co-optation of local leaders and personalities as well as the local administration.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel. Furthermore, the NRT is involved not just in conservation but also in security, management of pastureland, and livestock marketing, which according to the local communities, gives it a level of control over the region that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government. The NRT claims that these activities support communities, development projects, and help build sustainable economies, but its role is criticized by local communities and leaders.

In recent years, hundreds of locals have held protests and signed petitions against the presence of the NRT. The Turkana County Government expelled the NRT from Turkana in 2016; Isiolo’s Borana Council of Elders (BCE) and communities in Isiolo County and in Chari Ward in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy continue to challenge the NRT. In January 2021, the community of Gafarsa protested the NRT’s expansion into the Gafarsa rangelands of Garbatulla sub-county. And in April 2021, the Samburu Council of Elders Association, a registered institution representing the Samburu Community in four counties (Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit and Samburu), wrote to international NGOs and donors asking them to cease further funding and to audit the NRT’s donor-funded programmes.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel.

At the time of the writing of the report, the Oakland Institute reported that protests against the NRT were growing across the region. The organization works closely with the KWS, a state corporation under the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism whose mandate is to conserve and manage wildlife in Kenya. In July 2018, Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, appointed Ian Craig and Jochen Zeitz to the KWS Board of Trustees. The inclusion of Zeitz and Craig, who actively lobby for the privatization of wildlife reserves, has been met with consternation by local environmentalists. In the case of the NRT, the relationship is mutually beneficial – several high-ranking members of the KWS have served on the NRT’s Board of Trustees.

Both the NRT and the KWS receive substantial funding from donors such as USAID, the European Union, and other Western agencies, and champion corporate partnerships in conservation. The KWS and the NRT also partner with some of the largest environmental NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose corporate associates have included major polluters and firms known for their negative human rights and environmental records, such as Shell, Ford, BP, and Monsanto among others. In turn, TNC’s Regional Managing Director for Africa, Matt Brown, enjoys a seat at the table of the NRT’s Board of Directors.

Stealth Game also reveals how the NRT has allegedly participated in the exploitation of fossil fuels in Kenya. In 2015, the NRT formed a five-year, US$12 million agreement with two oil companies active in the country – British Tullow Oil and Canadian Africa Oil Corp – to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties.

The NRT’s stated goal was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources”. Local communities allege that it put a positive spin on the activities of these companies to mask concerns and outstanding questions over their environmental and human rights records.

The NRT, in collaboration with big environmental organizations, epitomizes a Western-led approach to conservation that creates a profitable business but marginalizes local communities who have lived on these lands for centuries.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the NRT is yet another example of how fortress conservation, under the guise of “community-based conservation”, is dispossessing the very pastoralist communities it claims to be helping – destroying their traditional grazing patterns, their autonomy, and their lives.

The  Constitution of Kenyan  2010 and the 2016 Community Land Act recognize community land as a category of land holding and pastoralism as a legitimate livelihood system. The Act enables communities to legally register, own, and manage their communal lands. For the first three years, however, not a single community in Kenya was able to apply to have their land rights legally recognized. On 24 July 2019, over 50 representatives from 11 communities in Isiolo, Kajiado, Laikipia, Tana River, and Turkana counties were the first to attempt to register their land with the government on the basis of the Community Land Act. The communities were promised by the Ministry of Land that their applications would be processed within four months. In late 2020, the Ministry of Lands registered the land titles of II Ngwesi and Musul communities in Laikipia.

The others are still waiting to have their land registered. In October 2020, the Lands Cabinet Secretary was reported saying that only 12 counties have submitted inventories of their respective unregistered community lands in readiness for the registration process as enshrined in the law.

Community members interviewed by the Oakland Institute in the course of its research repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police when reporting human rights abuses and even killings of family members. The findings reported in Stealth Game require an independent investigation into the land-related grievances around all of the NRT’s community conservancies, the allegations of involvement of the NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict, as well as the alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along. While this report focuses on the plight of the Indigenous communities in Northern Kenya, it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities the world over. In far too many places, national governments, private corporations, and large conservation groups collude in the name of conservation, not just to force Indigenous groups off their land, but to force them out of existence altogether.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along.

The latest threat comes from the so-called “30×30 initiative”, a plan under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity that calls for 30 per cent of the planet to be placed in protected areas – or for other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) –  by 2030.

The Oakland Institute’s report, Stealth Game, makes it clear that fortress conservation must be replaced by Indigenous-led conservation efforts in order to preserve the remaining biodiversity of the planet while respecting the interests, rights, and dignity of the local communities.

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Politics

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

Before Nashulai, Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling off their rights to live and work on their land, becoming “conservation refugees”.

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The Sekenani River underwent a mammoth cleanup in May 2020, undertaken by over 100 women living in the Nashulai Conservancy area. Ten of the 18 kilometres of fresh water were cleaned of plastic waste, clothing, organic material and other rubbish that presented a real threat to the health of this life source for the community and wildlife. The river forms part of the Mara Basin and goes on to flow into Lake Victoria, which in turn feeds the River Nile.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Nashulai Conservancy — the first community-owned conservancy in the Maasai Mara that was founded in 2015 — which also provided a daily stipend to all participants and introduced them to better waste management and regeneration practices. After the cleanup, bamboo trees were planted along the banks of the river to curb soil erosion.

You could call it a classic case of “nature healing” that only the forced stillness caused by a global pandemic could bring about. Livelihoods dependent on tourism and raising cattle had all but come to a standstill and people now had the time to ponder how unpredictable life can be.

“I worry that when tourism picks up again many people will forget about all the conservation efforts of the past year,” says project officer Evelyn Kamau. “That’s why we put a focus on working with the youth in the community on the various projects and education. They’ll be the key to continuation.”

Continuation in the broader sense is what Nashulai and several other community-focused projects in Kenya are working towards — a shift away from conservation practices that push indigenous people further and further out of their homelands for profit in the name of protecting and celebrating the very nature for which these communities have provided stewardship over generations.

A reckoning

Given the past year’s global and regional conversations about racial injustice, and the pandemic that has left tourism everywhere on its knees, ordinary people in countries like Kenya have had the chance to learn, to speak out and to act on changes.

Players in the tourism industry in the country that have in the past privileged foreign visitors over Kenyans have been challenged. In mid-2020, a poorly worded social media post stating that a bucket-list boutique hotel in Nairobi was “now open to Kenyans” set off a backlash from fed-up Kenyans online.

The post referred to the easing of COVID-19 regulations that allowed the hotel to re-open to anyone already in the country. Although the hotel tried to undertake damage control, the harm was already done and the wounds reopened. Kenyans recounted stories of discrimination experienced at this particular hotel including multiple instances of the booking office responding to enquiries from Kenyan guests that rooms were fully booked, only for their European or American companions to call minutes later and miraculously find there were in fact vacancies. Many observed how rare it was to see non-white faces in the marketing of certain establishments, except in service roles.

Another conversation that has gained traction is the question of who is really benefiting from the conservation business and why the beneficiaries are generally not the local communities.

Kenyan conservationist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada has been vocal about this issue, both in his work and on social media, frequently calling out institutions and individuals who perpetuate the profit-driven system that has proven to be detrimental to local communities. In The Big Conservation Lie, his searing 2016 book co-authored with conservation journalist John Mbaria, Ogada observes, “The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it.” Ogada details the use of coercion tactics to push communities to divide up or vacate their lands and abandon their identities and lifestyles for little more than donor subsidies that are not always paid in full or within the agreed time.

A colonial hangover

It is important to note that these attitudes, organizations and by extension the structure of safari tourism, did not spring up out of nowhere. At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty and the odd American president or Hollywood actor.

Theodore Roosevelt’s year-long hunting expedition in 1909 resulted in over 500 animals being shot by his party in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, many of which were taken back to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and in various other natural history museums across the US. Roosevelt later recounted his experiences in a book and a series of lectures, not without mentioning the “savage” native people he had encountered and expressing support for the European colonization project throughout Africa.

Much of this private entertaining was made possible through “gifts” of large parcels of Kenyan land by the colonial power to high-ranking military officials for their service in the other British colonies, without much regard as to the ancestral ownership of the confiscated lands.

At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty.

On the foundation of national parks in the country by the colonial government in the 1940s, Ogada points out the similarities with the Yellowstone National Park, “which was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later.” In the case of Kenya, just add trophy hunting to the original model.

Today, when it isn’t the descendants of those settlers who own and run the many private nature reserves in the country, it is a party with much economic or political power tying local communities down with unfair leases and sectioning them off from their ancestral land, harsh penalties being applied when they graze their cattle on the confiscated land.

This history must be acknowledged and the facts recognised so that the real work of establishing a sustainable future for the affected communities can begin. A future that does not disenfranchise entire communities and exclude them or leave their economies dangerously dependent on tourism.

The work it will take to achieve this in both the conservation and the wider travel industry involves everyone, from the service providers to the media to the very people deciding where and how to spend their tourism money and their time.

Here’s who’s doing the work

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation and to secure a future in which these communities are not excluded. Some, like Dr Ogada, spread the word about the holes in the model adopted by the global conservation industry. Others are training and educating tourism businesses in sustainable practices.

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation.

The Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, or STTA, is a leading Kenyan-owned consultancy that works with tourism businesses and associations to provide training and strategies for sustainability in the sector in East Africa and beyond. Team leader Judy Kepher Gona expresses her optimism in the organization’s position as the local experts in the field, evidenced by the industry players’ uptake of the STTA’s training programmes and services to learn how best to manage their tourism businesses responsibly.

Gona notes, “Today there are almost 100 community-owned private conservancies in Kenya which has increased the inclusion of communities in conservation and in tourism” — which is a step in the right direction.

The community conservancy

Back to Nashulai, a strong example of a community-owned conservancy. Director and co-founder Nelson Ole Reiya who grew up in the area began to notice the rate at which Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling or leasing off their land and often their rights to live and work on it as they did before, becoming what he refers to as “conservation refugees”.

In 2016, Ole Reiya set out to bring together his community in an effort to eliminate poverty, regenerate the ecosystems and preserve the indigenous culture of the Maasai by employing a commons model on the 5,000 acres on which the conservancy sits. Families here could have sold their ancestral land and moved away, but they have instead come together and in a few short years have done away with the fencing separating their homesteads from the open savannah. They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route. Elephants have returned to an old elephant nursery site.

In contrast to many other nature reserves and conservancies that offer employment to the locals as hotel staff, safari guides or dancers and singers, Nashulai’s way of empowering the community goes further to diversify the economy by providing skills and education to the residents, as well as preserving the culture by passing on knowledge about environmental awareness. This can be seen in the bee-keeping project that is producing honey for sale, the kitchen gardens outside the family homes, a ranger training programme and even a storytelling project to record and preserve all the knowledge and history passed down by the elders.

They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route.

The conservancy only hires people from within the community for its various projects, and all plans must be submitted to a community liaison officer for discussion and a vote before any work can begin.

Tourism activities within the conservancy such as stays at Oldarpoi (the conservancy’s first tented camp; more are planned), game drives and day visits to the conservation and community projects are still an important part of the story. The revenue generated by tourists and the awareness created regarding this model of conservation are key in securing Nashulai’s future. Volunteer travellers are even welcomed to participate in the less technical projects such as tree planting and river clean-ups.

Expressing his hopes for a paradigm shift in the tourism industry, Ole Reiya stresses, “I would encourage visitors to go beyond the superficial and experience the nuances of a people beyond being seen as artefacts and naked children to be photographed, [but] rather as communities whose connection to the land and wildlife has been key to their survival over time.”

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Politics

Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo

In the context of the climate emergency and the need for renewable energy sources, competition over the supply of cobalt is growing. This competition is most intense in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nick Bernards argues that the scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.

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Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo
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With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.

Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.

Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.

These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.

Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.

There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.

In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.

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Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.

However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.

These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).

In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.

Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.

There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.

Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.

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Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.

The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.

In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.

Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.

The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.

To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.

However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.

If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.

We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.

In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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