Communal land good for pastoralists in Kenya

In Kenya, 67 per cent of land is under communal tenure and supports about 10 million people and 70 per cent of the livestock population. Largely, these lands are characterised by high temperatures and low rainfall and are inhabited by pastoral communities practising extensive livestock production.

Communal land tenure systems not only facilitate this type of livestock keeping but also play a key role in determining the social, economic and political status of pastoral communities. From the colonial period, pastoralism has been misunderstood. The colonial government implemented land policies such as the East African Royal Commission 1953-1955 and the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, which advocated for individualisation and privatisation of land tenure.

They viewed pastoralism as retrogressive and inefficient. Instead, private land tenure was seen as the best form of promoting investment and improving productivity. They argued that private and individual tenure was a key step towards improving environmental conservation, reducing herd size and improving livestock breeds, thereby improving productivity and livelihoods.

The post-independence government maintained these policies and further, the Lawrence Report of 1966 recommended privatisation of land in pastoral areas. With support from donors, the Government in the 1960s and 1970s established group ranches starting in the now Kajiado County, before spreading out to other Maasai lands. Although the formation of group ranches was inconsistent with the pastoral communities cultural norms, they did not oppose the formation of group ranches mainly because they wanted to protect their ancestral land from “outsiders”.

Despite the establishment of group ranches, the communities used customary laws to manage the land.

In the 1980s, group ranches started collapsing. The grazing controls and herd quotas envisioned by the Government never materialised. Pastoralists kept as many animals as they could. In addition, there was pressure to follow what had happened in crop-growing areas where the Government advanced loans to farmers using land as collateral. Further, most group ranches were mismanaged, with no accountability measures in place. Where land was not adjudicated, local authorities allocated parcels to individuals for private use without consulting the community. Further external pressure such as proximity to urban areas and potential for change in land use catalysed the collapse of group ranches and individualisation of land tenure. Pastoralists are now facing more pressure than before on their land. First, increasing population has led to a decline in the land available as animal herds have remained largely unchanged. There has also been an increase in fragmentation and individualisation of land tenure. Communal lands have been targeted by the government, private sector and other actors for large-scale agricultural developments and public sector investments, mineral extraction and other uses. Decline in grazing land has exacerbated overgrazing and impeded improvement of livestock, which would have led to improved productivity and incomes for pastoral households. In addition, investments in public goods delivery have also been low in pastoral areas compared to other parts of the country.

Maintenance of collective land tenure provides an opportunity to improve livelihoods in pastoral communities. However, this can only happen if communities’ mechanisms to manage land are strengthened. One way of achieving this is by incorporating customary laws in the legal framework. The community land bill, currently in Parliament, provides for this. Further, the communities need to be supported through investments in delivery of public goods such as infrastructure, schools, livestock markets and veterinary services. County governments in pastoral areas have a great opportunity to achieve this through use of the equalisation funds.