Ranches: How much land can one own or cede?

A group of cattle in confinement in a Brazilian ranch [Courtesy]

The story of the wealthy Evanson Waitiki, a Likoni landowner whose 930 acres of land were invaded by squatters in 1990, has a striking similarity to what is happening in Laikipia.

Mr Waitiki was troubled by tens of thousands of squatters who settled on his land. He fought legal battles seeking compensation from the government for the forcefully ceded land and won.

And in July 2021, herders invaded ranches in Rumuruti, Mugie, Laikipia Nature and Conservancy and Suiyan as they sought water and pasture for their animals. This culminated into a wave of violence, cattle rustling, murders and arson.

It had happened in Laikipia before, with ranchers having to deal with invasion on their properties. Sometimes, the intruders and the landowners get embroiled in ugly, fatal altercations.

Sooner than later, another wave of violence crops up. These occurrences bring forth a debate that often gets shoved in the public space and then disappears.

As people run ranches, which are tens of thousands of acres large, herders who have depleted pasture on their grazing fields and squatters who live in abject poverty throw caution to the wind and break into such ranches, claiming to be looking for nothing more than to survive.

At the height of similar clashes in 2017, a group of herders told the media that they wanted to feed their livestock, which would starve if they did not intrude into the ranches with lush grass.

“The reason we go there is not to grab the land; we go for pasture, nothing else,” Lemerigi Letimalo, a then 28-year-old Samburu herder, was quoted by a local daily.

That same year, in March, a British rancher and former soldier Tristan Voorspuy was murdered. Kuki Gallmann, an Italian author and conservationist, also a rancher, was shot dead in April 2017.

The justification of the riotous intruders is that the land which the ranchers, often settlers, occupy belonged to them.

On July 29, Narok Senator Ledama Ole Kina tweeted, “When I become president, call it whatever economic model you may want to, no single person will own more than 1,000 acres of land. All ranches in Laikipia will revert to the original owners. Neo-colonialism will end!”

As the debate rages on, just how much land should a person own without appearing to optimise the use of the same while others live as squatters, or exhaust most of the resources on their land?

The law does not give a limit but reduced the lease to 99 years from 999 years. All leases held by non-citizens were automatically converted to 99 years on the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution.

While absentee landlords tempt invaders, there is no justification for people to invade someone’s land uninvited.

And even where private land has not been put to use by the owners for years, it remains their property. While squatters who sit on a piece of land for 12 years through an uninterrupted may legally acquire the land through adverse possession, there is no timeline given to determine that a landowner is an absentee landlord - triggering a debate on alternative use of the land.

“There is no law prescribing for how long one is said to be or is adjudged, absentee landlord,” says property lawyer Peter Mburu. “So long as one has acquired the land legally, the land cannot be taken from them arbitrarily.”

While some of the roles of the National Land Commission (NLC) include establishing appropriate mechanisms for squatters’ removal from unsuitable land and their settlement, such landowners are compensated in case of land reallocation.

NLC also facilitates negotiation between private owners and squatters. In cases of squatter settlements found on private land, and to transfer unutilised land and land belonging to absentee landowners to squatters, NLC can seize the land and give it out or put it to an alternative use.

“No. If the land is taken, it must be adequately and promptly compensated. That is the current law,” says Dr Mburu.

This issue has been debated for years without much success. In cases where absentee landlords or owners of huge parcels of the land fail to utilise it optimally, are coerced to give up the land.

“There should be observance of the maxims of private land ownership where a balance has to be struck between protecting rights of the private landowners and seeking the most beneficial use of land that might be underutilised,” says Ibrahim Mwathane, chair of the Land Development and Governance Institute Board of Directors.

Unless there are questions on the legitimacy of the owner’s documents, the complaints of squatters cannot override the rights of the private landowner. “Remember Waitiki had to be compensated when squatters invaded his Likoni property because there was no question upon his title. It was legitimate,” says Dr Mburu.

“Unless there is a change of government policy, this is the current position.”

The issue has however seen industry players rethink new land policies. “There have been proposals on how to deal with this issue because the government has recognised the problem,” Dr Mburu says.

“Proposals are to introduce a form of taxation for land lying idle (after a particular period), buy the idle land or compulsorily acquire it and pay. Taking away anyone’s land without a just cause would fly in the face of the rule of law.”

Mwathane seeks the establishment of a legal framework where, in the absence of a landowner, the land is valued and the money deposited in a suspense account awaiting the owner’s appearance and subsequent claim. “Otherwise, we cannot just take people’s land. We need to protect private property,” he says.

Dr Mburu also wants property owners to be protected from those who infringe on their rights. “We are a capitalist democracy. The government promotes self-realisation through legal and legitimate labour and acquisition of property and industry,” he says.

Currently, landowners can let their land lie idle without any interference.

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