Conservancies are helping to prevent desertification, climate change

Floating to a new home, four of the last giraffes have been rescued from Longicharo island in Lake Baringo, Kenya, and onto the mainland of Ruko Community Conservancy on April 9, 2021. [Duncan Ndotono, Standard]

In December 1994, the UN General Assembly declared June 17 the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. This year, the focus was on turning degraded land into healthy land. In Kenya, communities living in the northern frontier counties, coastal areas and many parts of the Rift Valley are already experiencing early signs of desertification.

The ensuing challenges of desertification and drought are some of the world’s most complex, threatening community and national stability. This calls for urgent action at local and global levels. Desertification has worked in concert with climate change to impoverish the lands and their dependent communities. A common denominator to these processes is the removal of topsoil and vegetation cover leading to expansion of bare ground.

This is a threat to Kenya’s rangelands, which constitute up to 80 per cent of the land mass and the bedrock of our livestock, wildlife and tourism economy. Sadly, competition for water and pasture has led to frequent conflicts. Recently, a conflict between two pastoralist herders over pasture access resulted in the untimely deaths of six people in Buffalo Springs National reserve. However, the conservancy concept now taking root in Kenya might offer some practical lessons in curbing desertification and minimising impacts of drought and climate change.

Contrary to misinformation that conservancies exclude community livestock, they in fact encompass grazing plans based on traditional grazing norms. This allows the livestock to graze in the open blocks, while allowing rest and regeneration on the closed blocks. This concept is a recreation of how communities such as the Maasai, Samburu, Rendille, Ilchamus, Turkana, Borana and other pastoralist groups maintained the land in a functional state.

This time though, it is being formalised and institutionalised to address internal forces such as weakening traditional norms that regulated grazing. 

There is scientific evidence that non-managed, open access areas with weak traditional grazing management, plant diversity and productivity have declined. In addition, the ability of the rangelands to recover from drought and flood shocks is compromised. These are early signs of desertification. Evidence points to positive impacts of this grazing model. A remote sensing analysis of conservancies in northern Kenya over the last decade, for instance, indicates that green vegetation, leaf litter and ground moisture has significantly increased in conservancy areas compared to non-conservancy areas.

These positive vegetation changes are indicators of an improved habitat as a result of sustainable grazing management. In the Greater Masai Mara, where six conservancies have been in existence over the last two decades, the vegetation cover has increased compared to other rangelands in the country. Therefore, the conservancy model of land management promises a practical way to mitigate drought, curb desertification and manage climate change.

To benefit from this model, more efforts are needed to expand geographic coverage, effective governance and investments from government, public and private sectors, and a stronger participation by the target communities.