By: Gonzalo Oviedo, Senior Advisor, Social Policy and Hanna Helsingen, Policy Trainee, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
May, 2014. “We have found our lost heritage” said Hussein Boru, a Boran elder in the Garba Tula District of Isiola County during a workshop on indigenous customs and natural resource management. The workshop was part of a project undertaken by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Northern Kenya that documented customary laws on the access, use and management of rangeland resources with the aim of improving natural resource management and empowering local governance institutions.
The Garba Tula District is like many other arid and semi-arid districts in Northern Kenya, populated mainly by pastoralists who keep livestock across communally managed rangelands. These rangelands are home to about 40,000 Boran pastoralists, who, for centuries, have utilized customary rules and practices to successfully balance wildlife conservation and their pastoral livelihoods in the area between Meru, Mwingi and Kora National Parks, which supports important populations of elephants, lions, cheetahs, rare antelopes and dozens of other species.
In recent times, however, the customary rules and practices of pastoralists have been ignored or lost as a result of insecure land tenure, weakened traditional governance institutions, and formal natural resource law and policies that do not value indigenous natural resource management knowledge.
Lost indigenous knowledge
“This is how our elders used to do it, except that it is not written” said Daoud Abkula an elder from Garba Tula, after seeing a map of their area during a community based rangeland planning exercise. Historically, traditional rangeland planning was based upon the specific conditions, and organized around community units, beginning with households (Olla), to villages (Ardha), and then to a cluster of villages (Dedha). Resource planning started at the Olla level, which was then coordinated with the higher unit for coherence and consistency, allowing pastoral communities to optimize the use of resources.
For centuries, Boran elders worked through these community units to apply indigenous knowledge, perfected through experiences and passed down orally from generation to generation, to plan their use of natural resources in ways that optimized use of water and grasslands, avoided parasites and diseases, and planned for droughts and other environmental shocks while avoiding conflicts with neighboring communities.
However, in recent decades, the more centralized conventional planning mechanisms of the state have disregarded these traditional structures.
Weakened traditional governance systems in Garba Tula
According to Garba Tula elders, while colonial law recognized these customary governance mechanisms, state interventions since independence have predominantly ignored local structures and systems for natural resource management. In addition, external factors such as increases in population pressure and climate change further threaten these customary institutions.
Divorcing local indigenous knowledge from conventional planning has proved to be counter-productive for rangeland planning, especially in the face of increasing climate variability. Over generations, people have built up a knowledge base of how the climate varies and how to adapt to climate variability through seasonal use of different areas and resources. That knowledge would be hard to find anywhere else but in the local communities. In addition, as these communities have developed crucial mechanisms of conflict management that allow for negotiation of resource distribution, rights and access that are crucial to sustainable rangeland use, especially in times of resource scarcity.
Insecure Land Tenure and Links to Poor Land Management
Communal ownership of land is a crucial aspect of natural resource governance for pastoral people, since clear understandings of land ownership and use regulates who has access to the area, who can use its resources, and how these resources are managed.
This is especially critical for pastoralists in drylands, who must regulate the movements of livestock, preserve the land, and avoid conflicts when resources are scarce. Moreover, sustainable management of land requires investments in terms of labor, capital and equipment. People will only undertake these investments if they have secure land rights, as the payback period for significant investments are usually long-term. For pastoralists, such investments may include the development of reliable water sources, veterinary care, and planting of supplementary sources of food or forage.
As communally managed land, the land in Garba Tula has been held in Trust by the County government since the introduction of the Kenyan Trust Land Act in 1963. Under the Act, County Councils should have been accountable to the communities and made decisions based on traditional rules and norms. However, the Trust Land system has resulted in appropriation of community resources for individual benefit, with local communities poorly informed of their rights. This has steadily weakened the traditional tenure system, and led to the loss of traditional rules and knowledge as the communities were no longer in control of their land. Without rights to the land, people also lost the incentives to manage and regulate its use. Furthermore, the appropriation of land contributed to promotion of individual tenure systems, which disrupted grazing routes and resource access, and led to land degradation.
Capturing indigenous rules on resource management
Despite the challenges, changes are occurring in Kenya that provide important opportunities for pastoralists and other communities who rely on communally managed landscapes. The evolving system of County Councils and the provision for Community Land tenure systems in the new Kenyan Constitution (2010) and National Land Policy provide for greater opportunities for and empowerment of local people to engage in decision-making processes regarding the use and management of natural resources.
To facilitate community empowerment over natural resource management in Garba Tula, IUCN worked with local community elders on a project aimed at strengthening Boran pastoralists’ rights over land by documenting their customary laws and encouraging the County Council to adopt them as by-laws. The project, which commenced in 2009, involved recording all aspects of the indigenous rules and practices on resource management. This information was then converted into by-laws, which were validated by the elders and the community.
The by-laws were developed and adopted through a multi-stakeholder participatory process that relied on traditional structures. Information on customary rules for natural resource governance was collected in consultation with community stakeholders. Through extensive discussion, the Ardha and Olla planning units within the Boran community then generated customary rules (by-laws) for specific natural resource management issues. The by-laws were discussed by the highest resource management unit, the Deedha, a council of elders from the various villages. Once approved by the Deedha, the by-laws were distilled into legal language in line with relevant national legal frameworks and laws, including the emerging County government by-laws. The draft by-laws were presented to the entire community of Garba Tula for validation and approval, and have since been presented to the County Council of the Isiolo Government for consideration.
The project was designed to both ensure community ownership of the by-lays and develop strong connection between the community and the state institutions.
Throughout the process, IUCN worked closely with the community representatives and the local NGO, Resource Advocacy Program, to involve a wide range of community members, including youth and women. Some 200 community members were involved directly in documentation of the customary laws and practices through consultative community meetings, field visits and a validation workshop.
Benefits and Impact
The entire process and the resulting by-laws have strengthened the customary system, empowered local people, and laid the basis for improved natural resource governance on a wide scale.
The project demonstrated the feasibility of capturing customary rules and indigenous knowledge that were thought to be lost, and developing them into a legally binding framework under both customary and statutory law. The process strengthened the local and state recognition of indigenous systems and institutions, enabling more effective natural resource management.
Community engagement has in turn contributed to greater awareness of local people’s rights and responsibilities regarding natural resource governance, and stronger appreciation of the value and potential of Garba Tula’s customary system.
The project has also strengthened the community. “We feel empowered as we have rights over our resources and backed with sound governance system based on our indigenous customs’’ said Hussein Boru, a Boran elder in Garba Tula following the bylaw validation exercise.
The project in Garba Tula is the first of its kind among Kenyan pastoralists. It has attracted interest across Kenya and the Eastern Africa region, where policy regimes usually give little attention to pastoralists. The lessons learned from Garba Tula are expected to feed into the establishment of new community land tenure systems in Kenya.
Adoption of the by-laws by the County Government will be an important next step towards securing land tenure for pastoralists in Garba Tula, and will help improve the long-term management of land and the livelihoods of the region’s 40,000 pastoralists.
“We now have our destiny in our hands” said a beaming Daoud Abkula, elder from Garba Tula and project coordinator of Resource Advocacy Program.
Video: Preserving Life and Land in Kenya