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A well-known conservation nonprofit in Kenya is embroiled in accusations that it uses a privatized and neocolonial conservancy model to deprive pastoral communities of their rights to use their lands, according to research by the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank.
Relying on petitions, court cases and in-person interviews with community members in northern Kenya, the California-based Oakland Institute says in a Nov. 16 report that the Kenya-based nonprofit Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) keeps herders off long-held, traditional grazing areas. NRT allegedly cuts off the access of these communities, exacerbates interethnic tensions and wields its high-level connections in the Kenyan government and abroad to cater to wealthy tourists, according to community members.
Counter to its self-portrayal as an organization focused on community-led conservation, said Anuradha Mittal, the Oakland Institute’s executive director and author of the report, NRT’s focus is on securing the landscape for high-end wildlife tourism and keeping aid dollars from global donors flowing. Mittal said the top-down imposition of conservancies on member communities amounts to “fortress conservation” that sidelines Indigenous peoples in managing their rangelands.
“Now, instead of those traditional systems,” she said, “you insert this entity with all that power.”
Mittal called for an independent investigation of NRT into the allegations raised by the people she spoke with.
In northern Kenya, she said, the dynamics favor NRT. According to her interviews in the field, communities living on member conservancy land have been prevented from using grasslands and water sources for their herds of cattle, camels and sheep. They told her the formation of conservancies restricts movement and access, and forces them into conflict with other communities, often inflaming long-simmering ethnic tensions. Testimonies, petitions and protests also allege that NRT has played a role in the violent suppression of dissent and even the extrajudicial killings of community members through its ranger programs.
NRT paints a diametrically opposed picture to this characterization: In the view of its leaders, member communities freely choose to establish conservancies and join the NRT structure. They then use the decision-making tools and the best science available, which NRT provides as the “umbrella organization,” to manage their lands to the benefit of both themselves and the health of the grassland ecosystem.
Tom Lalampaa, NRT’s CEO, said the organization understands both the real and figurative landscape in which it operates.
“NRT is keenly aware of the fact that if not done carefully, establishing a conservancy may have the unintended effect of reigniting or fueling conflict if some groups feel excluded from the land or are not at the table when significant decisions are made,” Lalampaa told Mongabay by email.
But for much of its nearly two decades in existence (it was founded in 2004), NRT has had to fend off the types of serious allegations surfaced in the Oakland Institute report.
Lalampaa said much of the problem stems from a misunderstanding of NRT’s role. He also said most of the complaints come from a handful of communities in Kenya’s Isiolo county.
“Neither NRT or the Community Conservancies have the authority to move people or settlements anywhere, or deny any community access to natural resources,” he wrote in the email. When a conservancy becomes a member of NRT, he added, only the way in which the land is managed changes; the land legally remains in the hands of the community.
NRT’s role is to support member conservancies in their efforts to better manage the land under community control, he said.
“In northern Kenya,” Lalampaa said, “wildlife, people and livestock continue to be nomadic across the landscape as they have for centuries.”
As Lalampaa noted, many of the concerns about NRT’s activities, though not all, appear to have been raised by communities in a single county, Isiolo, a five-hour drive northeast of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
In an interview, an elder from Isiolo said the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy, which includes his land, has been a source of problems for the members of the Borana ethnic group pretty much since its inception in 2006.
The elder spoke with Mongabay on the condition of anonymity to protect his own security.
He said the formation of Biliqo Bulesa led to what he sees as his community’s displacement from their former rangeland. According to an Indigenous rights activist who spoke with the Oakland Institute, it was initially established, without public participation or consent, by a handful of people from the Borana community who were cajoled into supporting NRT. Once the conservancy structure was in place, the views of many in the community were excluded, according to the institute’s interviews, and herders lost access to precious grazing land set aside for tourists on wildlife safaris.
In April 2021, elders from the Samburu community filed a petition to potential donors asking them to stop supporting NRT, the Oakland Institute’s research found.
One of the most strident allegations to arise is the report of the deaths of more than 70 people from the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy — deaths that allegedly involved NRT — according to the institute’s research. The Borana council of elders detailed the incidents in a 2019 report. Many of the killings reportedly occurred during cattle raids by the Samburu, a neighboring ethnic group, who allegedly had the support of trained rangers traveling in NRT vehicles.
NRT denies any involvement, and Lalampaa said in an email that “none of NRT’s staff or Rangers have ever been charged, let alone implicated in any relevant criminal matter.” Such violence, NRT says, has long been a part of the landscape of northern Kenya. That’s one reason part of NRT’s stated mission is “building peace.”
Some NRT-trained rangers are armed, Lalampaa said. If, for example, they are operating in a particularly dangerous area, they may apply for training and permission from the Kenyan police to carry weapons.
“The reality is that in our landscape, there are a lot of illegal firearms in the hands of our communities,” Lalampaa said in a follow-up interview. Patrolling the area can be a dangerous job, and he said an NRT ranger had recently been killed while on duty. Poaching, though down from its peak in the early 2010s, remains a problem around some of NRT’s member conservancies, and highway banditry is also a threat.
Nevertheless, Lalampaa said he rejects all claims that NRT provides guns to its rangers: “NRT has never, will never, and does not have the legal authority to arm anyone, including our rangers.”
NRT takes the accusations of its role in displacing communities and involvement in any violence seriously, Lalampaa said. The organization’s leadership has always been open to and cooperated with government investigations when these concerns have been raised, he added. NRT further maintains that these inquiries have cleared the organization and its conservancies of wrongdoing.
The rangelands in question are prone to overgrazing, especially during times of drought, NRT says. That harshness creates conditions that can spark competition with wildlife for grass and water, as well as conflict between ethnic groups over limited resources. To address those issues, NRT works with communities to boost the health of the dry grasslands of northern Kenya through improved management, Lalampaa said.
Many of the problems that have been raised stem in part from NRT not doing a better job communicating its role, Lalampaa said, especially shortly after its founding in 2004. What’s more, many of the first conservancies to sign up with NRT, including West Gate Conservancy in Samburu county, where Lalampaa’s family comes from and his livestock herds still reside, were from the Samburu ethnic group. Lalampaa said that early focus gave rise to the incorrect assumption of preferential treatment of the Samburu by NRT. Today, Lalampaa said, NRT’s conservancies comprise 18 of the 42 distinct ethnicities found in Kenya, and the organization strives for diversity in the composition of its ranger teams.
NRT employs more than 1,300 people and estimates that nearly 70,000 people have benefited from its economic development programs, alongside the conservancies’ successes with wildlife protection. The organization says no elephants have been poached from its member conservancies since 2012, and the website highlights community-led conservation to protect rare and threatened species such as the black rhino (Diceros bicornis), the Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi) and an antelope called the hirola (Beatragus hunteri). Today, the 43 member conservancies cover 63,000 square kilometers (nearly 24,000 square miles), which amounts to more than 10% of Kenya’s land area.
Lalampaa said the activities and management of the land are in the hands of the communities, and community members are still living in much the same way they had alongside wildlife in the past. As such, he took issue with classifying NRT’s model as “fortress conservation.”
“Our way of hosting wildlife has never changed,” he said. “What other models do they have? … This one has worked.”
Lalampaa said NGOs like NRT have long been an essential partner to the Kenyan government in managing wildlife and developing communities. Part of that role, too, is to “channel substantial funds into preferred outlets that will best achieve their goals” from “international development partners.”
But the Oakland Institute’s Mittal said such close relationships involving millions of dollars with powerful outside forces may influence how rangelands are managed. The resulting decisions may not be in the best interests of the communities that rely on them the most, she said.
The report lists the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the French Development Agency (AFD) and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) among NRT’s funders.
In the end, that means that outside players, whether from corporations, the international donor community, the government or the NGO itself, have the loudest voices in determining what happens to the vast savannas of northern Kenya, Mittal said, not the pastoral communities who have shepherded both their flocks and the ecosystems for generations.
The imbalance of power that exists between a well-connected, well-financed NGO like NRT and the communities living off the dry, hardscrabble savanna of northern Kenya mirrors other top-down global conservation pronouncements, such as the 30 by 30 initiative, Mittal said.
The aim of 30 by 30 is to protect 30% of the world’s oceans and land by 2030. Its proponents, including many of the world’s largest conservation NGOs, say such protective measures would provide a lifeline for species struggling amid the global biodiversity crisis.
But Indigenous groups and rights advocates say creating new protected areas, as called for in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s proposed biodiversity targets, would force many communities from their homelands around the world.
“We undeniably have a crisis when it comes to loss of biodiversity,” Mittal said. But, she said, a “systemic colonial mindset” still guides conservation proposals in the same vein as 30 by 30. She pointed to moves by the government and private landowners in neighboring Tanzania to force the Masai from their land to create spaces where deep-pocketed Western tourists can come to see wildlife.
Mittal said these models run the risk of turning into “the largest land grab” if NGOs and governments don’t acknowledge the role that the Indigenous “protectors of the planet” play in maintaining the health of those ecosystems.
“The areas they want to protect are protected because they were stewarded by the Indigenous [people],” Mittal said.
The immense pressure from outside could overwhelm the input of Indigenous populations, she said, which is one reason why these initiatives are so concerning. If the situation were reversed, she added, it would not be tolerated.
“Can you even imagine, for instance, the Masai, the Samburu coming into California and determining what part of California should be conserved [and then] evict the people?” Mittal said. “I mean, can you even imagine [their] audacity?”
Banner image of a pastoralist’s cattle herd courtesy of the Oakland Institute.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
Schetter, C., Mkutu, K., & Müller-Koné, M. (2022). Frontier NGOs: Conservancies, control, and violence in northern Kenya. World Development, 151, 105735. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2021.105735
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