Francis first heard the news in late 2017: The village leaders responsible for managing Kuku B’s community land were reportedly holding secret meetings with private investors.
This is all too common in Kenya, he knew what would come next: the leaders would sub-divide, privatize, and sell off parcels of the community’s land, leaving him and the many pastoralist residents of Kuku B with nowhere to graze the cattle, sheep, and goats that are their source of income. He had seen it happen in neighboring villages. Nearby Kimana was a prime example.
Seven years ago, the village leaders and elites that manage Kimana’s community land convinced their fellow community members to privatize and sub-divide it. But like Kuku B, and most villages in the region, the majority of residents of Kimana are herders: their livelihood depends on large pastures on which their animals can graze. The small parcels of land they each received in the sub-division could not support their livestock.
With nowhere else to go, many of them try to use Kuku B’s common grazing land, but it is quickly becoming overgrazed, leading to conflicts between the two communities.
Within a few years, many Kimana herders became impoverished and ended up selling off their parcel of land or a portion of it.
The practice of sub-diving and privatizing registered community lands (known as ‘Group Ranches’) has been increasing in the region. In fact, of the 52 Group Ranches in the Kajidao county of Kenya, only 6 had their lands intact by the end of 2018.
The driver of privatization has largely been external. Investors in search of minerals and other resources often co-opt the group of elite members and village leaders who oversee the management of the Group Ranch, promising them personal benefits if they convince their community to sub-divide and privatize their land.
It appeared to Francis that something along these lines was likely taking place in Kuku B. The secret meetings with investors worried him. He had become disillusion and frustrated with the leadership of his Group Ranch over the years: Elections have not been held in almost three decades, decisions were made secretly, and the larger community has no say in how the land is governed or managed. He did not trust them to act in the community’s best interest.
Around this time, Francis began participating in community land protection activities lead by Il’laramatak Community Concerns (ICC), a Namati partner, and in mid-2018 he joined their team as a paralegal.
As he learned more about community land rights through his training, Francis became increasingly upset at the extent of the land committee’s years of mismanagement. But alongside his frustration, he found hope. The law, he learned, was on their side. Kenya’s Community Land Act (2016) requires Group Ranches to re-register their land and tries to address many of the weaknesses of past laws, including how community land is managed.
He also learned that under the Community Land Act, the leaders could not make decisions to sell, lease or allocate land to other users without consulting the wider community. Here, he realized, was an opportunity to stop the privatization.
Francis started to talk to community members about the need to protect their land—and their right to do so. He mobilized them to resist the privatization, organizing meetings and a peaceful protest that brought together hundreds of people. They demonstrated against the leader’s self-interested management, and helped people to know more about the law and the urgent need to come together to protect the land that they depend on for their livelihoods, culture, and identity.
The protest made national news, and the Ministry of Land and area Member of Parliament took notice. Soon after, the privatization was halted. The residents of Kuku B succeeded in defending their rights to the land and protecting their livelihoods.
Francis and ICC’s other paralegals are now in the process of supporting the community to finalize its bylaws—one of the major requirements of the new law and something that community members can use to hold future leaders accountable. The demonstration has remained at the forefront of the community’s collective mind throughout the process: They have included bylaws to ensure that this sub-division never happens and rules to help better manage their grazing land and regulate access by other communities.
story by david arach