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Allegations of Displacement, Violence Beleaguer Kenyan Conservancy NGO

November 30, 2021
  • The California-based Oakland Institute published a report on Nov. 16 alleging that the Kenya-based nonprofit Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) keeps pastoralists and their herds off of their ancestral grazing areas.
  • The institute’s research relied on petitions, court cases and in-person interviews with community members in northern Kenya, with report lead author Anuradha Mittal alleging that NRT’s model of “fortress conservation” exacerbates interethnic tensions and prioritizes the desires of wealthy tourists over the needs of the Indigenous population.
  • Tom Lalampaa, NRT’s CEO, denies all allegations that the organization keeps communities from accessing rangeland or that it has played any role in violence in the region.
  • Lalampaa said membership with NRT provides innumerable benefits to community-led conservancies, which retain their legal claim to the land and decide on how their rangelands are managed.

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.”

Alleged displacement and deprivation

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.