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Protecting Human Rights is Essential to Conserving Nature

December 9, 2021
By: Ben Reicher
Samburu woman and children. © The Oakland Institute
Samburu communities in Nantudu, Olidonyiro fearing evictions from community lands. © The Oakland Institute

Today is the 73rd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a watershed document that enshrines basic human rights for all people.

But 73 years on, too many around the world are still denied these rights and euphemisms like development and economic growth have become tools of oppression. Now it is so-called “conservation” and tourism dollars as a development strategy that is denying basic rights to life, security, cultural practices and traditional livelihoods for Indigenous pastoralists in Northern Kenya.

“Conservation” as Development Strategy: Denying Basic Rights to Indigenous Pastoralists

Well-connected and politically influential individuals and organizations have established sanctuaries and reserves on lands that Indigenous peoples have traditionally depended on for their livelihoods in Northern Kenya. Where wildlife sanctuaries provide a significant economic windfall from international tourism to conservation organizations and governments alike, lands are patrolled by both government and private security forces who have been implicated in violent attacks and other severe human rights violations against local residents.

The Oakland Institute’s latest report — Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya — provides a compelling picture of the harms of this fortress conservation through its exposé of the activities of Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), one of the largest conservation organizations. The report shows that, despite its rhetoric of “participatory” and “community-driven” conservation, NRT has routinely taken control of land against the wishes of local residents. The Kenyan legal system has failed to protect the predominantly pastoral communities’ constitutionally recognized land rights. This has resulted in Kenyan pastoralists losing their ancestral lands in favor of wildlife sanctuaries and exacerbated interethnic tensions that have led to extrajudicial killings, involving conservancy rangers and other individuals who have received anti-poaching training and logistics support from NRT.

Northern Rangelands Trust: Background and Financing

NRT was founded in 2004 by Ian Craig, whose family was part of an elite European minority in Kenya under British colonialism, following the conversion of his family’s 62,000-acre cattle ranch into Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in the 1980s. The trust has since expanded to operate 39 so-called community conservancies throughout Kenya, covering over 10 million acres, or around 8 percent of the country’s total land area. NRT claims that community conservancies consist of cooperative agreements with local pastoral communities, in which NRT helps sustainably manage their lands as well as the wildlife tourism industry.

NRT is financed in part through the backing of major international donors: US government agencies like USAID, the US Forest Service, and the Department of Agriculture; the French and Danish international development agencies AFD and DANIDA; zoos including the San Diego Zoo; and Western conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and Save the Elephants. It is also funded by, and has significant links with, the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) and other state entities. Many of these supporters have lauded NRT and its community conservancies as setting a new standard for participation of local people in land conservation decisions.

NRT and the Fortress Conservation Model

In reality, NRT’s alleged uplifting of local residents does not describe the situation on the ground, as documented through extensive interviews with members of local communities. The Oakland Institute report characterizes NRT as a prime example of the controversial fortress conservation model that privatizes and even militarizes land formerly held in common throughout the developing world — segregating the land from those who have sustainably used it for pastoralism and other subsistence activities for generations. Despite their rhetoric of giving local residents a seat at the table in land management, NRT effectively functions as a private for-profit business that fails to meaningfully consider the needs of the communities living on those lands.

“Community conservancies are just the handmaiden of the NRT. The [Memorandum of Understanding] was drawn just between the county government and the NRT, leaving the impacted community out,” Dorcas Endoo, a lawyer representing Kenyan communities who have sued the NRT and its community conservancies for access to their traditional lands, told the Oakland Institute. “Very conveniently, the purpose of the MOU is described as providing education, health services, water, and sanitation, and they list wildlife conservation at the end. And yet they have already developed maps where they intend to develop sanctuaries, with no environmental and social impact assessment or public participation conducted.”

As a result, pastoral communities have been evicted from their grazing lands to make room for NRT’s conservancies, while NRT profits from Kenya’s highly lucrative market for international tourism, which is worth over a billion dollars a year. Meanwhile, the investment that NRT promises will accrue to local people has largely failed to materialize.

Moreover, as the Oakland Institute reports, “NRT is involved not just in conservation but also in security, management of pastureland, and livestock marketing, which according to the local communities, gives it a level of control over the region that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government.”

NRT employs over 800 anti-poaching rangers, who work in conjunction with KWS agents. They have been trained in “paramilitary and intelligence skills” by the KWS Law Enforcement Academy as well as by private security companies. Whereas the purpose of NRT’s rangers is supposed to be anti-poaching, they are routinely involved in policing matters that go beyond that. Testimonies of locals allege NRT’s direct involvement in conflicts related to territorial issues or/and cattle raids.

Allegations of Violence

Numerous testimonies in the report allege the use of NRT vehicles and logistics in inter community raids that led to numerous deaths of community members, in presence of NRT rangers in several instances. Missing Voices, a coalition of organizations whose mission is to end enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Kenya, allegedly documented 84 police killings and enforced disappearances in Isiolo from January to September 2019. Although the specifics of each case have not been made public, all these cases have been attributed to activities for national security and conservation. Community members repeatedly testified that the police ignored allegations of violence committed by 9-1 rangers. As further detailed in the report, Kenyan government authorities are reportedly known to commit human rights violations that include torture and kidnapping of those they suspect of poaching, as well as against activists and journalists who defend communal land rights.

Rehma Ali, a young mother, devastated after the disappearance of her husband
Rehma Ali, a young mother, devastated after the disappearance of her husband

Locals further accuse NRT of taking sides in interethnic disputes over scarce resources, and of superseding Indigenous communities’ traditional mechanisms of mediating conflicts peacefully in favor of a brute force approach, thus exacerbating and facilitating intercommunal violence throughout Kenya.

One former NRT employee even admitted that NRT’s intrusive methods of dealing with conflicts over resources is encouraging further violence: “Communities have always been fighting for natural resources like grazing grounds, watering points, but they had ways of resolving it or reaching a solution. When NRT came in, they had an artificial way of making things work out. …NRT preferred to use their security units, rather than calling upon the elders of the communities to resolve conflicts.”

Growing Opposition to NRT

Demonstration against NRT in Ngilae West
Residents of Ngilae West in Samburu County demonstrate against NRT for mismanagement of the Reteti Elephant sanctuary resources.

Opposition to NRT is growing among communities throughout Kenya. Numerous petitions, protests and legal action have been initiated against NRT by community groups.

Stealth Game advocates for a new outlook on conservation — one that moves past the long-standing dogma of fortress conservation and enables Indigenous people to take the lead in making decisions about the lands that they depend on more than anyone. NRT’s model of privatizing conservation, and the commons itself, has led to severe human rights violations, and cannot be allowed to continue. The Kenyan government must carry out an independent investigation into NRT’s community conservancies, to honor constitutional protections for the pastoral lifestyle and implement long-delayed laws meant to protect pastoralists’ access to land.

Study after study shows that Indigenous peoples are the best conservationists. Protecting their land and human rights is the most efficient and fair way to protect our natural world. Fortress conservation must be replaced with a democratic approach that, in contrast to NRT’s window-dressing, ensures that government policy reflects the knowledge and needs of the communities that have the largest stake in the holistic success of conservation efforts.

This international human rights day, we cannot forget that ensuring the rights of Indigenous pastoralists to land, life and culture is essential to conserving these precious ecosystems.