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Conservation and Capital in Kenya

February 9, 2022
The Architectural Review

By Jessica Dempsey

Confronted with land inequality sedimented by colonial legacies, mechanisms of capital cannot solve the challenges that face wildlife conservation

The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya is an expansive classic safari landscape. It is hard to overstate its beauty and majesty, with towering acacia trees and abundant wildlife, from giraffes to kudu to baboons to Somali ostriches. Vervet monkeys run around, impalas nestle in the tall grasses, and highly endangered black rhinos and their young wade in the marshes. It is also where Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton.

This Animal Planet safari heaven of colonial-soaked Out of Africa imaginaries is also a landscape of conflict and struggle. Lewa is at the heart of a region of Kenya known as Laikipia, a fertile area nestled between the country’s central highlands and arid north. In this region — and stretching all the way to Ethiopia and Somalia — pastoralism is the major livelihood and has been for thousands of years, with semi‑nomadic livestock-rearing largely co-existing with abundant and diverse wildlife. Under this system, pastoral peoples such as the Maasai, Samburu and Pokot move their livestock (mostly cattle) to find grazing land, moving into highlands like Laikipia in dry seasons.

Pastoral peoples have faced decades of marginalisation by colonial and Kenyan governments, with their access to lands increasingly constrained since the imposition of British colonial rule in the late 19th century. One of the first acts of British rule was to place any ‘unoccupied’ or ‘wasted’ land under their control. Under terra nullius ideologies, the more decentralised societies of East Africa, including pastoral peoples, did not meet racist categorisations of appropriate, productive land use (ie, settled European agriculture). Jacqueline Klopp and Odenda Lumumba characterise the colonial period as one where ‘settlers scrambled for high‑value land around Nairobi and the fertile highlands, for agriculture, business, residential use and speculation’. Racialised people were largely ‘barred’ from land ownership in the fertile ‘white highlands’, an area north of Nairobi and west of Mount Kenya — a higher, cooler and wetter area amenable to agriculture and favourable to British settlers.

Following independence in 1964, the colonial legacy of land inequalities largely continued. A part of these ‘white highlands’, about 40 per cent of land in Laikipia remains concentrated in the hands of investors, international conservation groups and white Kenyan ranchers. To use a phrase by geographer Diana Ojeda, colonialism is literally sedimented in this landscape. This includes Lewa: the Craig/Douglas family, with its connections to the British royal family, turned the cattle ranch it settled during British rule into a sanctuary in the 1980s to make a home for highly poached and endangered black rhinoceroses.

Today, there is a struggle in this region over land and, in particular, a struggle over who can access grazing land: safari tourists in Range Rovers or pastoralists seeking grass for their cattle. In a region increasingly beset by drought, exacerbated by the climate catastrophe, this is a life and death question. As a result, as journalist Margaret Evans reports, Maasai cattle rancher Samwel Parare and others graze their cattle illegally in wildlife conservancies: ‘We don’t have a place to go and our cows are dying so we see that it is the only place we can get grass.’

It is typical for conservation organisations to understand this as a case of ‘human‑wildlife conflict’, to be managed locally. But it can also be understood as the logical endpoint of a political economic model that has, since colonialism, continually eroded the ability for wildlife and pastoralists to co-exist. Ecofeminist Maria Mies suggests we understand colonial capitalism in the form of an iceberg; the visible tip of the iceberg represents the formal economy, where capitalist profit emerges from exploited waged labourers and the circulation of monetised goods and assets in markets. The underwater realm represents a much larger world of what she terms ‘superexploitation’, on which profit-making also depends, but which is not even compensated by a wage. She points to the exploitation of subsistence work, household work (largely carried out by women), the work of the colonies and at the very base, the work of nature. Colonial-capitalist processes tend to appropriate ‘the general production of life’, eroding conditions people and wildlife need to survive and thrive, channelling the productive capacities of landscapes and land towards activities that generate the most profit (export‑oriented agriculture or ranching), or that serve the interests of wealthy landowners (conservation). Super-exploitations, such as those found in and around these Kenyan highlands, are held in place by a broader array of social relations, including, of course, those property rights set in place in the colonial era that delineate who can access and benefit from those lands.