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Setting the Record Straight: Response to NRT's Claims

November 16, 2021
Protests by residents of Ngilae west in Samburu County against NRT.

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

Before publication of the report Stealth Game, the Oakland Institute shared the major findings of its research with NRT, to provide it an opportunity to respond. What followed was a correspondence in which NRT denies our findings and deflects blame. Here we address NRT’s contention points with the report.

NRT asserts that the findings of Stealth Game are “unfounded and long discredited allegations” that are the result of not “having seen firsthand the situation on the ground.” NRT maintains visiting the communities in person would dispel these allegations.

The Oakland Institute’s findings are the result of over two years of research by a team of independent researchers. Field research began in Northern Kenya to examine community views regarding a proposed Mega Crocodile dam project in June 2019. At the Biliqo community meeting, villagers instead began to voice their grievances against NRT. Visiting other communities, the Oakland Institute research team continued to hear serious allegations against NRT and began to collect first hand testimonies from communities across the region. The report is based on dozens of interviews conducted between June 2019 and November 2021, the study of numerous documents, including court filings, official, and academic papers, as well as NRT’s own materials.

While NRT’s donors may take the organization’s word for the impact it has had, our work uncovers the actual situation on the ground. Our findings call for an immediate independent investigation into land related grievances around all of NRT’s community conservancies, allegations of inter ethnic conflict fueled by NRT’s rapid response units, abuses and extrajudicial killings by conservancy rangers.

NRT attempts to distance itself from the actions of community conservancy boards and claims that any decisions made were undertaken with support from communities: “The incorporation of a community conservancy can only be done by the community itself… Conservancies cannot operate or survive if they are not accepted by the community. They have their own boards, which are accountable to the community and are responsible for effective, sustainable and transparent management of the Conservancy.”

NRT’s assertion that the incorporation of community conservancies is done with support from community members ignores evidence provided in the report and in court proceedings which expose the tactics used by NRT to subvert the will of communities in order to secure conservancy agreements.

Several testimonies allege that leverage over communities occurs through corruption and cooptation of local leaders and personalities as well as local administration officials. Najar Nyakio Munyinyi, a consultant on Indigenous land rights, stated that NRT began its activities establishing the Biliqo conservancy by “contacting and sweet-talking influential personalities” in the community whom they “later deployed to convince fellow community members of the benefits they stood to gain from the conservancy.” Other community members of Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy also believe they have been sidelined by their leaders in decisions made with NRT.

According to Diba Kiyana Golicha, an elder and herder from Bulesa, NRT Board of Trustees in the Biliqo conservancy, which was formed specially to act as an intermediary between the community and NRT, does not listen to community complaints and problems. Instead, their leaders have been at the “forefront” of “selling out land to the white man.”

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by NRT security personnel. According to a January 2019 fact-finding mission in Billiqo-Bulesa Community Conservancy, former conservancy committee members, elders, women and youth had no say in decisions related to the  formation of the conservancy and that NRT used its in influence within the security and administrative establishments to prevent communities from holding meetings on the future of the conservancy.

Communities have taken these issues to court in several cases, including the Environment and Land Court (ELC) Petition filed by 165 community members on their own behalf and on behalf of residents of Merti sub county, Chari ward and Cherab ward in Isiolo county on September 27, 2021. The petition accuses NRT and its umbrella bodies of establishing and running conservancies on unregistered community land, “without participation or involvement of the Community.”

A petition from the Samburu Council of Elders to the County Assembly of Samburu in April 2021 also decried the absence of public participation in decision-making and concluded that NRT should “never be allowed to take over communal land through MoUs in the guise of conservation because it will impoverish the pastoral herders in the long run.”

Additionally, Petition E021, filed in September 2021 to the ELC with urgency on behalf of communities in Garba Tulla and Kinna Wards, charges that eight individuals “purporting to act on the best interests of the communities” instead served as “stooges” for NRT in attempts to establish a conservancy. The petition claims that the full and informed consent of the community was not established, as a satisfactory and credible process of public participation had not taken place. Accusing NRT of brokering the “confounding, hurried, shambolic, and patently illegal” process, the Petition maintains that transferring unregistered community land into a wildlife conservancy would be to the “detriment of the communities living in the area as it will deny them access to their traditional grazing land.”

NRT claims it has “no power to impose conservancies or any other land structure onto communities, it does not seek to do so,” adding: “Any assertion that NRT owns or governs community conservancies is untrue and undermines the enfranchisement of communities to form conservancies under the laws of Kenya.”

As previously stated in court petitions and numerous testimonies from community members, NRT imposes its conservancies by coopting local leaders and resorting to tactics that include the use of fear and intimidation to silence dissent.

As charged in the Environment and Land Court (ELC) Petition filed by community members in Chari ward and Cherab ward in Isiolo county on September 27, 2021, NRT “with the help of the Rangers and the local administration, continue to use intimidation and coercion as well as threats upon the community leaders where the community leaders attempt to oppose any of their plans.” As a result, claims made by NRT that the existence of community conservancies indicates support from communities ignores the reality of the situation and the growing resistance to their presence across Northern Kenya.

Once established through these subversive tactics, the conservancy boards undermine the traditional authority of local elders’ councils, which in turn has dispossessed communities from ancestral land. NRT recognizes and clearly stated that “Local communities do have conservancies boards which enforce rational grazing patterns in order to maximize amount of grass available for livestock and this does mean that at times the local community will be asked to graze elsewhere and wait from the grass to grow to a sustainable heights before grazing. However, this is a community decision through their local conservancy boards and is not one made or enforced by NRT.”

As detailed in Stealth Game, community members have testified and sent petitions detailing how decisions to restrict grazing made by the newly formed conservancy boards has dispossessed pastoralists of their land, destroyed their traditional movements, their autonomy, and their lives.

Its own public communication is telling on the manner in which NRT operates in the setting up of conservancies. In 2015, NRT announced that it had formed a 5-year, US$12 million agreement with British Oil Company Tullow Oil and Canadian oil company Africa Oil Corp to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties. In a press release titled “Oil in Turkana Paves the Way for Community Conservation,” NRT stated that one of its goals with this agreement was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources.” The governor of Turkana County, H.E Josphat Nanok, eventually stopped the establishment of conservancies in the county, as he claimed the move to establish the conservancies was “ill advised” and had a “hidden agenda” as his office was not consulted.

NRT downplays the recent protests and opposition to its operations, citing the “small size of the protests,” as well as the financial motives of political actors, business people and competing NGOs that would “welcome our demise.”

The growing number of protests and petitions by local communities against NRT cannot be ignored. For instance, community demonstration against NRT in Sericho Ward on September 2, 2021 rejected the expansion of the conservancy and demanded community land registration, land use to be subjected to public participation and with full consent of the community. Kinna residents similarly held a peaceful demonstration on September 11, 2021.

Furthermore we have obtained copies of petitions signed by hundreds of community members of Kinna Ward against the NRT community Conservancy model; pleading in court case filed by over 500 applicants from the Indigenous Pokot community against NRT, Masol Community Conservancy, Pellow Community Conservancy, and the County government of West Pokot; petition/s against continued donor support to NRT over human rights violations in Samburu, Isiolo, & Marsabit counties; Complaints over conservancy establishment at Merti Cherab Ward — Merti; and more.

All of the referenced petitions are available on the Oakland Institute website.

NRT maintains that: “the few areas in which you cite a protest having taken place, the community has come together and democratically decided to form a conservancy, and similarly made a decision voluntarily to join NRT.” NRT goes on to cite several communities that have since formed community conservancies as evidence it has a “ground swell of support” from communities.”

The fact that a community has joined NRT does not erase the widespread opposition to the decision prevalent in many communities. As detailed in several testimonies and court petitions, communities maintain they were not adequately and inclusively consulted and did not grant free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) before conservancies were established. For example, the petition filed on behalf of residents of the Chari and Merti wards charges that several individuals established a “community based organization” that falsely claimed to represent the entire community and agreed to establish a conservancy without the participation of the actual community.

The same process unfolded in Kinna Ward this past year. In November 2020, a community meeting was held to discuss the proposed formation of an NRT community conservancy. After a lengthy deliberation, it was “unanimously agreed” that the NRT model of conservancy would be rejected, “until community land registration process is completed.” In December, Kinna Ward Community members sent a letter to the Isiolo County Commissioner objecting to the NRT community conservancy model. Signed by 17 Kinna Ward Community Elders and over 200 community members, the letter again reiterated that after meeting as a community, it was “unequivocally” decided to reject the formation of a conservancy, citing the “divide and rule” tactics of NRT. Despite this clear rejection, on August 30, 2021, a Kinna Ward community conservancy was established with just over 30 supporters. While NRT claims “the vast majority of the community” in Kinna Ward supports NRT, the documented opposition and protests held in September 2021 in response to the decision reveal a drastically different reality.

NRT understates the significance of the ongoing court case in West Pokot County against the organization.

In December 2020, John Ngimor and 554 other community members on their own behalf and the residents of Endugh, Kasei, Sekerr, Masol, Lomut, and Weiwei wards in West Pokot County, took NRT, Masol Community Conservancy, Pellow Community Conservancy, and the West Pokot County Government to the Environment and Land Court at Kitale to prevent them from entering, mapping, surveying, and delineating their land. The residents feared forceful eviction of approximately 70,000 people who occupy 250,000 hectares of land in Endugh, Kasei, Sekerr, Masol, Lomut and Weiwei wards in West Pokot County. Most importantly, the community feared losing their ancestral grazing land to a private enterprise, which would use it in the name of “community conservancy” and that NRT’s delineation of their land would make it impossible for them to graze their livestock or perform cultural practices at sacred sites.

On March 25, 2021, an ex parte interim injunction order of the Court stopped and forbid the respondents and their agents [including NRT] “from entering, mapping, surveying and delineating community land, carrying out conservancy operations, importation of wildlife, evicting community members or any other activity under the Memorandum of Understanding for Collaboration in Conservation, Management, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources and to Promote Community Development Initiatives in West Pokot County…” While the matter has been referred to the Chief Justice, who will appoint a three judge bench to hear the case, the injunction marks a crucial temporary victory for these communities and a major blow to NRT.

While NRT downplays the significance of the injunction, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) remarked that the judge issued the injunction to stop NRT’s plans as “if allowed to continue [they] would cause irreparable loss to the indigenous communities in as far as their management and administration of their land is concerned.”

NRT denies any involvement in violence committed by 9-1 rangers and cites the absence of official charges as proof of their innocence.

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.

Beyond ignoring reports of violence, police have also been accused of helping silence dissent to NRT’s activities. In June 2019, when the Oakland Institute researchers arrived in Biliqo at a community meeting, residents openly shared their grievances against NRT. As a villager started speaking — some others, allegedly associated with NRT — started shouting and threatening the person. Soon after, the police arrived and threatened the organizers for holding a public meeting without permission.

Community members of Biliqo-Bulesa allege having faced threats and intimidation. A fact-finding  mission conducted by the Boran Council of Elders and Waaso Professional Forum found that Ali Matmolu, an elder, herder, and an activist who had publicly opposed NRT’s continued operations in the conservancy, was arrested and interrogated for two days by the police. His arrest allegedly was linked to his opposition to the conservancy.

Therefore, NRT’s reliance on the absence of police action does not absolve them of wrongdoing. Findings of the report necessitate an independent investigation into the allegations of involvement of NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict as well as alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings.

NRT hides behind the inadequate police investigation regarding the death of Ahmed Abdi Rahman.

Contradicting the testimony of Ali Abdi Rahman — who testified in Stealth Game that his brother was shot and killed by six uniformed NRT rangers at a water hole in Kurobisanowo in Biliqo on April 13, 2019 — NRT claims that there was “no involvement by NRT rangers in the incident at all.” Mr. Rahman went to the police to report his brother’s murder to no avail. The Governor of Isiolo, Dr. Kuti, as well as Isiolo Member of Parliament Rehema Jaldesa, attended the funeral and “blamed insecurity experienced in Chari ward on the firearms held by the conservancies and called for the scrapping of the wildlife sanctuaries.”

Just weeks later MP Jaldesa, who had been a member of NRT’s board, resigned effective immediately, citing the “recent linking of NRT to disappearances of people and their extrajudicial killings, among other serious charges. The murder of Mr. Rahman requires an independent investigation immediately.

NRT additionally denies its presence has exacerbated violence in the region and hides behind the blanket statement that “Northern Kenya is a volatile area, with a proliferation of illegal small arms, a long history of tribal animosity, and a tense political season with hundreds of people killed this year alone in cattle raids and tribal conflict.”

According to the Council of Elders of Merti and Cherab Division, NRT’s activities have led to an “upsurge in the nature and frequency of conflict with neighboring communities'' including as a result of “Samburu bandits known to be instigated by the conservancy” as well as an increase in human-wildlife conflicts. The allegation that NRT exacerbated community tensions was also reported to the fact-finding mission of the Borana Council of Elders and the Waaso Professional Forum, which found that since the Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy was formed in 2006, “the Boran community has experienced as many as ten raids conducted by Samburu morans, during which more than seventy people were killed and thousands of livestock stolen.”

Research on the ground by the Oakland Institute as well as the fact-finding mission by the Borana Council of Elders found that NRT’s entry had changed traditional ways of resolving conflicts. Their involvement has replaced the power and traditional governance structures of communities in the North, in favor of the conservancy model which saw conservancy managers, security scouts, and members of conservancy boards take over decision making roles that were the preserve of elders in the community. This has led to the undermining of traditional resource systems like the Dheda management system, which has been in place to solve community tensions and delineate grazing areas for different communities in times of drought.

The findings of Stealth Game are echoed by a 2021 report from Isiolo Gender Watch and Minority Rights International that, specifically mentioning NRT conservancies, noted: “the emergence of wildlife conservation in Isiolo is also causing tension with a sharp division amongst local communities on the position of conservation projects.” The report additionally noted that the local Borana pastoralists group “accuses [NRT] for taking sides in the conflict by arming and supporting the Samburu's.”

Another academic paper, “Security dynamics in conservancies in Kenya: The case of Isiolo County”, concluded that: “the presence of conservancies in Isiolo may lead to conflict as they exclude certain groups from accessing land (and water) within that conservancy and reinforce and cement what were previously more fluid land claims over portions of community land. By having a well-trained security team, there may be an increased potential for ethnic conflict between armed conservancy scouts and community militias on the outside of conservancies, or with scouts from other conservancies.”

While Borana communities accuse Samburu of being favored by NRT, even some members of the Samburu recognize how NRT’s presence has deteriorated the security situation, as detailed in an April 2021 Petition by the Samburu Council of Elders, opposing the expansion of NRT conservancies.

Previous public denials from NRT that their presence has compounded insecurity in the region cite misleading statistics that purport violence decreased in between 2017 and 2018. These statistics however ignore the severe drought that exacerbated clashes in 2017. NRT’s own numbers, taken from their own 2018 and 2020 State of Conservancies Reports, actually show an increase of incidents in recent years.

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

# cattle rustling (theft) incidents

42

48

71

94

53

90

66

168

130

# of people killed in security incidents

10

6

17

43

44

43

11

29

36

NRT’s relationship with Tullow Oil further reveals a failure to consult communities.

The US$12 million agreement between NRT and British Oil Company Tullow Oil and Canadian oil company Africa Oil Corp, to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties was announced in a press release, which mentioned that one of its goals was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources.”

When questioned by the Oakland Institute in September 2021, Tom Lalampaa, NRT’s CEO, denied the partnership and claimed that community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot had reached out to NRT seeking support. NRT claims it then “brokered financial support for these community conservancies from the two oil companies.” In October 2021 communication with the Institute, Mr. Lalampaa changed course and claimed the “project ran into difficulties as the local communities in Turkana resisted the plans due to distrust of Tullow Oil with its controversial history.” This statement acknowledged Tullow Oil’s “controversial history,” a curious admission given the two organizations’ past partnership. NRT’s press release, titled “Oil companies and conservation? We think it can work” is no longer available on its website.

Faced with mounting pressure for independent investigations into these allegations, NRT highlights two reports — one from 2012 and another, which has come under fire for being extremely biased in favor of the organization — in defense of its actions.

NRT claims the Report on the Taskforce on Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) Activities in Isiolo County (2020) found the allegations of wrongdoing by NRT to be unsubstantiated. However, even before the investigation’s findings were made public, community organizations sounded the alarm on the inherent bias in the report and the “pre-determined” outcome of the findings. The community groups charged that the task force membership only included a few handpicked people that “deliberately ignored the key victims of the NRT atrocities and members of their families.”

The other report cited by NRT in its defense, Report on the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Conflicts Over Management of Conservancies in Isiolo County, is from 2012 and therefore irrelevant to allegations made over the past nine years against NRT.


Additional resources on the violence in conservation and impact of NRT on communities in Northern Kenya

“Are Kenyan Conservancies a Trojan Horse for Land Grabs?” The Elephant, April 3, 2021.

“Peace or Into Pieces? Conflict Analysis and Mapping for Isiolo and Marsabit Counties.” Isiolo Gender Watch, Minority Rights Group, April 1, 2021.

“Security dynamics in conservancies in Kenya: The case of Isiolo County.” Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies, June, 2020.

“Herders protest as wildlife conservancies drive them out.” Nation, August 18, 2019.

“Wildlife Conservancies or Sanctioned Land Grabs? The Simmering Crisis in Northern Kenya.” The Elephant, July 19, 2019.

“Who Is Running Northern Kenya? Causes of the Simmering ‘Resource Curse’ in Isiolo  County.” The Elephant, May 2, 2019.

“A Conspiracy in the Wild.” New African Magazine, September 2, 2017.

“Turkana declares six conservancies illegal over permit.” Business Daily Africa, January 21, 2016.

“Positioning human heritage at the center of conservation practice.” Conservation Biology, February 11, 2020.

“NGO concerns over the proposed 30% target for protected areas and absence of safeguards for  Indigenous Peoples and local communities.” Survival International, Rainforest Foundation, Minority Rights Group International, April 20, 2021.

“A People’s Manifesto for the Future of Conservation.” Our Land Our Nature, 2021.

“The Violence of Conservation.” New Internationalist, March 3, 2020.

“Why Black Lives Don’t Matter in Kenya’s Colonial ‘Conservancies.’” The Elephant, June 12, 2020.

“Death in the wilderness, Secret killings, enforced disappearances by the KWS, KFS officers.” Standard Media.