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Protest Against NRT in Merti Sub-County, May 8, 2021.

Stealth Game: Community Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya ft. Abdinoor Dima Jillo, Isaiah Biwott and Violet Matiru

For Land & Life

“We really, the communities are very frustrated. There is no other alternative. NRT has to move out! The community has been doing the conservation, there's no gap in conservation. But the community welcomes people who are friends of conservation without giving a condition of the land. The land should belong to the community.”

Major Abdinoor Dima Jillo

“Western governments know that aid is a weapon. It is not by accident that NRT is dispossessing communities of their land. It is by design. And USAID is providing the resources to facilitate this to happen.”

Violet Matiru

“The moment you live in that area they come, steal your cows. If you go back to your home again, you are shot you are killed. So this is a campaign that we're seeing of chasing people out of the community lands, a campaign of displacing the Indigenous communities from their homes.”

Isaiah Biwott


Andy Currier (AC): Hello, and welcome back to the Oakland Institute podcast. My name is Andy Currier and I'm your host. Today we will be looking at the devastating impact privatized, neocolonial wildlife conservation and safari tourism have had on Indigenous pastoral communities, specifically in Northern Kenya. On November 16, 2021 the Oakland Institute released: Stealth Game: Community Conservancies Devastate Land and Lives in Northern Kenya, a report that's specifically focused on the activities of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT).

First up, we will hear from Anuradha Mittal, author of the report, who will speak on some of the background of how the report came to be during fieldwork in the area. Next, we will hear from two respected community leaders sharing first hand testimonies on the impact NRT has had on their communities. We will then conclude by hearing from an expert in human wildlife conflict who has been involved with conservation projects in the area for years, who is going to examine the continued inaction of donors who are financing this model of fortress conservation. So let's get right into it. Here is Oakland Institute Executive Director Anuradha Mittal.

Anuradha Mittal (AM): Now this work actually started as an inquiry into the impact of Lapsset Corridor — a so-called development scheme with oil pipelines, highways, resort towns located in areas near the pastoralist communities. The communities I visited and met with the Samburu, Maasai, Borana and others, however, wanted to talk about the NRT and not about the Lapsset Corridor. At every meeting family members showed up to offer testimony of the killings of the loved ones by Rangers. This is the genesis of this report.

The communities reported they had written to government authorities, they had gone to the Kenyan police, they had petitioned the donors, the Western donors, they had conducted their own fact finding missions, and they faced threats and continued abuses. They even went to court, but all of this was met with silence. Stealth Game shatters that silence. The truth is that NRT has had access to an international audience all this time, and we wanted to ensure that the voices of the communities who are impacted by so called conservation of NRT are raised today. One thing is clear — the silence and inaction on part of the donors is no longer an option. You will hear what we exposed in Stealth Game, the devastating impact of privatized neocolonial, racist wildlife conservation and safari tourism on Indigenous pastoralists communities. Terms like participatory, community-driven, local empowerment are extensively used. But our report revealed how NRT and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) have allegedly dispossessed pastoralist communities of their ancestral lands through corruption, cooptation; through intimidation and violence to create wildlife conservancies for conservation dollars.

“You will hear what we exposed in Stealth Game, the devastating impact of privatized neocolonial, racist wildlife conservation and safari tourism on Indigenous pastoralists communities.”

Since its founding in 2004, NRT has set up 43 "community" conservancies on over 42,000 square kilometers of land in Northern and Coastal Kenya — nearly 8 percent of the country's total land area. It is pretty stunning that a so-called NGO can control so much of land in Kenya. While NRT claims that its goal is to transform people's lives, secure peace, conserve natural resources, communities which are predominantly pastoralists allege that NRT disposes them of the land and deploys armed security units which are involved in serious human rights abuses. And it is also involved in security management of pastureland, livestock marketing. This gives at a level of control that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government. NRT was created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of an elite white minority during British colonialism and NRT's origins date back to the 1980s when Craig's family-owned 62,000 acre cattle ranch was transformed into its first conservancy. Today, NRT receives millions of dollars in funding from donors, including USAID, the European Union, Danish and French development agencies, and large environmental NGOs, including the Nature Conservancy, Space for Giants, among others.

As I mentioned earlier, impacted communities have organized protests, they have signed petitions, they have initiated legal action against the presence of NRT on their lands. Community members have repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police, when reporting killings of family members and other human rights abuses. You will hear these testimonies today. Our report calls for an urgent independent investigation into land and human rights related grievances around NRT's community conservancies, including allegations of involvement of NRT's rapid response units in inter ethnic conflict and of abuses and extra judicial killings. We were pleased to learn following the release of our report, NRT donors are launching a formal investigation. It is however important that it is not a sham investigation merely to clear their names. They need to actually meet the impacted communities and see the reality on the ground.

AC: Thank you Anuradha. We will now turn to our next guest who's joining us all the way from Isiolo County in Kenya.

Abdinoor Dima Jillo testifying about devastating impact of NRT at a meeting in Kula Mawe.
Abdinoor Dima Jillo, a community activist testifying about the devastating impact of NRT on lives and livelihoods at a meeting in Kula Mawe.

Major Jillo (MJ): My name is Abdinoor Dima Jillo. I am a member of the Council of Elders in the Borana community. Our community extends from Kenya close to coastal region of Kenya all the way to Ethiopia. The southern part of Ethiopia, Kenya Borana community is part of the larger Borana speakers within a community called Oromo. From 2001, I was able to work with the community voluntarily in the area of social economics, well being of the communities in Borana, community in Isiolo. I was able to lead a community-based association mainly dealing with the role of culture in conservation. Trying to look for partnership with Kenya Wildlife Services, and also other conservation stakeholders and tourism stakeholders in the northern tourism corridor.

AC: And when did you first hear about NRT's activities in Northern Kenya?

MJ: NRT was formed in 2004. And in 2003, actually they started coming out to the community to study the corridors of wildlife. And all these groups of researchers have been going to the communities of Boran, asking for the routes of the elephants, where lions go when they are mating and when they are taking care of their young ones. You know, knowing all about the habits of the wildlife outside the game parks and game reserves. Literally going to the people trying to get the knowledge of both environment and wildlife. What I came to realize that NRT was stealing the Indigenous knowledge of the people and claiming to be an authority in conservation.

AC: How did NRT's arrival disrupt traditional management practices?

“But it is apparent that NRT has ignored the role of the Council of Elders and undermined the existing Council of Elders and proclaimed to be the authority in conservation over the communities.”

MJ: NRT from 2004 invaded the Borana land and established a parallel natural resource management system. It replaced the Borana Council of Elders and appointed a parallel Council of Elders belonging to NRT from the communities. The Council of Elders was established so many years over 600 years ago, and has been effective ever since. It has been the law the cultural law has been considering the wildlife and the coexistence of the communities and their livestock sharing resources. It is entrenched in the Borana law, cultural law, that no water can be given to livestock or human being beyond 4pm, until the following day 4am. This knowledge and the law which takes care of environment, wildlife, and the people with their livestock, has been transmitted through these Councils of Elders to the young over the ages. But it is apparent that NRT has ignored the role of the Council of Elders and undermined the existing Council of Elders and proclaimed to be the authority in conservation over the communities.

AC: Now, in your experience, were communities fully aware of what setting up a community conservancy with NRT, you know what the full implications of this would be?

MJ: The former consultancy committee members, the elders, women and the youth were not fully aware of the implication of setting up the Biliqo-Bulesa conservancy. Most did not have an adequate understanding of the nature of NRT's operation. They claim that although an agreement between NRT and a few appointed elders of the community, was signed, the communities have never seen the agreement, nor are they aware of its provisions. The professional groups and the Council of Elders tried to find out the agreement between NRT and the community of Biliqo-Bulesa conservancy. We never got it. Indeed, the process NRT used to establish the conservancy was not known to the people the procedures they were using. Majority of community members were not involved. The agreement was done in secrecy. It was signed with the people who purport to represent us. The so called "conservancy board." The members of this board are handpicked, some of them are not even indigenous to that area. They are the people without livestock. They don't have much attachment to the land. It is illegal as the Kenyan constitution calls for public participation in such matters

“Majority of community members were not involved. The agreement was done in secrecy. It was signed with the people who purport to represent us. The so called ‘conservancy board.’”

AC: In their response to the Stealth Game report, NRT claims to be working towards spearheading peace efforts to help address the tribal animosity and violence that has plagued Northern Kenya. Now, is that how you've experienced the organization's impact?

MJ: Now NRT started incitement of inter community conflict between the neighboring Samburu and Boron, leading to the death of many people. And a lot of livestock were lost through the conflict. Extrajudicial killings by NRT Rangers over the last five to seven years, has been experienced, different parts of Isiolo have experienced disappearances over a number of people from the Borana community. These people are targeted for using their voices seeking to participate in the conservancy, how it was formed. They're asking, where are the legal documentation, around which constitution was the conservancy formed? This is after so many years, that they experience losses in terms of death of the members of the community, including children and women. To date all those incidences have been reported to the authority of Kenya. The incidences have been recorded officially. This has captured the attention of the people across the country, especially after elected leaders, who at some point took up the issue on the disappearances. And the mainstream media took up the issue to the government. The mainstream media covered this story after six bodies were found in Tsavo National Park. The close relatives have been following the disappearance of some of the youth and they have been leaked evidences that their telephones have been traced to the NRT headquarter. Now, the allegation has been that the people or the youth who disappeared, have participated in the poaching of elephants and other big games.

Community members expressed suspicion that NRT is interested in securing mineral resources — the rich areas with mineral resources within Isiolo County. This was after the organization went out of its way to secure areas suspected to have precious minerals. In some cases, the authority of NRT has been interfering with community based mining activities in the Biliqo-Bulesa conservancy and in the neighboring rangeland. The Boron Council of Elders, elected leaders, the Waso professional forum and majority of community members want NRT out of Isiolo.

AC: Thank you. That's a very clear and very strong indictment against NRT from community members. Now, what actions have communities taken towards this goal of getting NRT off of their land?

MJ: The resolution was passed to publicly ask NRT to stop all activity in Isiolo County. The community actually protested. After coming up with the professional groups and Council of Elders came up with a fact based research and blew the whistle. We went on demonstration, brought the petition letters to the donors, including DANIDA, who failed to respond. And NRT has been micromanaging, even the evaluation of the money given by DANIDA. The protest and the petition by the committee has never been answered to date. Now, the community also is in court right now, demanding NRT to move out of Isiolo County. All protests and court cases by the community have fallen on deaf ear as far as NRT is concerned. Now in the court, the NRT has been actually reluctant and has had to employ so many lawyers.

AC: Well it does sound like the community is using every option available to push back against NRT. Now, since the Stealth Game report was released, what has the reaction been from NRT to communities on the ground?

MJ: We thank very much the Oakland Institute who came up with the Stealth Game report. The communities, along with other pastoral communities from Northern Kenya, participated in the launch of the report in Nairobi. And the reaction by NRT was to lobby, talk to few people try to ask them to come up with a letter, a petition to rubbish the report. They approached the Isiolo human rights organization. And few of them a few of the donors, like USAID, through a political advisor attached to the United States embassy in Nairobi, came around, tried to meet some elders. Now, this is we are so surprised that a country which is known for democracy in the world, like America, can be able to go so low like that. The community elders just told the political advisor who came through the USAID workers that the community is in court with NRT. So there is no dialogue between the community and the NRT.

AC: So to conclude, what would you say is the way forward? What would your message be to NRT?

“The land should belong to the community. Without land, the communities will lose their culture.”

MJ: We really, the communities are very frustrated. There is no other alternative. NRT has to move out! The community has been doing the conservation, there's no gap whatsoever in conservation, but the community welcomes people who are friends of conservation, without giving the condition of the land. The land should belong to the community. Without land, the communities will lose their culture. Their Indigenous knowledge will be interfered and they will be rendered poor and misplaced. All the displacement the NRT has been doing was done through conflicts. And so, the conservation by NRT is not from the community, who did not participate, are not involved. It is a top down approach. It is not a sustainable conservation. The community actually are looking forward, get justice through the means of court and failure at this level, then we are looking up to go into even up to regional or international courts. Hence we request for friends of the Indigenous communities to come into support us in this endeavor. Thank you very much, Andy. That's all I can be able to say.

AC: No, thank you Major Jillo for your time and for courageously sharing your experience and that of your community. Thank you to all the listeners for tuning in, and hope you will stay with us as we are going to hear from a member of another community in Kenya from a different area of the country. Despite being in a different area, his community's experience has been very similar to what Major Jillo just shared.

Isaiah Biwott (IB): My name is Isaiah Biwott, I'm from Baringo County in Kenya, I represent a Baringo community particularly a community called Tugen community. Where I come from specifically I come from Baringo north, but I've had an opportunity of working across the whole of Baringo County.

AC: Welcome Isaiah and thank you for joining me today. Now, could you speak to how you first heard of NRT and where they're active within your area?

IB: Currently NRT has activities in Baringo south. They have a conservancy called Ruko Conservancy. This conservancy was established in the year 2006. After a protracted invasion by some people we used to call bandits. These people started a displacement campaign whereby the people living in that place were ejected out of their homes by armed bandits. And there was very little that government could do with displacement.

AC: And in your experience, what role did NRT play in the conflict in your area?

IB: What I can briefly say is that the conflict in Baringo north, Baringo south, part of TRT are linked to this conservation. They are linked to issues of land. And after some time, we had not realized that the work of the hand that NRT was playing in this conflict. Because we believed that the fighting was specifically about stealing of cattle. We believed it was a cultural practice. But after all the cows were stolen and people got displaced, those who tried to go back to their lands, the community lands without cows were shot. Children and women were shot and they were killed. And this forced people to go to leave their lands again. And now migrate to the urban areas because they could not go back to their lands. These lands are community land —which have no ownership documents. So this company, there was some resistance by the community but they were told that NRT were coming to bring peace and use the land that the bandits were occupying as a conservation area.

AC: So while NRT arrived, claiming that they would bring peace to the area, can you speak to how the conservancy was ultimately established? Was this done with the community's full consent and then what were the implications once it was established?

IB: The herders resisted it but we had some elites from the community who are supporting this conservation thing. This campaign started and a lot of publication, a media campaign that NRT was restoring peace where there was conflict. But the funny side of it is that nobody was allowed to go back to those lands again, because the moment you try to come back and live in your former home, you were shot, and others killed. This campaign was to get the people out of their very large rangelands, which used to be hosting a lot of livestock. There is also a sustained campaign of displacing people from that area, because the moment you live in that area, they can steal your cows. So this is a campaign that we're seeing, a campaign of chasing people off the community lands, the rangelands, where there is livestock and there are wild animals. It is a campaign of displacing the Indigenous communities from their homes. On the side of TRT, that is another constituency of Baringo, there are new conservancies coming up. The conservancies are actually taking root in TRT. And there is not much shooting and killing of the point the other side because the communities are illiterate or they have not realized that the lands are gone. So they're not resisting the conservation thing. The displacements, the killings, and this conservation narrative — some of us who have tried to talk about this conservation thing, it's something so dangerous, so nobody wants to talk about it.

AC: Thank you as for courageously speaking out and sharing your testimony with us today. Now we're going to conclude by hearing from Violet Matiru. A trained zoologist, Violet has decades of experience working at the nexus of human wildlife conflict for various government and nonprofit agencies. She has been a crucial resource for the communities impacted by NRT, and has been closely following these developments over the past several years.

Welcome, Violet, thank you for joining us today. I want to begin by looking at some of the donors who've continued to funnel millions to NRT. Why is this model of fortress conservation something that major donors including USAID, the French development agency, DANIDA, TNC and others continue to fund?

Violet Matiru (VM): Okay, thank you. Yeah. So, to start with, I'd like to just point out that the dispossession of Indigenous communities of their land that is happening, under NRT is a culmination of a long term strategy by the US government, especially through USAID, the US government and the European Union countries have been involved in the systematic destruction of Indigenous institutions for the conservation of wildlife, and other natural resources. Here in Kenya, the main focus has been to make wildlife a commodity, either for tourism, especially for rich white people, or even for hunting. Unfortunately, right from the beginning, the Kenya Wildlife Service was created by the political elite, and handed over to the descendants of the British settlers, led by Richard Leakey, who proceeded to fill each key position with white people.

The US government supported key programs through Kenya Wildlife Service to achieve the turning of wildlife into a commodity from 1992 to 1998. It supported the COBRA project, conservation of biodiverse resource areas. Then this was followed by the CORE program, which was conservation of resources through enterprise, which was funded by USAID from 1999 to 2005. The biodiversity conservation program, on the other hand, was funded by the European Union from 1998 to 2006. These programs promoted the concept of communities setting aside land for conservation, also known as conservancies. The initial conservancies were established in the category of land that were registered as group ranches. And this is a category of land that was introduced by the World Bank that led to a lot of pastoral communities losing their land, especially when these group ranches were subdivided, and the land was sold to outsiders. Communities, especially in Kajiado County, really suffered the most because of the proximity to Nairobi, and the high demand for land.

AC: The Stealth Game report details the involvement of the Kenya Wildlife Service, can you speak a little bit to the history of this organization and the impact that it has had?

VM: The Kenya Wildlife Service has never been an organization that serves the needs and aspirations of Indigenous Kenyans. It has always been a vehicle through which communities are dispossessed of their land, and or turned into squatters on their land. A classic case that demonstrates the involvement of the Nature Conservancy in the dispossession of communities of their land, is when the Nature Conservancy gave $2 million to the African Wildlife Foundation to purchase land which belonged to the former president Moi and this land was subsequently transferred to the Kenya Wildlife Service and named Laikipia National Park. The Samburu community that claimed that this was their ancestral land and were later slapped with the cost of cost of the court case and Kenya Wildlife officials would confiscate their livestock and harvest.

AC: Now the Nature Conservancy is another one of NRT’s major donors. Could you speak briefly to how their investment in our in NRT fits in with the other work they've been doing in Kenya and across Africa for conservation?

“Communities are then supposed to be satisfied with pocket change that they get from selling beads, dancing for tourists, and being waiters and guides for the tourist.”

VM: The US government has continued to fund the Nature Conservancy to acquire more and more land for communities and turn it into exclusive zones for rich white tourists. Communities are then supposed to be satisfied with pocket change that they get from selling beads, dancing for tourists, and being waiters and guides for the tourist. TNC has coopted key government officers into the board of directors of NRT, including the Kenya Revenue Authority Commissioner of Intelligence and Strategic Operations. This is in a brazen act of impunity, whereby there's a clear conflict of interest between these officers serving in their capacity as government agencies, as opposed to them serving in a non governmental organization that is not answerable to the communities they serve. TNC then fundraises from the US government, gullible Americans, and greedy investors, and uses the funds to steal land and other natural resources from the communities. Currently, TNC controls 50 million acres of land in Africa. Western governments know that aid is a weapon. It is not by accident that NRT is dispossessing communities of their land. It is by design, and USAID is providing the resources to facilitate this to happen. What has changed, the thing that has changed is that communities are refusing to be robbed.

AC: Thank you for giving some more background on Kenya Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy. Now, given that this has been going on for a while, why do you think there's been such a recent flood of protests and pushback against NRT?

VM: There is now very high access to information. Most Kenyans have a smartphone and have access to the internet. So communities are sharing information, they are talking to each other about the kind of injustices and the communities are saying no to Western imperialism, and the grabbing of natural resources from them for the sake of Western interests.

AC: We've heard from some of our other guests today regarding the different land tenure structures and how NRT has used these to their advantage. Can you speak to that a little bit?

VM: The initial conservancies were established on land that was already registered as group ranches. This was a category of land that the World Bank pushed to say that pastoralist communities can only economically develop if they have security of tenure. So they then introduced this category of land, which was communal. Certain groups, communities would then be registered as group ranches. Now there were many problems of governance. And that resulted in a lot of people, a lot of communities getting dispossessed of their land because of the corruption of the committee. So at the end of the day, they were within the group ranch. The later conservancies have been established in land that was classified as trust land. These two categories of land — trust land and group ranches — have now all been brought under the Community Land Act. The problem with the trust land, those are lands that have never been what we call adjudicated. So they've never been registered in any form. They were held in trust by the local authorities. So what NRT does in these areas, which were former trust land, they use the lowest form of registration of a community organization, which is their community based organization, which only requires 10 people to give their details, their ID numbers and get them to sign a form. They take it to the Ministry of Gender and Social Services and they get a certificate because they've been registered as a CBO. Legally a community-based organization registered like that is not considered a legal entity, as per the way the law holds it in Kenya.

“And that's why the communities are asking, why not give the communities a chance to first register this land, then they can decide as a community, can we enter into these deals?”

Then NRT does something very interesting. It quickly registers a company in the name of that particular conservancy that has started off as a CBO. Now, when you register a private company, a private company can sue and be sued, it can own property, it is considered by law a legal entity. So something that starts with minimal involvement of a community with only 10 members. They can even go up to 50. But it's not the whole community is then turned into something that then enters can even enter into a contract with investors for 30 years over this land that is not yet registered. And that's why the communities are asking, why not give the communities a chance to first register this land, then they can decide as a community, can we enter into these deals? So that those are some of the details that these supporters of NRT don't understand. I am a member of the WhatsApp group called "Supporting NRT," where they are very abusive, they call me all sorts of names, but it also gives me a chance to see their level of understanding. What is NRT registered in Kenya as? They don't know.

AC: And to conclude, what do you see as the way forward? How can we protect and conserve the environment while also respecting human rights?

VM: We as Kenyans we are not children, there is nobody who's going to come from God knows where and solve our problems. We have to man up and woman up and start doing the hard work of conserving our resources of restoring our own dignity and stop being bribed with tiny little inducements like a vehicle. Today, a community in Northern Kenya can be able to sell some livestock and be able to buy their own vehicle. Why are we so cheap? We need to man up and woman up and start looking after our resources. Otherwise, we're going to be enslaved again. And this would be worse than the previous enslavement that happened during the colonial times. So I think it's all of us. We take charge of our realities, and we check these huge organizations that are pretending to be doing good for Africa. Why would you be coming to do good for me? You don't know me. So we as Kenyans let's take charge of our of our own management of our own resources. Let's take charge of our institutions because they have been taken over by the imperialists. The Kenya Wildlife Service does not serve our interests. We as a middle class Kenyans, educated Kenyans, including all the ones who are on social media right now supporting NRT — why aren't you getting involved in the management of your natural resources through your Kenya Wildlife Service local office? Instead of singing about NRT, which you don't even know how it is formed or who it belongs to. So let's take responsibility. That's my way forward.

AC: Powerful closing words. We are very grateful for your time today, thank you Violet.

That concludes today’s episode — head over to the Oakland Institute website to read the full Stealth Game report. To stay up to date on our latest advocacy efforts around this issue, please subscribe to our reporter newsletter, where you'll receive periodic updates, as well as following us on social media. There has been a sustained campaign on twitter and facebook led by community members and NGOs calling on NRT’s donors to investigate these abuses, join the campaign and help increase the pressure!

Thanks again for tuning in, until next time.

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