The battle of the Rift Valley

Descendants of Kenya's colonial families are preparing for a confrontation with the nomadic Masai tribe over land rights - centred on a conflict between ecotourism and the right to graze freely

Meera Selva
Saturday 11 August 2012 05:33

It is the wedding season in the Laikipia district in Kenya. Among the highlands and plains filled with elephants, giraffes and camels, white Kenyans, descended mainly from the old colonial families, drink champagne by thatched huts complete with solar panels before going to sleep in four-poster beds under a canvas tent. Tourists - there are plenty of them even in the rainy season - are picked up from the nearest town by the camp's light aeroplane. They can live the same lifestyle for $500 (£275) a night.

It is a world away from the life lived by the Masai, the nomadic East African tribe that has traditionally lived on this land. Dressed in striking red robes and sandals made of car tyres, they still wander across the plains, looking for land to graze their cattle and goats.

Their homes are manyattas - mud huts that are easily built in whichever place they decided to stop - and their wealth is determined by their cattle and by the connection they feel with the land they live in.

The two cultures have become used to regarding each other with mistrust, each convinced that the other has no right to the land, no idea how to preserve it properly.

Now, the old animosity between the two sides threatens to engulf the area in a tide of ethnic strife and environmental destruction that could destabilise the whole country.

The Masai were forcibly moved off most of this land and into reservations in the early 20th century by the British government.

Some of the movement was done through treaties signed with local chiefs; some by marching the populations of entire villages away from their most fertile grazing lands in Laikipia and the Rift Valley at gunpoint in exercises now known as the Masai Moves. By 1913, Laikipia was sufficiently cleared of Masai for white settlers to move in.

The settlers who did move into Laikipia and the Rift Valley were encouraged by the eccentric Lord Delamere, who played a key role in persuading the British government to move the Masai from the area so the settlers could enjoy a lifestyle in the area that became known as Happy Valley. The Delamere family are still at the family's Soysambu ranch on the shores of Lake Elmenteita.

Now, the descendants of both sides in Laikipia are gearing up for another confrontation. This time, the battle lines are between the ranchers, who promote a lucrative form of ecotourism, and the Masai, who want the right to graze at will on their ancestral lands.

"We want access to our sacred sites," said John Letei, chairman of Osiligi, the Masai community group spearheading the campaign. "We have become detached from our lands and our gods and have become poorer because of it now. Now we want our lands back."

A prolonged drought in Laikipia has raised emotions even higher; the Masai feel more than ever that they should be allowed access to the most fertile lands now held by other people.

So far, the demands for land have been made through press conferences and printed statements, but Osiligi is planning demonstrations at farm boundaries, events that could turn violent very quickly. For a region that relies on tourism for 70 per cent of its income, any hint of racial or ethnic tension could be disastrous. Michael Dyer, whose family have run the 32,000-acre Borana ranch in the district for decades, is well aware of the problems his family and others like them face. "The land issue is an emotive one that resonates all over Africa. We just know we have title deeds to this land and have an option to manage it to the best of our ability. Our primary concern is how to preserve a valuable ecological resource and boost the economy," he said.

"We have a monthly wage bill of one million Kenyan shillings (£7,900) and 90 per cent of our employees are local people. We do believe we can help this area." The two million acres of land in the Laikipia district is parcelled off into 13 ranches separated by electric fences, populated by 78,000 Masai. In some, ranchers and Masai communities run environmentally sensitive operations with a controlled number of livestock, elephants, giraffes and gazelles wandering at will. The ranchers there rear beef cattle but also run some very modish industries, making organic essential oils and running restaurants serving extravagant four-course meals on verandas at sunset. They also act like mini-charities, setting up mobile clinics, schools and workshops for the blind and disabled, and allow a set number of tribesmen to graze cattle in sections of the ranch.

By contrast, the unregulated areas of land, where the Masai are free to graze their livestock, contain nothing but a few scattered manyattas and herders looking after clusters of goats, cattle and camels. The exotic wildlife found in the other ranches is absent here too. "It does not matter to me who owns the land, but I do care about what happens to it," Mr Dyer said. "Pieces of this land have been overgrazed, and we have to find a way to manage the land so we preserve the wildlife, which is a very valuable asset to everyone in this community."

But the Masai claim that environmental arguments are just a new ploy to deny them access to the land. John Ole Tingoi, spokesman for the Masai, said: "The commercial ranchers used to raise beef cattle. They have moved into ecotourism to win government support because tourism earns the country money. We are aware of their strategy but we have been robbed of our livelihood. We have lived with the wildlife for centuries. Why do they believe we cannot live with them now?"

Lotte Hughes, an expert on African history at St Antony's College Oxford, agrees that ecological considerations often exclude indigenous peoples. She said: "It is not realistic to keep wilderness areas for the exclusive use of tourists. People don't seem to realise that the landscape is shaped by humans and their domestic herds - they are a natural part of it." She also pointed out that the old British rulers were in many ways responsible for the destruction the Masai wrought on their land. "If there is overgrazing, this has come about as a direct result of colonial containment policies and continued land loss and confinement to marginal areas, although population growth and other factors also play a part.

"The Masai were confined to reserves, banned from leaving them and banned from selling their surplus cattle."

The matter will come to a head on 15 August when the Masai will claim that a 100-year-old land lease signed by their chief, Olonana Ole Mbatiany, and Sir Donald Stewart of the British East Africa protectorate, will expire. All the land in Laikipia that has since been given to settlers should revert to them, they say.

Historians point out that the facts have been slightly muddled; that Laikipia was officially given to the Masai in 1904, then taken away in 1911. But that does not detract from the their sense of injustice.

James Legei, programme manager at Osiligi, said: "There are sacred sites in Laikipia on land now controlled by someone else, that are blocked to us by electric fences. After 15 August, we will expect to own once more the land of our ancestors. This is not a request. It is a demand."

Osiligi is used to getting its way. In September 2002, it was instrumental in helping some Masai receive a £4.5m settlement from the MoD for injuries and deaths caused by munitions left over from British Army training exercises. It has since helped a second group of claimants and is representing local Masai and Samburu women who claim they were raped by British soldiers.

This time, it wants the one million acres of land in Laikipia that are owned by white Kenyans to be handed back to the Masai, and an as yet undecided amount of compensation from Britain for the remaining land that has since been given to other Kenyans.

The compensation from the British may be some time coming, as any British court is likely to rule that land treaties became invalid in 1963 when Kenya gained independence, and if there is any case to be made, it must be taken up with the Kenyan government.

But legal wranglings aside, Laikipia residents are concerned that Osiligi's insistence that the Masai reclaim their land after 15 August could aggravate tribal tensions. The district has a history of ethnic violence, and Kenyans are well aware that some of the lands the Masai are laying claim to are now owned by tribes such as the Kikuyu.

"This kind of incitement to claim the land can lead to all sorts of problems, especially if people with a good education are deliberately stirring up the emotions of those who have not gone to school," said David Masere, a community liaison officer with the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, which tries to bring together the various groups. "If the people go through the government or the courts to get their land, that is fine, but we do not want them to turn to violence."

The Kenyan government is inclined to support the farmers. Tourism is a lucrative source of income for the country, and the Masai are regarded with suspicion by most other Kenyan tribes. The current Kikuyu-dominated government is unlikely to want to stir up tension by taking land away from one community and handing it to another.

But in the highlands, the message of entitlement to the land has already spread. Osiligi's past successes have given it a good reputation among the Masai, and many are inclined to believe their promises.

Mary Kinyanga, who tends goats in a rocky, unregulated section of the plains, said: "The white farmers are not good neighbours. If they find a Masai grazing on their lands, even by accident, they demand a fine of 6,000 Kenyan shillings. We try to say, 'Sorry, it was a mistake', even offer to give them one of our goats, but they say, 'No' - they want the money. Now we know it is our land. We want it back."

The Masai may not get far with the courts. The elders plan to take their case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague but this path is usually open only to sovereign states.

Martyn Day, the British lawyer who helped the Masai win the bomb compensation from MoD, is not working on this case, and the High Court may rule that this case is out of time and that any legal case should have been brought decades ago.

But without legal redress, the uncertainly is more likely to destabilise the region. Laikipia holds half of the country's rhino population and 80 per cent of the world's Grevy's zebras.

This biodiversity has brought money from international donors including the World Bank, the European Union and USAid, all of which may take fright if carefully drawn up plans for environmental tourism are abandoned. "When we promoted Laikipia as a tourist destination and environmental concern, we debated whether to just call it something else, to fabricate a name that would not have such historical connotations," Mr Dyer said. "We knew that any negative publicity could destroy everything we have hoped to achieve. I sincerely hope it does not. If tourism disappears, everyone - the Masai, the ranchers, the townspeople - we will all suffer together."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments