In 2016, Kenya enacted the Community Land Act, giving the indigenous and rural communities the legal right to manage their land and natural resources. Until its enactment, the defunct County Councils held community lands in trust; they decided how it would be used and by whom. Far too often this resulted in lands being mismanaged or grabbed by elites and other investors. Unfortunately, the implementation of the Community Land Act was repeatedly obstructed as the government delayed the passing of regulations, the deployment of community land registrars, and submissions of inventories. Finally, in 2019 -- three years after the act was passed into law -- there was progress. County land registers were deployed and a roadmap on the implementation of the law was unveiled. Then Covid-19 hit.
In compliance with directives from the Government, the Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning closed its operations following the confirmation of Coronavirus cases in the country.
The closure of the Ministry means that communities are unable to register to claim legal ownership of their lands, and those that had already submitted their applications could not follow up on the progress of their application.
The partial reopening of the ministry of lands roughly two months later did not change the situation; the services that have been reinstated still do not facilitate community land registration. During this pandemic, communities’ state of vulnerability has not just been prolonged, it has deepened. Rural communities have been left exposed and vulnerable to land grabbing and mismanagement.
The situation has not gone unnoticed by greedy investors. A report by Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) suggests that elites and corporations appear to be using the pandemic as a cover to seize land and push through contested developments. The need to secure tenure rights for millions of Kenyans living on community land is now more urgent than ever.
As we grapple with the public health and economic impacts of Covid-19, we have an opportunity to prepare adequately for a smooth and rapid implementation of the law once the country overcomes the crisis.
First, behind the closed doors of the Ministry, and in collaboration with key actors, efforts to develop materials to roll out a comprehensive nation-wide awareness campaign on the law should be ongoing.
Concurrently, the ministry should review the submitted applications for registration of community land and give feedback to communities on any pending documents to facilitate the registration processes.
Secondly, county governments are reminded that as temporary trustees of community land, it is illegal for county governments to carry out any transaction using community land.
Communities expect them to play their trustee role with utmost transparency and accountability to the real owners of the land: communities.
Thirdly, to caution communities against possible encroachment of their land, the ministry of lands should set up a toll free line to report such incidents.
This should be paired with mechanisms to investigate and respond to claims of encroachment or land grabbing during the Covid-19 season and beyond. Communities must be alert and report any suspicious activities happening on their land during this pandemic.
The actions the government takes now will determine the path of recovery for millions of Kenyans living on community land when this pandemic ends.
The writer is Advisor, Community Land Protection Programme.