Ideas & Debate

How conservancies have opened up the rangelands


Buffalos at Nairobi National Park. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Local communities have a vital role to play in the restoration and protection of natural capital in Africa.

Capitalising these communities ensures their enduring relationship with the land and nature and is already proving successful across northern Kenya.

Today, the conservancy model is overturning a pattern which once offered only subservience and is now providing structure, employment and stewardship for communities across an area the size of Switzerland – offering a window into the wider opportunities for the decades ahead.

For years, many African communities have been at the receiving end of change, with little say in how decisions are made in Northern Kenya.

Often, this was led by mobile safari companies who would arrive unannounced, pay what they wanted to the nearest elder they could find, and leave with no standard operating plan or structured engagement.

This system began to change in 1995 with the successful introduction of the first conservancy model, and has since grown to help to build formal structures that allow communities to own, manage and maintain their lands. With the help and oversight of the Northern Rangelands Trust, this model has been widely adopted, growing to 39 conservancies and covering 42,000 square kilometres across seven percent of the country.

Each conservancy is registered with the government and with the Registrar of Companies and they have the democratically elected boards with managers and committees for agriculture, finance, and tourism with plans for grazing areas and their own by-laws.

They manage the soil quality, water usage, map wildlife corridors and monitor invasive plant species and have recently had more than 3.2 million tonnes of soil carbon verified.

This transition has brought other benefits to the area. In 2012/2013, northern Kenya was losing 132 elephants a year to poaching. In recent years that has been reduced by 97 percent, with poaching now considered to be equivalent to stealing from your own community. The same is true of other species.

With 65 percent of Kenya’s wildlife found outside of protected areas, we're now seeing the species recovery of the Grevy’s Zebra and the endangered Beisa oryx, meanwhile elephants are also using landscapes that have not been used for the last 25 years.

Across rural communities, farmers are also demonstrating their shared appreciation of these landscapes by leaving water in troughs at night for the wildlife to drink, while a recently opened orphanage raises more than 50 rescued young elephants.

With communities taking an increased responsibility in planning for their land, risk management strategies have been developed and regional stability has improved, with regular communication between territories via VHF radio, with more than 1,000 jobs being created, helping to offset the migration of the young to the cities. It is a system that has enhanced people’s lives, helped to build peace and conserve the natural environment.

Obviously, some problems still persist, and while the conservancy model has proved popular and opened up employment, the rangelands still struggle with considerable adversity.

Ninety percent of the population live below the poverty line in very limited means. Many still live communally in a nomadic culture and 67 percent of people have no formal education.

The communities are entirely water well dependent and 65 percent of the lands are degraded. The average family size is between six and eight people with some having as many as 32 family members. Another nine percent live in temporary housing with no lights or toilets and 59 percent live in makeshift shelters.

However, the co-existence with the land is critical to their livelihoods, and the future of Africa’s natural capital lies with empowered local and indigenous communities.

For years, preserving natural capital has always been perceived as the role of the government and the private sector and local communities have always just been recipients. But if you can elevate that role, so that is supported, then communities can solve the problems at source.

We need to transition communities from being dependents in an aid-based economy to equity stakeholders in the green economy, ensuring they are given the space and given the capacity and the support they need to manage the natural capital in the most sustainable way possible.

Lampalaa is the CEO, Northern Rangelands Trust