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How colonial era wiped out Kenya’s balance of nature

Mau Forest.
Mau Forest. The colonial system that saw locals cede their settlements to create the white highlands, was the beginning of the country losing its balance of nature , which had been perfected by generations of habitat-sensive herders and farmers. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

I have often argued that before the advent of colonialism in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, there was a natural balance between the elements of nature, which presaged a relatively predictable climatic environment. A scientific article published recently seems to support this view.

The article published on 29 August 2018 in “Nature”, International Journal of Science, entitled “Ancient Herders Enriched and Restructured African Grasslands” is a study of five pastoral neolithic sites in southern Kenya (radio-carbon dated to between 3,700 and 1,550 calibrated years before present).

The study demonstrates the longevity of nutrient hotspots and the long-term legacy of ancient herders, whose settlements enriched and diversified African savannah landscapes over three millennia.

At the outset the article notes that grasslands are one of the most extensive terrestrial biomes, and are central to the survival of herders, their livestock and diverse communities of large wild animals. In Africa, tropical soils are predominantly nutrient-limited but productive grassy patches in wooded grassland savannah ecosystems grow on fertile soils created by geologic and edaphic factors, megafauna, fire and termites. Mobile pastoralists also create soil-fertility hotspots by penning their herds at night, which concentrates excrement, and thus nutrients, from grazing of the surrounding savannahs.

Historical anthropogenic hotspots produce high-quality forage, attract wildlife and increase spatial heterogeneity in African savannahs. Archeological research suggests this effect extends back at least 1,000 years. Using chemical, isotopic and sedimentary analyses, the study shows Nitrogen 15 isotope enrichment in on-site degraded dung deposits relative to off-site soils.

Under the so called “treaties” of 1904 and 19011 between the Maasai and the British Government, the Maasai purportedly agreed “of their own free will” to give up the best watered and most productive land in the north Rift Valley for European settlement in what came to be known as the “White Highlands”, in exchange for smaller reserves in the south where they knew the land to be arid, unproductive and unfavourable to their way of life.

Although the lands to the north, like many others, appeared to be unoccupied it was part of the natural balance in the ecosystem to which the Maasai pastoralists, from time to time, moved their cows, sheep and goats to allow the land in the south to regenerate and to find fresh water. At the stroke of a pen this balance was lost forever.

Elsewhere in Ukambani, by 1937, the Machakos Reserve was experiencing serious environmental degradation. Dubbed “The Machakos Problem”, Colin Maher reported in February 1937 “Every phase of misuse of land is vividly and poignantly displayed in this reserve, the inhabitants of which are rapidly drifting to a state of hopeless and miserable poverty and their land to a parching desert of rocks, stones and sand.”

While the blame was placed solely on the natives, the real problem was anchored in the colonial history of Kenya. Areas reserved for European settlement known as Scheduled Areas bordered the Native Reserve on two sides, and the Kamba had consistently claimed that their grazing lands had been taken. These grazing lands, though unsettled, had been important for the survival of herds when the rains and pastures failed in the homelands.

On the other two sides, the Akamba were confronted by newly created Crown Lands, whose use the colonial government felt entitled to control, and which in the south-east were so infested with tsetse fly as to be totally useless.

In Central Kenya, as the Kikuyu moved south from Mt. Kenya buying land from the hunter-gathering Dorobos, they were careful not to interfere with the forest and water catchment towers, farming and grazing well below the forest lines. However, all this changed when they were also forced off their land into reserves by the colonial government in the early part of the twentieth century. The equilibrium of nature was once again disturbed.

While we have fared much worse in the destruction of our environment after Independence (a story for another day), our colonial history bears some of the responsibility for the genesis of the problem. Nonetheless, the problem is not unique to Kenya or Africa. The world is faced with the serious challenge of climate change (even if some do not believe it to be real) caused by environmental degradation in the guise of development and unmitigated greed. We have disturbed the delicate balance of nature.

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