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Confronted with land inequality sedimented by colonial legacies, mechanisms of capital cannot solve the challenges that face wildlife conservation
The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya is an expansive classic safari landscape. It is hard to overstate its beauty and majesty, with towering acacia trees and abundant wildlife, from giraffes to kudu to baboons to Somali ostriches. Vervet monkeys run around, impalas nestle in the tall grasses, and highly endangered black rhinos and their young wade in the marshes. It is also where Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton.
This Animal Planet safari heaven of colonial-soaked Out of Africa imaginaries is also a landscape of conflict and struggle. Lewa is at the heart of a region of Kenya known as Laikipia, a fertile area nestled between the country’s central highlands and arid north. In this region – and stretching all the way to Ethiopia and Somalia – pastoralism is the major livelihood and has been for thousands of years, with semi?nomadic livestock-rearing largely co-existing with abundant and diverse wildlife. Under this system, pastoral peoples such as the Maasai, Samburu and Pokot move their livestock (mostly cattle) to find grazing land, moving into highlands like Laikipia in dry seasons.
Pastoral peoples have faced decades of marginalisation by colonial and Kenyan governments, with their access to lands increasingly constrained since the imposition of British colonial rule in the late 19th century. One of the first acts of British rule was to place any ‘unoccupied’ or ‘wasted’ land under their control. Under terra nullius ideologies, the more decentralised societies of East Africa, including pastoral peoples, did not meet racist categorisations of appropriate, productive land use (ie, settled European agriculture). Jacqueline Klopp and Odenda Lumumba characterise the colonial period as one where ‘settlers scrambled for high?value land around Nairobi and the fertile highlands, for agriculture, business, residential use and speculation’. Racialised people were largely ‘barred’ from land ownership in the fertile ‘white highlands’, an area north of Nairobi and west of Mount Kenya – a higher, cooler and wetter area amenable to agriculture and favourable to British settlers.
Following independence in 1964, the colonial legacy of land inequalities largely continued. A part of these ‘white highlands’, about 40 per cent of land in Laikipia remains concentrated in the hands of investors, international conservation groups and white Kenyan ranchers. To use a phrase by geographer Diana Ojeda, colonialism is literally sedimented in this landscape. This includes Lewa: the Craig/Douglas family, with its connections to the British royal family, turned the cattle ranch it settled during British rule into a sanctuary in the 1980s to make a home for highly poached and endangered black rhinoceroses.
Today, there is a struggle in this region over land and, in particular, a struggle over who can access grazing land: safari tourists in Range Rovers or pastoralists seeking grass for their cattle. In a region increasingly beset by drought, exacerbated by the climate catastrophe, this is a life and death question. As a result, as journalist Margaret Evans reports, Maasai cattle rancher Samwel Parare and others graze their cattle illegally in wildlife conservancies: ‘We don’t have a place to go and our cows are dying so we see that it is the only place we can get grass.’
It is typical for conservation organisations to understand this as a case of ‘human?wildlife conflict’, to be managed locally. But it can also be understood as the logical endpoint of a political economic model that has, since colonialism, continually eroded the ability for wildlife and pastoralists to co-exist. Ecofeminist Maria Mies suggests we understand colonial capitalism in the form of an iceberg; the visible tip of the iceberg represents the formal economy, where capitalist profit emerges from exploited waged labourers and the circulation of monetised goods and assets in markets. The underwater realm represents a much larger world of what she terms ‘superexploitation’, on which profit-making also depends, but which is not even compensated by a wage. She points to the exploitation of subsistence work, household work (largely carried out by women), the work of the colonies and at the very base, the work of nature. Colonial-capitalist processes tend to appropriate ‘the general production of life’, eroding conditions people and wildlife need to survive and thrive, channelling the productive capacities of landscapes and land towards activities that generate the most profit (export?oriented agriculture or ranching), or that serve the interests of wealthy landowners (conservation). Super-exploitations, such as those found in and around these Kenyan highlands, are held in place by a broader array of social relations, including, of course, those property rights set in place in the colonial era that delineate who can access and benefit from those lands.
Going under the terminology ‘impact investing’ or ‘conservation finance’, there are private investments trying to change this economic model, aiming to generate profit without the exploitation – human and non-human – above and below the waterline. Lewa is one site of this kind of approach: it is home to the headquarters for a large NGO – Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) – whose goal is to ‘transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources’ in Kenya. NRT was started by Ian Craig (the family behind Lewa Wildlife Conservancy), and he still serves as the chief of conservation and development for the organisation. Part of NRT’s mandate is to deal with human-wildlife conflicts, to reduce wildlife poaching but also to lessen struggles over access to healthy grasses. NRT and their partner organisations point to increasing droughts, too many cattle and failed governance systems to explain the increasingly degraded grasses necessary for both cattle and healthy wildlife.
NRT?affiliated conservancies are spread across more than 44,000km2 – 8 per cent of Kenya’s land mass. The scale of land under their quasi-control is a live wire. NRT claims they are driven fully by communities, with the organisation governed by an elected board from the conservancies themselves. But other research, such as that released by the Oakland Institute earlier this year, claims the organisation has led to dispossession and human rights abuses, continuing a form of ‘privatised, neo?colonial’ conservation that saves the best grasses and lands for wildlife and thus for tourism operations, and not for pastoralists. Some county governments have even expelled NRT from their jurisdictions.
‘The arrested development of green finance illuminates the centrality of unpriced, cheap nature to contemporary capitalism’
Livestock to Market (LTM) is an NRT business that brings cattle markets to remote pastoral communities far outside the Laikipia region in the even more arid and remote northern rangelands, saving people from walking their cattle to markets sometimes over 40km away (in that trip animals can be stolen and lose weight and thus market value). After buying the cattle from pastoral communities, LTM transports the cattle and fattens them up on high-quality grass and feed in the Laikipia region, finally selling them to slaughter. Ideally, LTM sells cattle for more than they cost to buy, transport and fatten; the business then invests money in buying more cattle. In terms of conservation, bringing the market to conservancies provides more opportunities for pastoralists to sell their cattle, thus potentially reducing cattle numbers and the overgrazing that is viewed by conservationists as a key problem for wildlife in the area.
More importantly, LTM only brings the cattle market to conservancies who behave as per the NRT criteria. As described by managers, the cattle market is a ‘performance-based purchase’, and ‘only conservancies that meet a certain high score become eligible to participate in the livestock to markets programme’. LTM gives conservationists a carrot to encourage communities to conduct themselves according to their criteria. As a manager explained, ‘What we’re trying to do is incentivise behaviour change. We’re trying to get people to graze their cows better, and to not nub every piece of grass down to the bare ground.’
However, the LTM programme struggles to break even. In line with NRT’s broader social and environmental goals, LTM cannot pay the lowest possible price to eke out the highest profit. So LTM is paying more than market rate for its cattle and selling in what is a difficult beef market, and struggles to become a fiscally sustainable business.
These efforts to turn pastoralists towards behaviours that are more amenable to both market society and conservation are not altogether ‘good’, nor are they new. Like all environmental or development projects, these are power-laden, particularly because pastoralists have long been identified by governments as the source of various inefficiencies and deficiencies in need of correction or ‘modernisation’, a hallmark of colonial, capitalist and racist hierarchies.
Making diverse natures and cultures ‘investable’ is an entirely sweaty affair, a real hustle that rarely generates profit. Under these challenging, low- to no-return conditions, flows of capital going to ‘save nature’ remain small, infinitesimal in the world of capital flows. It is difficult to generate revenue from pricing the super-exploited work under the waterline, work which has been ignored, derided or provided free for so long. Conservation impact investing is not, for the most part, market rate; instead, it is primarily populated by investors willing to invest in high-risk, low- or no-return projects – hardly a mainstream investing approach. In a way, the arrested development of green finance illuminates the centrality of unpriced, ‘cheap nature’ to contemporary capitalism; making money without externalising the costs onto other human and non-human bodies and landscapes is probably impossible under our political-economic system.
During the drought in Kenya in 2017, pastoralists drove around 135,000 cattle and over 200,000 sheep and goats onto ranches and conservancies in Laikipia in search of grasses. Longstanding land inequities became live and gave way to violence and arson on private ranches. Debates circulated at the time as to the cause of the violence, but many cite colonial-era injustices as the root cause, including the very violence that drove pastoralists out of the so-called ‘white highlands’ in the first place. As Paula Kahumbu, a prominent Kenyan environmentalist, suggests, the ‘problem of land distribution will not go away’.
Attempts to make ‘green’ financial assets and green capitalism are also scuppered because they too often add a layer to, rather than disrupt, these sedimented legacies of colonialism. These projects and social enterprises hustle long and hard to make a difference in people’s lives and for wildlife, but they come up again and again against colonial-era distributions of wealth and power, which continue to shape the landscape and control access and use of land. National governments, international institutions, NGOs and think tanks claim that we need more money to crowd into solving global environmental and development problems; fitting well within mainstream capitalist logics and practices, this approach seems like the most pragmatic route out of decline. But our research suggests that these approaches are woefully inadequate, failing even on their own terms.
What is needed is a more fundamental effort to undo and diffuse the concentrated power, land and wealth that marks too much of the planet. Land redistribution and rights are paramount, including but not only in Kenya, where approximately 3.5 million people are unable to register their claims to communal land (covering 67 per cent of the country).
The role of those holding disproportionate wealth in the form of land and money may be less in devising complicated projects to generate return, and more in paying our debts – in land and money – or even joining (not directing) movements demanding climate and ecological reparations. Such reparations, as Olufemi Taiwo and Beba Cibralic describe, cannot stop at ‘discrete exchange of money or apologies for past wrongdoing’, but rather advance ‘a systemic approach to redistributing resources and changing policies and institutions that have perpetuated harm’. This may sound divorced from the realities of the global market economy, but it is more pragmatic than the mythology that green investing or complicated financial mechanisms can adjudicate and mend decades of historical and contemporary colonial, economic and racist injustices. Ecological reparations ask us to face the failures of fundamentalist market ideologies and replace them with a commitment to true justice and equality.
Lead image: Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya sits on land given to Alexander Douglas (now owned by the Craig/Douglas family) during British colonial rule and maintains links with the British royal family. Credit: Chris Jackson / Getty
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