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Part of: Pastoralists and climate change
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Kenyan pastoralists return to past for climate adaptation

by Isaiah Esipisu | @Andebes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 May 2011 14:01 GMT

Village elders are restoring traditional pasture controls and fines for cattle theft to deal with climate-linked drought stresses

ISIOLO, Kenya (AlertNet) - Pastoralist communities in Kenya’s semi-arid northern and eastern regions are reviving tradition in a bid to protect their livestock and their livelihoods from the effects of climate change.

Village elders have formed leadership groups and, by next year, plan to start defining areas where pastoralists can graze for a set period before moving on to the next area of community grazing land. Anyone who disobeys the regulations could be fined a number of cows or camels through cultural courts.

Such ‘pasture governance’ systems operated in the region until the 1970s, despite a national law that allowed free grazing on all public land. By controlling where pastoralists grazed their cattle, village elders were able to sustain pastures for longer during droughts.

However, in the 1970s the government banned community-led pasture controls, giving pastoralists the freedom to take their livestock to any community land for grazing at any time. The move was aimed at enforcing the long-standing national law.

But free grazing and a lack of pasture management, coupled with the impact of climate change that has brought reduced rainfall and extended periods of drought, have led to the destruction of pastures and the loss of herds from starvation.

“The situation gets worse as time goes by,” said Hussein Abdullahi, a researcher at Pwani University in the Coastal region of Kenya. “Apart from the ever changing climatic conditions, increasing pressure from a rising population has increased demand for land for settlement and food production.”

Researchers now see the value in working hand-in-hand with pastoralist communities as they search for ways to address global warming impacts and the challenges brought by the shifts in societal patterns.

“Respecting traditional methods of adaptation is one way of achieving such a goal,” said David Hughes, communications and networking officer at the Future Agriculture Consortium, a partnership between UK and African institutions that works to influence policy on agriculture.


Village elders say abandoning cultural law has had a detrimental effect on pastures and they believe it is time to fight back.

“Because of adhering to the national law at the expense of the cultural law, we are now suffering. We no longer have control over the pastures,” said Nura Dera, a village elder at the Malka Bisan-Adi cultural village in Isiolo, in Kenya’s Eastern province.

“Such mismanagement of pastures, coupled with long droughts that are already being experienced at the moment, have put our animals at a great risk,” added Dera, 71. “Traditionally, there were committees of village elders who could determine what was good or bad for the society. Their judgement was final. And whoever went against it was punished.”

Now village elders are slowly restoring traditional ‘pasture governance,’ starting with meetings at village level to discuss how best to implement old cultural norms in the semi-arid region.

Median rainfall in the affected areas, particularly Isiolo and Kinna in Eastern Kenya, ranges between 400 and 600 mm a year, according to a report by the International Water Management Institute.

The most arid zone stretches from Ol Donyiro region to Archers Post and Garbatulla, where the annual rainfall is between 300 and 350 mm. In Merti and Sericho divisions, annual rainfall is as low as 150 to 250 mm.

Last year, the Gabra and Borana communities in Kenya’s eastern region lost 17,000 cattle to the scorching drought that hit many parts of the country.

“When pastoralists lose their animals, they lose their livelihood. In many cases, such losses drive them to stock theft in order to replace the lost herds,” Dera said.


A first order of business among the new committees of village elders has been to draft cultural laws to safeguard against livestock banditry.

“In order to succeed, we mobilised elders from Samburu, Turkana, Laikipia and Rendile to a meeting in which we brokered the Laikipia and Modogashi Declarations,” said Halkano Huka Gabro, a village elder in charge of the security committee in Kinna, Isiolo.

Under the two declarations, anybody found in possession of a stolen animal is fined three more animals. If the thief cannot raise the fine, relatives and family members are forced to raise it on the thief’s behalf. In some cases, the thief’s home community can be fined 10 cows as compensation for any injury caused during the theft.

If a thief kills a person during the attack, the thief’s community has to compensate the bereaved family with 100 cows or camels.

“So far, elders have suggested that once the pasture control law is in place, any person found grazing in an unauthorised area should pay a fine of three cows. But discussions are still going on to find the most effective punishment for such an offence,” Dera said.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science writer based in Nairobi.












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