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With their forests vanished, Kenya's Maasai adapt

by Pius Sawa | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Saturday, 15 March 2014 01:15 GMT

Leonard Leina, who lives in the Rift Valley's Transmara area, stands amid his plot of boma rhode grass, growing as fodder for his livestock. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Pius Sawa

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Cutting of trees in the Transmara contributes to changing weather conditions, and changing ways of life

TRANSMARA, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Peter Ole Nembo stopped moving his livestock around in search of pasture and water in times of drought about a decade ago, when the government ended communal ownership of  the Rift Valley district’s 2,850 square kilometres of land and divided it among individual owners.

At that point, the region included forests of tall, mature trees, fed by plentiful rainfall and shading rivers and streams. But when land ownership changed, most were cut down to create more open space for farming, in part because no one had told the new owners of the land that it was important to conserve trees.

“The land owners hired people to clear the forest, and they didn’t care about sparing some trees as they were just interested in burning charcoal and having timber for sale,” said Nembo, who owns 53 acres of land and lives in Kirkamat village in Kilgoris district, part of Narok County in the Transmara region.

The result? Over the last few years the 200,000 ethnic Maasai people in the Transmara, predominantly herders until communal land ownership ended, have faced increasingly erratic rains, soil erosion, severe droughts and floods.

Nembo says dry spells are becoming more frequent than before in this part of Kenya’s Rift Valley.

“We used to have only one dry spell which came in October. But now almost every month we are having a dry spell. Even if it rains, it may rain for about a week and the rest of the month is dry,” he said.

Samuel Ole Seme, living nearby, agreed that the weather had become much less predictable. “We used to know that there were months for rain and months for drought. Now it is a time when, if God likes, he brings rain, and when he likes he brings sunshine,” he said.

Families living in the region recognise that the cutting of forests, which can help regulate rain cycles and curb climate change, have contributed to the changes.

“We cut down all the trees to burn charcoal, and the rain disappeared,” admitted Emily Kokoyo.


To help the community adapt to the changes, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Development Research Center (IDRC), a Canadian organisation, have spent three years gathering data to try to make long-range weather forecasts for the area and to look at livelihood options for the community’s future.

Their study suggested that rainfall actually may increase in the Trans Mara in the future, making different types of farming possible. But it also pointed to growing pressures, including increasing population, the reduction in the size of farms and possible limitations on the ability of people to adapt to changing conditions.

Michael Okoti, national coordinator of environment and climate change research at KARI, said the study assessed risks and household vulnerability and combined them to produce suggested adaptation plans.

 “We did climate information down-scaling, where we used historical data and the (global) General Circulation Models, to bring (information) down to the regional scale of Trans Mara. We have now what we call RCM – Regional Climate Models – and we project them into the future, the next 80 years,” Okoti said.

The 95 million Kenya shilling ($1.1 million) project involved three Kenyan sites - Transmara, Ijara and Tana Delta, which are all semi-arid.

Once the information was in place, the team needed to help the community adapt its activities, which was not easy, Okoti said.


“Policies change faster than cultures. Cultures drag behind,” he said. “So we now have a policy here that people can own land, it is not communal anymore, so you have 50 acres and you can’t move to your neighbour’s (land) and you still have that culture of keeping more animals but fodder becomes a challenge.”

What is particularly challenging, he said, is that while the amount of rainfall in the region has been relatively stable, the timing and intensity of the rains has changed.

 “There is a shift in the number of days it rains. You can still have 1,000 millimetres of rain in the March-April rainy season, but it can all come in one day. It isn’t very beneficial for crop production,” Okoti said.

So what might help farmers adapt to the changing conditions? Okoti says tree planting is one activity the community needs to take up, and the farmers are given start-up kits for planting groups of trees.

“We see in the future we are going to have a lot of rain, and right now the land is denuded,” he said. That opens the way for problems like erosion – but tree planting could stabilise the soil, improve water systems and help agricultural production, he said.

Another aim of tree planting is to restore the former micro-climate and reduce the distance people have to walk to get water.


Benjamin Ole Kipas, one landowner in the area, has set aside 4 acres of his land for trees. He has planted 7,000 eucalyptus trees and 3,000 indigenous trees. He says the eucalyptus plantation is a commercial venture, while the local trees are intended to replace the lost forest.

It is government policy that everyone owning land should plant at least 10 percent of it with trees, officials said.

Peter Ole Nembo, in turn, has five varieties of grass on his farm. They are there to provide food for his livestock and as cover crops to prevent soil erosion during heavy rains. He has also planted five types of legume, which are fast maturing and help fix nitrogen in the soil.

Emily Kokoyo has dedicated about one acre of her land to crop production and says this is a new job for women in the Maasai community.

“Cattle belong to men, but now this is good because it is helping me,” she said. She has managed to sell potatoes and beans from her farm and opened a shop which serves her community. The potatoes take only three months to mature and she says this fits with the short periods of rainfall.

Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.

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