Conflict rises as Kenya's rapid urbanisation encroaches on Maasai communal land

Unscrupulous developers and corrupt officials are driving pastoralists from traditional grazing areas.

It’s just before sunset, the time of day a few years ago when the Maasai herdsman Josphat Ole Tonkei would have been counting his herd of cows after they had been out grazing.

Today, it is dark when he makes the count. The old routes to grazing areas and water points have been blocked and he has to take a long, alternative route back to his manyatta (home).

An area that for years provided grazing for his cows has been built over with commercial properties and gated communities, leaving him and other herdsmen with no choice but to walk long distances in search of pasture and water.

He does not know how the pastoralists’ communal grazing land has passed into the hands of private developers. “We don’t know who sells our land to private developers. We only realise it has been sold when we see them erecting concrete fences and putting up structures,” Tonkei said.

He is among the Maasai herdsmen reeling from the effect of the rapid urbanisation that is encroaching on the plains surrounding Kitengela, about 30km south of the capital Nairobi.

Ballooning urban development
As in many other East African countries, the rapid growth of urban areas has taken a toll on the ancestral lands of pastoralists, where much of the new development is taking place.

Kenya has undergone unprecedented urban growth, which has led to an increased demand for land, further exacerbated by a growing middle-class population.

At the time of independence in 1964, about 8.5% of Kenyans lived in urban areas, according to United Nations data. This figure had risen to 16.7% by 1990 and, by 2015, one in four Kenyans lived in urban areas.

The UN predicts that, by 2030, almost a third of Kenyans will live in urban areas, rising to 43.9% by 2050.

A push by middle-class Kenyans to own property amid soaring land prices has led financial institutions, developers and speculators to target land in satellite towns around Nairobi, experts said.

In Kajiado County, where Tonkei lives, land has become a contentious issue, as developers and corrupt officials have conspired to sell Maasai communal land illegally, local people said.

The influx of outsiders and increase in buildings on land that belongs to indigenous communities have caused tension with the Maasai pastoralists, who say urbanisation has led to evictions, forced displacement and increased violence.

Tonkei said land developers make deals with unscrupulous Maasai elites and some politicians to convert communal land into private land, aided by county land registry officials.

The land is divided into small portions, with some of it sold on to people to develop residential and commercial properties, and the rest held for speculation.

“The conflict caused by urbanisation is not just because of grazing for animals … the most painful part is taking land through fraud,” said Letuati Nackson Ole Umash, the chairperson of Lerelo Emaa, a community-based organisation that advocates for the rights of Maasai.

Current models of urbanisation pay no attention to human rights, resulting in gross inequalities, social exclusion and violence, said Umash, adding that zoning should be compulsory to ensure that fields are reserved for grazing.

“If land developers do not factor in human rights, our way of life will completely change as we may be forced to turn to crop and other farming, a livelihood that will not be sustainable for livestock farmers,” he said.

Lack of national policy
According to Joan Kagwanja, the head of the Land Policy Initiative of the African Union Commission (AUC), Kenya has been operating without a national policy framework for urban development.

Land governance issues remain complex, despite planning and local government laws that guide urban planning and management in Kenya, she said.

“These [laws] did not provide the appropriate framework and guidelines to manage Kenyan’s rapid urbanisation in a manner that harnessed opportunities and managed the risks and challenges of cities and towns,” Kagwanja said.

“What we need … is to maximise benefits for the Maasai community while mitigating the risks such as loss of their culture, rights and livelihoods, and minimising the negative or unintended consequences of urbanisation.”

Potential risks for communities in semi-urban and rural areas near cities were often disregarded when weighing up the pros and cons of urbanisation, resulting in poorly conceived plans, she added.

But there was some progress on land governance, she said, citing the proposed National Urban Development Policy as an example for a more holistic approach to planning, which includes the participation of local communities.

The government also took action in April when the Cabinet secretary for land, Jocob Kaimenyi, dissolved the land control boards, which he said had been compromised by land developers, in a bid to curb irregular land allocations and fraudulent sales. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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