Kenya: New law to give land titles to communities who only customarily own land

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has signed a bill into law which lays out the steps for communities to acquire titles to their ancestral land.

Impoverished nomadic communities across Kenya are to receive land titles under a new law that experts hope will help end land conflicts, boost development and improve investor relations.

The Community Land Bill, signed into law by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta on August 31, lays out the steps for communities to acquire titles to their ancestral land.

Around two-thirds of Kenya’s land is customarily owned by communities without formal title deeds, making it easy for corrupt individuals to sell or lease the land without the communities’ knowledge.

“This is very important,” said Shadrack Omondi, executive director of the Resource Conflict Institute.

“Without a legal framework… community land rights have been abused.”

Nomadic herding communities in Kenya’s marginalised arid and semi arid areas have been especially vulnerable because they leave their land vacant when they migrate in search of water and pasture.

“People would see that land as empty,” said Omondi. “Through corrupt means, they start subdivision and all manner of things and before you realise, the communities have lost their land.”

The government is hopeful that recent discoveries of oil and coal, much of it on community land, will reduce poverty in these areas and help Kenya attain middle-income status by 2030.

But several projects have become bogged down in disputes over land ownership and benefit sharing with local communities.

Land - an explosive political issue in Kenya
The Lake Turkana Wind Power project, Africa’s largest single wind farm, and the county government were sued in 2014 by residents who alleged the land was leased without consultation.

The company said it held numerous public meetings and received a leasehold from the local government.

The court did not issue orders to stop the project, which should be completed by December, the government said.

Also in Turkana, Tullow Oil halted work in 2013 because of violent protests by locals demanding more jobs and other benefits.

A $144-million wind power project in central Kenya was cancelled in February due to disputes with residents over land compensation.

Under the new law, community members must meet to choose a land management committee, register themselves and agree the boundaries of their land with government officials before receiving title deeds.

Questions remain over the implementation of the Act as land is an explosive political issue in Kenya and has been one of the main drivers of conflict since independence in 1963.

Politicians have illegally granted vast tracts of public land to themselves and their allies, ignoring numerous government inquiries calling for their titles to be revoked.

“What is the willingness to implement?” asked Odenda Lumumba, national coordinator of Kenya Land Alliance advocacy network.

“What land reforms have shown us worldwide in the recent past is that where the ruling elites have been challenged by citizenry to enact (reform) ... they have gone ahead to block the land reforms through implementation.”

The government must allocate sufficient resources to support communities in realising their rights to land, he said. – Reuters

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