Keepers of the Artificial Wilderness

In East Africa, conservationists are creating a wilderness out of inhabited lands, then punishing the people they have dispossessed

By George Monbiot. Published in BBC Wildlife magazine, July 1994.

The holiest place in the lands of the Maasai of southern Kenya is the forest that covers the crowns of the Loita Hills. It is here that Mokompo ole Simel, the chief prophet, keeps the magical box of divining stones with which he can predict the weather: a task indispensable to nomadic herding peoples. In its midst is a cathedral of seven trees in which God is said to live. In the sacred river flowing through the hills the young men purify themselves before circumcision.

To the local Maasai the forest is the spiritual seat of their existence, as well as an essential component of their traditional livelihood. It is here that they come to find fruit, honey, medicine, firewood and dry season grazing for their animals. To the Narok County Council, which administers the region, it represents something quite different. It is the home of lions, elephants, buffalo and many rare birds, and thus the ideal candidate for a reserve. If its plans go ahead, all human beings except rangers and paying tourists will be excluded. This, the council says, will both protect the rare wildlife and make money for the region’s impoverished people. The local Maasai say the plan will destitute them, destroy the forest and, like the Maasai Mara Reserve, put money only into the pockets of the councillors.

This dispute exemplifies the growing conflict between conservationists and the nomads of East Africa, many of whom now claim that they, not the government or the tourist companies, are the rightful owners of the places designated parks and reserves. When – from the 1940s onwards – they were kept out of places such as the Serengeti, Maasai Mara, Amboseli and the Samburu and Shaba reserves, they lost, they say, lands indispensable to their survival.

Many conservationists maintain that nomads are and have always been a threat to wildlife, for they kill predators such as lions and hyaenas and their cattle overgraze the land. Now, they say, they are more of a danger than ever, for they are beginning to cultivate the savannahs and to build fences, wells and permanent houses. As the human population rises – and it is rising fast throughout East Africa – the pressure exerted by communities upon their land and resources will increase. The best way to protect the wildlife in the parks and reserves is to keep the people out.

Travelling around East Africa, I have been coming to the conclusion that the conservationists have got it wrong. What I have seen suggests not only that the exclusion of the nomads from certain parts of the savannahs involves a significant abuse of human rights, but also that it is, paradoxically, threatening the very resources that conservation purports to protect.

The land selected for such parks and reserves as the Serengeti, the Maasai Mara and Tsavo East was empty or almost empty at the time of their establishment. The nomads’ herds had, in these parts, been reduced by rinderpest or excluded by tsetse fly when these places were set aside in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Only when the populations of the nomads’ cattle rose once more did the demand for grazing in these areas re-emerge. It is understandable that conservationists ignored the nomads when they established these parks, for the nomads were elsewhere.

But this was not the case when some of the later parks and reserves were created. The Amboseli National Park, in Kenya’s Maasailand, the Shaba National Reserve, in Samburu district, and the Tarangire National Park in Tanzania were all established in the 1970s, from lands being used for critical dry season grazing by the nomads. In every case they were unceremoniously told to keep out, without any substantial compensation.

Harsher still was the treatment of the Maasai using the Mkomazi Game Reserve, in northern Tanzania. This was the only land they possessed. When they were expelled in 1988, they were dumped in the surrounding arable farmland. The farmers complained and the Maasai were arrested for criminal trespass and fined. When they tried to return to the reserve they were once more arrested for criminal trespass and fined again. Their cattle died of starvation.

That Amboseli, Shaba, Tarangire, Mkomazi and several other parks and reserves in Kenya and Tanzania belonged to the nomads is unquestionable. Had the Maasai and Samburu been people whose voices were heard, had they divided up their land into individual parcels rather than holding it in common, these areas could never have been alienated without long negotiations and substantial compensation. Only the political weakness of the nomads and their lack of title deeds allowed conservationists so brutally to ignore their rights.

But allegations of mistreatment are not confined to the establishment of the parks and reserves. On the Rombo Group Ranch outside the Tsavo West National Park, I met herders who claimed that they were forced by the harsh dry seasons of 1991 and 1992 to sneak back into their old lands with their cattle, where they were caught on several occasions by rangers working for the Kenya Wildlife Service: the government-appointed body which oversees conservation in Kenya. The herders alleged that they were severely and systematically beaten by the rangers with sticks and gun butts. They claimed that the wives and children of those who escaped were rounded up and held until the men gave themselves up. They said that the rangers demanded bribes, stole their possessions and drove away their animals. Their story, while strenuously denied by the Kenya Wildlife Service, was confirmed by a local conservationist working alongside it.

Conservationists accept that peoples such as the Maasai have, in the past, had a raw deal from conservation. But now, they say, local people stand to gain more than they have lost. Kenya Wildlife Service intends to share 25 per cent of the money it collects from tourists visiting national parks with the people living around them. The Maasai, it says, can sell the rights to camp or build safari lodges on their land, put on displays of dancing for the tourists or even organize tours of their own. The Maasai can use their lands and their culture to make themselves rich.

The reality I found was rather different. In most cases the money from tented camps, lodges and tours is seized by a tiny handful of rich and well-connected Maasai, leaving the majority with next to nothing. Many people living around the parks inhabit areas that are of no interest to tourists and so can make no money from them. Most of the Maasai, without business skills, capital or even a formal education, simply cannot compete with established tour companies. The Maasai now performing for the tourists are making a mockery of their own culture. As one man complained to me, “We are ceasing to be what we are. We are becoming what we appear to be.”

Most importantly, many of the Maasai feel that even if tourism served them well it could never replace what they have lost. As a man living close to Amboseli said simply, “We don’t want to be dependent on these tourists. We are Maasai and we want to herd cattle.” The land and its traditional use are not just means of survival; they are the very basis of the Maasai’s identity.

But to the Kenya Wildlife Service there is no question of allowing the Maasai or other nomads back into the lands from which they have been excluded. Richard Leakey, who, last year, was the director of KWS, told me: “We’re dealing with a modern nation state … The setting aside of land for the purpose of wildlife conservation, to support the tourist industry, is a strategic issue. The morality of evicting people from land, whether it’s to establish a wheat scheme, a barley scheme, hydroelectric scheme or a wildlife tourist scheme is the same. Basically nation states have got to function.”

Letting people back in, the KWS argues, would threaten this valuable industry, as they would destroy the resources on which the wildlife depends. Nomads, its deputy director Joe Kioko says, degrade the land and out-compete the wild animals. This argument has been axiomatic for conservationists in East Africa throughout this century. Peoples such as the Maasai are considered to overstock the savannahs with cattle, largely for prestige. The result – the periodic disappearance of the vegetation – is plain to see.

Today, however, many savannah ecologists are questioning these assumptions. The work of people such as Roy Behnke and Ian Scoones shows that vegetation disappears during a drought whether or not there are people and domestic animals on the land. Professor Stephen Sandford argues that cattle numbers reflect not only the owner’s prestige but also the necessity of building up stocks in the good seasons so that some animals will survive the droughts: a rational response to a volatile environment. Kathy Homewood and Alan Rodgers show that savannah vegetation bounces back rapidly after disturbance when the land is allowed to recover.

There are ways in which traditional nomadic herding conflicts with wildlife. In some places the Maasai put up temporary thorn fences around waterholes to keep the game from finishing the water. While, for the most part, it is the cattle that suffer from wildlife diseases, some cattle diseases can be passed on to the game. The nomads do kill lions and hyaenas when they can catch them, but their effects on predator populations were traditionally limited by their technology: they simply chased after them with spears. On the whole, their impact on the game was neither lasting nor profound. Nomads lived alongside enormous numbers of wild animals for centuries.

There is no doubt that herding in East Africa has now changed, and the impact on the environment and the wildlife that peoples such as the Maasai exert has greatly increased. But what I find profoundly disturbing is that these changes appear not to have been hindered by conservation, but exacerbated.

Nomadic herding involves driving domestic animals from one pasture to another as the vegetation dictates. Ideally, the animals will move off their old grazing grounds before they exhaust the vegetation, be driven to another ecological zone and return to the first only once the plants have recovered. Anything that restricts the movements of the herders will restrict their ability to let the savannahs regenerate.

Over the last thirty years the Maasai have been almost completely hemmed in. Their common lands have been privatized and their ownership has concentrated in the hands of just a few people: either outsiders or powerful members of their own tribe. Urban development and arable farming have followed swiftly. But conservation, having annexed so many of their dry season grazing areas, has been of profound importance. This as much as any other factor has stopped the Maasai from moving between pastures, forcing them to remain in one region throughout the year. The result is that genuine over-grazing is now taking place. The parks and reserves are becoming islands of biodiversity in a sea of degradation.

As people have been alienated by conservation they have shown few scruples in attacking the animals with which they once coexisted. Some Maasai, especially in Tanzania, have assisted the poachers working in their land. Around Amboseli, angry local people have speared rhinos to death. Beside the Tarangire National Park, the Maasai have felt compelled to poison nearly all the lions, as their cattle, left behind when the game migrates back into the park, are now more exposed to predation. The friends of nature have been turned, by conservationists, into its enemies.

By comparison, the growth in human population, most commonly blamed for what is now the real degradation of the savannahs, is of limited significance. While human numbers have risen steeply, with corresponding effects on water supplies and settlement patterns, livestock numbers appear not to have done so: data from Tanzania suggests that the Maasai’s animals have not increased in twenty-five years.

But the changes that nomadic herding has undergone, partly precipitated as they have been by conservation, need not mean that people must continue to be excluded from the parks and reserves. It is hard to see why nomads could not be allowed to visit their old dry season grazing lands during droughts, if their presence were conditional on respecting wildlife, building no permanent structures and leaving again when the drought lifts. The impact on wildlife would be small, while the difference for the nomads would be enormous. It would relieve pressure on the surrounding lands and win people back to conservation. The herders entering the parks and reserves could even double up as auxiliary rangers.

But there is a final stumbling block, over which no one seems prepared to climb: tourists. Every conservation official I have spoken to has argued that one factor above all others keeps them from considering the possibility of letting the nomads back in: that tourists do not want to see them there. They claim that if ever the Maasai are spotted by tourists inside their old grazing grounds, conservation bodies are bombarded with letters of complaint.

It is, perhaps, not entirely surprising that tourists react in this way. They bought their safaris on the basis that they would be visiting a wilderness. That the lands they travel through are among the longest inhabited on earth is an inconvenience easily overlooked. When I asked Grace Lusiola, KWS’s head of Community Conservation, what her priorities were, she told me, with admirable if astonishing frankness, “At the moment the tourist is top priority. But this doesn’t mean that KWS will completely close its eyes to conservation.” If the tourists demand wilderness, the conservationists will supply it.

Yet, at the time of my travels, the tourists had never been surveyed on this issue. My own small poll shows that they are split: fifty per cent would not mind if the nomads returned to the conservation areas, fifty per cent would. Tourists are not immune to persuasion, yet it strikes me that, while the nomads are treated as a problem to be dealt with, the tourists are regarded as a people whose beliefs must be protected.

Tragically, the debate may have been curtailed just as it was about to begin. Right at the end of his directorship, Richard Leakey showed that he was prepared to listen to what the nomads are saying. On the morning of 14 January he met a delegation of Maasai from the sacred forest and told them he would support their cause. In the afternoon he handed in his resignation. The government ministers who undermined him had used the genuine complaints of the Maasai against him in the most cynical manner: they themselves – and they include the rich Maasai men dominating the Narok County Council – have done more than any others to alienate the ordinary Maasai’s land. The new administration must now try to overcome the politicisation of the rights of the nomads, and recognise that if the African savannahs are to be saved, their inhabitants must be heard.

On Air: No Man’s Land, a three part series following George Monbiot’s journeys among the nomads of East Africa, is broadcast on Radio 4 at 2045 on Wednesday evenings, starting September 14.

Author: George Monbiot’s book No Man’s Land: an investigative journey through Kenya and Tanzania, is published by Macmillan 23 June. He is also the author of Poisoned Arrows and Amazon Watershed. He is a Visiting Fellow of Green College, Oxford.