Violence in Kenya's Tana River Delta stems from natural resource conflict

Commentary by Stephanie Jones, special to mongabay.com
March 02, 2013

The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends

Since August 2012, Kenya's Tana River Delta has been besieged by civil conflict continuing into the New Year. The New York Times reported in January at least 200 people are dead and 36,000 displaced in increasingly violent skirmishes between the herders and farmers who share the delta of Kenya's largest river. Although the conflict began as an isolated dispute over water, both groups engaged in retaliatory attacks that have earned comparisons by major global media to the violence preceding Kenya's notoriously violent presidential election. Official reactions to the violence have, in turn, focused mostly on politics. Local officials have been accused and even jailed for inciting violence. President Mwai Kibaki in September dispatched a military unit to enforce the peace, although this same unit has been accused of using excessive force in its mission. An official inquiry is currently examining the case in Nairobi. Meanwhile, the Kenyan Red Cross, the Kenyan Red Crescent, Nature Kenya, Doctors Without Borders, and other charities are hard at work providing relief to the victims and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of the Delta who did not flee the region. This is by all accounts a national tragedy for Kenya. Yet while mainstream media such as the Guardian,The Economist, and The New York Times focus their reports on “ethnic violence” and Kenyan electoral politics, they obscure what is the most critical dimension to this tragedy: natural resources conservation and rights throughout the Tana River watershed.

The Tana Delta is a place of singular ecological significance, with globally renowned mangrove forests, grasslands, marshes, oxbow lakes, and woodlands. It is a refuge for waterbirds, large mammals, primates, crocodiles, and other valuable wildlife. Situated in a mostly arid part of the Kenyan coast, the Delta is a resource-rich home to humans of diverse livelihoods, humans who have occupied the Delta for generations. The same sedentary farmers and traveling herders in today's headlines share a long history of trade, coexistence, and, yes, conflict. In the context of national politics the people of the remote Delta also share a history of political marginalization and resource insecurity. Recently, proposals for large-scale development projects from outside companies and foreign states threatened to displace traditional livelihoods and convert diverse smallholder farming to large-scale monocultures of sugar, biofuels, or grain. It is for this reason that local politicians may have played a hand in the conflict, fighting for power over the Delta's rich land. Today, many farmers themselves lack title deeds or formal rights to the land. Nomadic herders fare worse: according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, irrigation and other agricultural development schemes have since the 1980s restricted their access to the Tana River. Furthermore, hydroelectric dams upstream, which serve the capital of Nairobi and elsewhere, have reduced water levels downstream in the Delta, affecting herders and farmers alike. Hence, just as Nairobi endeavors to quell the violence with Presidential decrees and a public inquiry, so it is complicit in it by diverting the water for its own need for electrical, and political, power.

I spent time in the Delta in 2009 researching local resource-management institutions, mostly among the same farmers who have been implicated in some of the most grisly episodes of violence reported. In one village alone, I learned of at least seventeen local groups concerned with resource conservation, eco-tourism, or nature-based handicrafts. Many were well aware of the environmental problems of the Delta and were active participants in the conservation of fisheries, water, and wildlife. Having occupied this land for centuries, they shared a legacy of traditional resource management overseen by elders, whose power today remains important if limited by more contemporary forms of governance. While in the Delta, I was astounded by my hosts' rich culture, including their nationally lauded music (the Kenyan national anthem borrows its melody from a lullaby), a unique flood-adapted rice farming system, and a deep knowledge of local plants and their uses in mat-weaving, construction, and medicine. Even though I did not get the opportunity to know the herders, I enjoyed the eggs and milk they brought to sell in the village. Today, that village is gone; the house I occupied no longer stands. Farms are destroyed. And my friends, I am told, are living in the forest, a forest that surely exists because of this community's exceptionally rare commitment to conservation. It would be a shame to see such a community lost to history, and a loss to anyone who cares about cultural preservation, biodiversity conservation, folk life, or ethnobotany.

While the mainstream Kenyan media continue to report on efforts to prosecute the perpetrators of the Tana violence, environmental activists, scientists, and Delta residents are hard at work, too. Nature Kenya, an NGO with years of experience in community-based conservation in the Delta, is on the ground supporting relief efforts. In October 2012, the Tana Delta at last earned recognition by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that legally requires signatory countries (which include Kenya) to maintain the ecological integrity of recognized wetlands. In November, the National Museums of Kenya convened a stakeholder meeting to organize communities, environmentalists, and others eager to protect the natural and social fabric of the Delta. This effort to mobilize watershed stakeholders comes at an important time: following the March 2013 presidential election, Kenya will implement its new constitution, which provides for a more decentralized power structure. This kind of proactive organizing stands to nurture relationships and norms that respect ALL life that depends on the Delta. Hopefully, this respect will trickle upstream.

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Commentary by Stephanie Jones, special to mongabay.com (March 02, 2013).

Violence in Kenya's Tana River Delta stems from natural resource conflict.