March 02, 2013
The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends
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.