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Report clears Kenyan conservancy of community abuse, but advocates cry foul

Rangers from the Naisuulu Community Conservancy on patrol in Isiolo County. Image by Mwangi Kirubi/USAID via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • In November 2021, the Oakland Institute released a report accusing the Kenya-based Northern Rangelands Trust of ties to intracommunal violence and extrajudicial killings.
  • On June 9 this year, an independent review commissioned by The Nature Conservancy, one of NRT’s funders, to investigate the allegations found “strikingly little evidence” that they were true.
  • The Oakland Institute called the review a “sham investigation” and said its author had failed to properly engage with tribal authorities or track down the families of alleged abuse victims.

A report accusing Kenya-based conservation group the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) of involvement in extrajudicial killings of pastoralists was rejected on June 9 in an independent review commissioned by the trust’s donors, which include The Nature Conservancy, USAID and the European Union. The review’s author, Kanyinke Sena, director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, said he found “strikingly little evidence to corroborate the allegations against NRT.”

The review was commissioned after a report was released last November by U.S.-based advocacy group the Oakland Institute, which said NRT was fostering intracommunal violence and depriving pastoralist communities of access to rangelands. In its most serious allegations, the Oakland Institute accused rangers working for NRT of being implicated in a string of murders.

“The allegations appear to have emerged from a minimal investigative process and are deeply implicated in a complex political environment where attacks on NRT are widely understood as an electoral tactic and as a means to draw attention,” Sena wrote.

Sena and his team visited 19 towns in central Kenya, including 9 in Isiolo county, where the killings were alleged to have taken place. In many cases, he wrote, he was unable to verify details of the killings or even the existence of the victims in his meetings with local officials and community members. In others, he heard accounts that blamed the deaths on clashes with rival ethnic groups.

Despite sending a written request for information such as contact details for witnesses and relatives, he was also unable to arrange a meeting with a key source of the allegations — the Borana Council of Elders, which published its own report in 2019 accusing NRT of involvement in the killing of 70 people.

“The people we went to speak to who were mentioned as sources in the Oakland report, many of them didn’t cooperate with us,” Sena told Mongabay in a phone interview.

Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, called the review a “sham investigation” and said Sena didn’t properly examine the claims. In an interview with Mongabay, she said he “failed to follow due process” in his communications with the council, who could have connected him with relatives of the deceased.

“There are other reports that make the same allegations,” she added, pointing to a court case filed on behalf of 165 community members against NRT in Isiolo county that also contains accusations of violence.

Major Jillo, a Borana advocate who helped to facilitate the Oakland Institute’s report, said the council was wary of Sena’s intentions.

“Definitely, they would like to know who a person looking for them is, because there is a lot of mistrust in the area,” he told Mongabay in a phone interview.

Mongabay reviewed a letter dated March 31, 2022, in which Sena introduces himself to the council as a contractor for the “joint donors” to NRT and requests contact details for the Oakland Institute’s sources. According to Sena, the council didn’t follow up on a promise to set a date for the meeting after the letter was received.

Jillo is mentioned repeatedly in the review, which said NRT’s community conservancies are “interlinked” with a context of violent local competition over the control of land and other resources. Jillo’s participation in the Oakland Institute’s research, it implies, was motivated by political ambition. Jillo declined a one-on-one interview with Sena, which he told Mongabay was due to mistrust over the purpose of his research.

“These people have been intimidated so much,” he said. “They are fearing for their lives. But when someone wants to get information from them, they will just want to know their true identity.”

Sena said the lack of engagement by the council and Jillo hampered his ability to verify their allegations against NRT and scoffed at the suggestion that they were intimidated by his inquiries.

“I think they’re just hiding behind those words,” Sena said. “Because I think they might not have concrete evidence of what they are saying.”

A herdsman in Kenya’s Isiolo County. Image by Martin Karim, EU/ECHO via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Sena was not able to visit some locations in Isiolo county in April and May due to ongoing violence. Jillo said he didn’t look in the right places for the families of alleged victims.

“At times they are out with their livestock,” he said. “But through an institution you can be able to reach them if you follow the right procedure. The environment is not secure for them because of NRT.”

In one of the most dramatic cases described in the Oakland Institute report, a woman and her daughter were allegedly shot and killed by uniformed NRT wildlife rangers after being extorted for a goat. The woman’s mother, Kumpa Halkano, was said to have shared her story during a meeting in the town of Kula Mawe.

In the review, Sena says he and his team visited Kula Mawe to inquire about Halkano’s story. Neither the local residents they spoke to, nor police nor the assistant town chief had heard of the incident, he wrote. Unable to locate her, or any mention of the killings in records at the Kula Mawe police station, the review concludes there was “no evidence” to support the allegation.

But Major Jillo told Mongabay that Halkano lives a 30-minute drive away from Kula Mawe and said that Sena’s inability to locate her called the entirety of his conclusions into question.

“It’s unbelievable to hear that kind of thing,” Jillo said. “This is a mother who is suffering and looking for justice for her daughter. At times she can be with her livestock in the rangeland, but you can reach out to her.”

Sena said that Jillo and the council’s evasiveness and failure to provide contact details for Halkano and other alleged victims hampered his ability to verify their stories.

“If he could have done that during the course of the investigation, that would have made things very easy. But he didn’t cooperate,” Sena said.

The review also concluded that there was no truth to the allegation that NRT’s operations were “fueling conflict” in Isiolo county. But it was critical of some aspects of NRT’s approach to long-running clashes between ethnic groups in the region over cattle, land and resources, particularly between Borana and Samburu communities. It also said that “NRT’s overall approach to [human rights due diligence] is unstructured and potentially inadequate in some respects.”

Because of their close ties to NRT and early adoption of the community conservancy model, Samburu communities were described has having acquired firearms as well as “resources and corresponding influence and power relative to Borana communities that only moved to form conservancies much later.” But Sena declined to blame NRT for violence between the two.

“It’s important to note that these communities have been fighting way before NRT was established,” he said.

Jillo disputed the review’s conclusion, saying it obscured the impact of NRT’s conservancy policies in tensions between the Samburu and Borana.

“NRT is playing a major role in the conflict between the two communities,” he said.

While the review largely exonerates NRT of the worst accusations made by the Oakland Institute, in a statement posted to its website June 9 the advocacy group said that donors who financed it would be “held accountable if they accept its conclusions.” NRT receives funding from USAID, the EU and other international donor agencies. In the wake of another human rights scandal involving WWF’s operations in the Congo Basin, the dispute looks likely to become another battleground over taxpayer support for conservation in Africa.

BANNER IMAGE: Rangers from the Naisuulu Community Conservancy on patrol in Isiolo County. Image by Mwangi Kirubi/USAID via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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