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Common land, shared success in Kenya

Land division and individual entitlements have brought an end to the traditional community-managed open rangeland in much of the arid and semi-arid areas of East Africa. But the Olkiramatian Group Ranch in southern Kenya - with a population of about 10,000 - is attracting increasing interest from pastoralists and conservationists alike.

The Olkiramatian Group Ranch has strict rules on where livestock can graze (WRENmedia)
The Olkiramatian Group Ranch has strict rules on where livestock can graze

From a ridge halfway up the Nguruman escarpment John Kamanga, Chairman of Group Ranch, has the perfect vantage point to describe the scene below: the community-agreed zoning of 22,000 hectares of land. "We have groups coming to see what we are doing," he enthuses, "from other parts of Kenya and even North America, India, Mongolia and China."

The system, based on traditional techniques but with a modern twist, divides the valley for three different uses: grazing, cultivation and conservation. Grazing accounts for around 75 per cent of the group ranch and each registered member raises their own herd of livestock. "We adhere to strict rules for grazing," continues Kamanga, "so that the delicate wild grazing is never pushed too hard."

A second zone, where fresh water flows down from the hills, is dedicated to crops. Each member is allocated five to ten hectares, which they cultivate themselves or lease to others to grow maize, tomatoes or the leafy vegetable Sukuma wiki (kale). Some members even produce export crops, such as okra and aubergine. The cultivated area is the only zone where, if a family wishes, a permanent home can be built. Finally, the third zone - one-eighth of the total area - is a shared resource designated as a conservation area where the valley wildlife can thrive; this zone is the key attraction for ecotourists.

A living from wildlife

Group ranch chairman John Kamanga believes the pioneering 'zoning' approach is working (WRENmedia)
Group ranch chairman John Kamanga believes the pioneering 'zoning' approach is working

Allocating land for a wildlife zone reflects the Olkiramatian pastoralists' vested interest in healthy numbers of zebra, wildebeest, antelope and giraffe, which graze the very same grasses and low-growing shrubs that their cattle, goats and sheep depend on. The pastoralists even refrain from attacking predators such as lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena that share the valley - and might attack their stock. "Last year I lost about seven goats to hyenas," recalls Chief Steven Nteetu, as he checks his herd of more than 70 goats. "But I do not get my arrows to attack and kill wild animals because, in return, we benefit from the revenue generated by visitors who come to the conservation area. That money pays for hospital bills, our children can go to school, and it helps us to fund provision of water pipes."

The conservation area is also a dry season grazing bank which, with group consensus, can be opened to livestock in times of severe feed shortage. Are there contraventions of agreed grazing times and zones? "No," replies Nteetu. "If animals are seen in the wrong place at the wrong time then, as a community, we apply pressure so that the system works. We make sure everyone, right down to the youngest person, knows our system."

Research proves success

Science is giving credibility to this system of communal open rangeland management. "The irony is that scientists simply assumed that traditional pastoralism was bad for this fragile environment," explains David Western, Director of the African Conservation Centre (ACC). The organisation monitors the communal land and resources, helping devise strategies for the community to cope with factors such as climate change. "Now our evidence demonstrates that within eastern Africa the biggest wildlife herds occur where there is long-term pastoralism."

A newly-established market has encouraged local trade (WRENmedia)
A newly-established market has encouraged local trade

Not only does the grazing accommodate wildlife but cattle have adapted to the carrying capacity of the land. Experiments (marching cattle on treadmills) have shown that Maasai cattle show no ill effects when, walking for the equivalent of 16 kilometres per day, they are given half the feed ration compared to cattle marched only eight kilometres. Maasai cattle drop their metabolic rate by as much as 50 per cent to withstand feed and water shortages, and cope with long walks to wherever grazing is to be found. According to ACC, the open rangeland system is three times more productive than extensive grazing on unimproved pasture in the United States and Australia.

The pasturelands may be more productive, but the Olkiramatian ranchers continue to seek ways to help each other and to increase their income opportunities. After a tentative start, a newly established market has seen increasing numbers of animals traded and dozens of stalls busy with sales, providing essential income to buy household necessities and livestock medicines.

Agnes Molo boosts her family income by trading in fresh produce. But when asked what she thinks is key to the growing prosperity of the ranch, it is the interests of the community that are uppermost in her mind "It's the way we behave." she explains. "We are still working with common resources so our behaviour is towards functioning for a common purpose. Through that, all of us are tied together."

Date published: November 2008


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