ETHIOPIA-KENYA: Who rules the range?
LONDON, 24 October 2011 (IRIN) - The border land between Kenya and Ethiopia
is a vast, open plain under a big sky. Hard red earth shows through the thin
grass of the sun-baked landscape, an expanse of thorny scrub, flat-topped
thorn-trees and tall red anthills. There are no fences or other visible
boundaries, and few people, just occasional groups of cattle or goats with
their herders. To the untutored eye it can look like empty land, where
wandering nomads graze their animals at random.
But there is nothing random about it. This unpromising landscape can provide
a good living for livestock if it is carefully managed, and the herds are
kept on the move across the seasons so they make the optimum use of each
area of pasture and each water source. Over the years, the herders have
built up a great body of expertise about how best to manage the area's
And the land is also definitely not "empty" in the sense that it belongs to
no one - the people of the area are quite clear about whose land is whose,
in terms not of individuals, but of different communities.
Sara Pavanello, who has just completed a three-year
al-resources-management-kenya-ethiopia-horn-africa> study of how natural
resources are managed in the area, says: "The pastoralists I spoke to very
often used collective terms, saying for example, 'Our resources, we decide,
we manage.' For pastoral communities, the rangeland as a whole is perceived
as one single economic resource that's communally owned, even if this tract
of rangeland has been divided by the international border. At the same time
different ethnic groups own, or exercise control over specific territory and
the natural resources found within it."
This does not mean that they exclude everyone else. They understand that
other groups need access to the pasture and water sources at certain
seasons. That kind of temporary access is traditionally negotiated between
the elders of the different communities. Elders told Pavanello: "Today they
need us; tomorrow we will need them." She describes this kind of sharing as
being seen as an "insurance policy for the future".
Land ownership conundrum
It is a model that makes perfect sense to the Borana, Gabra and Garri, the
three ethnic groups which live along and across the border, but one that the
conventional authorities struggle with, both in Ethiopia and Kenya. Land in
Kenya is, for the most part, in private ownership. In Ethiopia all land
belongs to the people, represented by the state. Neither system is designed
to cope with private land, communally owned.
In Ethiopia, farmers are granted land to cultivate, and have security of
possession under the constitution. Pavanello and her co-author, Simon
Levine, say pastoralists' rights are much weaker. The constitution gives
them the right to use free land for grazing but, they write "the operative
word here is free; the moment the state chooses to claim any grazing land,
and declare it no longer 'free' the pastoralists lose any right to graze."
The authorities also tend to want to introduce resource management schemes
to make the rangelands more productive, failing to see and understand the
subtle and flexible management systems already in place involving elders and
In their research Pavanello and Levine found cases where local
administrators were enforcing ideas of ownership, citizenship and
nationality which cut across the communities' traditional right to manage
their lands. In Kenya they say district officials reportedly cited the
principle of freedom of movement for Kenyan citizens under the constitution
in order to allow Somali clans into the rangelands of Borana clans around
Moyale, despite the elders' protests that it would exhaust the grazing.
On the other side of the border Ethiopia's policy of "ethnic federalism"
puts the Garri in Somali Region and the Borana in Orommiya, and has led, say
Pavanello and Levine, to administrators pressing pastoralist communities to
adopt a more exclusionary approach to natural resources, failing, they say,
"to recognize the fact that granting secondary users rights of access is in
customary law a legal obligation, which reinforces, rather than undermines
the primary holders' claims of ownership rights and sovereignty over their
Cross-border mixed committees
The challenge is clearly how to harmonize traditional and formal regulation
in a way which allows the flexibility and freedom of movement on which the
productivity of the rangelands depends. Here the paper focuses on the growth
of cross-border mixed committees on which both local government officials
and community elders are represented, along with other groups such as young
people and women. Set up mostly to deal with cattle raiding, the committees
have also had some success in the joint management of pasture and water
resources in the border areas, with communities from both sides sharing the
resources and jointly negotiating access for other groups.
The idea of these mixed committees generated a lot of interest at the launch
of the report earlier this month at London's Overseas Development Institute.
Jeremy Swift, a pastoralist development specialist with a lifetime of
experience in the field, said bringing formal and customary regulation
together was necessary, but likely to be difficult. "Formal rules have to be
uniform throughout the country; customary rules are place and time specific.
This is only likely to work if there is a real delegation of authority,
which governments are not usually happy about and not likely to do
John Morton of the University of Greenwich cautioned against any attempt to
bypass formal government structures. "Clearly this border is very fluid, but
the states are still real, and you have to respect state authority and
boundaries. You don't do people any favours by over-stressing cross-border
action which may label pastoralists as having divided loyalties."
The co-author of the report, Simon Levine, said they also had some
reservations about the hybrid committees. "For example, in a case where it
is the committee which decides who can use a water point, you are in effect
negating the idea that the people who used to call themselves the owners of
that land now have the right to exclude anyone. Now that may be a good thing
or it may be a bad thing, but it does seem to me that it is not necessarily
always going to be a good thing, especially where you know that the power
relations within the committee may not always be equal. I would have thought
the idea of hybrid committees is possibly and hopefully a way forward, but
one that needs an awful lot more caution than I heard expressed today."
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Received on Mon Oct 24 2011 - 10:49:24 EDT