NORTH HORR, Kenya (AlertNet) – One of the most effective ways to deal with growing conflict in northern Kenya may be to address the environmental failings that help drive it, says a pastoralist development expert.
Conflict is nothing new in communities in northern Kenya, but the struggle to earn a livelihood in a difficult environment has become even more difficult as a result of poor land management and the effects of climate change, said Steven Ali, who heads the Pastoralist Community Development Organisation, a lobby group pushing for peaceful coexistence in the region.
Recently, while travelling from his home in the village of North Horr to Isiolo, 460 km (290 miles) away, Ali himself was travelling in was attacked by bandits, who he suspects were from neighbouring Somalia.
“We ducked to the floor of the bus but some passengers were injured,” recalls Ali. “The vehicle was badly damaged by bullets.”
If local people are not fighting over grazing land, he said, they are stealing each other’s cattle – a long tradition - or, increasingly, struggling for a share of scarce water resources.
Dealing with such problems, he said, requires playing a new peace card – environmental protection.
“We are encouraging people to restore the degraded land through planting of trees, conserving water points and rejecting charcoal burning,” he says.
It is a novel approach for Ali’s organisation, but he hopes that by working together to conserve natural resources, communities can build trust and gain economic security.
Ali, who has been a livestock herder all his life, believes that most people in his community remain unaware of the long-term value of conserving the ecosystems because of high levels of illiteracy and poverty.
The evidence is all around him. The once-thriving Badhuri-Hurri forest near his home in North Horr, for instance, has vanished, along with the lake that once lapped at the forest edge.
According to village elders, the destruction of the forest, which in the 1960s covered more than 300 square kilometres (116 square miles), led to the disappearance of the lake.
“The forest was burned away due to claims of snake infestation,” recalls Ali. “The rest of the vegetation was wasted away through overgrazing. The lake dried up.”
THE CHARCOAL PROBLEM
Another problem is charcoal production, which is illegal but still persists despite the vigilance of the Kenya Wildlife Service, which protects the country’s forests. Northern Kenya has long been a major source of charcoal for Somalia as well as the Middle East.
Ali says charcoal making has increased pressure on the already strained rangeland vegetation as communities strip the land of its trees to fuel charcoal kilns.
Halima Halake is the kind of person Ali’s work aims to help. The 34-year-old mother of four recounts memories of lush vegetation and flowing rivers in Muguru na Nyori, a village 40 km (25 miles) from Isiolo where she spent most of her life.
But environmental pressures and mounting conflict eventually drove Halake away.
“Life changed,” says Halake. These days, in her home village, “when we are not hiding from dust storms, we are fleeing from floods.” Families displaced by the weather extremes “settle back (only) when these are over.”
But it was a non-environmental threat – the growing number of attacks by militias – that finally made Halake flee her village, this time perhaps for good.
She now struggles to eke out a living in Isiolo by selling khat, a plant that is chewed for its stimulant effects.
AL SHABAAB CONCERN
Halake says she could live with the risk of cattle rustling, but the presence of the Somali-based Islamist group Al Shabaab changed the balance for many locals.
Reports by the provincial administration suggest that the group aims to control the region politically as Kenya ushers in a devolved system of government.
Security officials are concerned that Al Shabaab plans to fund political leaders in northern Kenya in an effort to give the extremist group sway over resources like livestock and water, which they can then use to keep the community loyal and win sympathizers.
But “if they take away our water we are finished,” says Halake.
Those supporting Steven Ali’s peace-building initiative see environmental conservation as the long-term path to attaining peace in the region.
They remain a minority in a community more used to receiving from nature than giving. But there is no turning back for those that have heeded Ali’s call.
“The point is to make communities see sense in peaceful sharing of resources such as water,” explains Mohamed Ali Sheikh, a youth leader from Garissa.
Tree planting also needs to become a priority, experts in the region say.
The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program (TIST), a nongovernmental organisation, works with subsistence farmers in Kenya and other east African countries to reverse the effects of deforestation, drought and famine.
According to Dorothy Naitore, an officer with TIST, the most suitable projects for northern Kenya include planting trees such as neem, initiating water harvesting projects, and protecting existing water points with fencing and tunnels.
“This could prevent overconsumption, hence reduce tensions over the resource,” says Naitore.
Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.