Words from Kenya

It’s not drought that is causing the violence in Laikipia

Moving Livestock

Drought years are happening more and more frequently in Kenya, especially in the northern half of the country. Weather conditions are more variable than they once were, but perhaps more significantly there are a lot more livestock than there used to be. Either way, drought like conditions are now occurring every few years.

Every time there are drought conditions pastoralist struggle to find enough grazing for their animals. I am married into a northern pastoralist family and over the years I have become familiar with the drill. First scouting other areas for pasture, then moving the livestock over long distances (often many days travel) to reach it, and then setting up temporary cattle camps for the herders.

There are times when even these long treks can’t save you, or when there is simply nowhere else to go. Then you have to watch as your animal grow weak. Cows become too weak to stand by themselves and every morning you go around pulling the animals up by horns and tail. In time though they can’t even stand with help, and there is nothing you can do except watch them slowly die. To lose livestock you have cared for daily for years, that you have fought so hard to save; to lose your only valuable assets one by one, day after day, is a horrifying thing. The stress of drought, and what it can do to a family, is hard to understand if you have not had to live through it. It is more than enough to drive people to do desperate things, but it is not what is causing the violence in Laikipia.

Drought and Death

Drought and Death

In every year that there is drought in the north of Kenya, herders move livestock to Laikipia; a traditional dry season grazing area from long before the big modern ranches and wildlife conservancies. When this happens there is always some illegal grazing. Where a fence is not strong, or it seems no one is looking, there are always some herders who will move their livestock onto private lands. There are also many cases of arrangements being made with landowners. Some landowners allow and organise grazing for free to support local communities, others charge a fee for it. I have even known herders club together and buy plots of land in Laikipia for current and future grazing needs. That is what happens in drought years.

This year the herders in Laikipia seem to come mostly from Samburu and Baringo counties. In other years Laikipia has been inundated with desperate herders not just from neighbouring Samburu and Baringo but also from Isiolo, Marsabit and even Wajir. Recent drought years that have seen large movement of livestock across the north include 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2014.

This is the first time that the movement of livestock into Laikipia has caused such extreme and deadly violence. Herders in past drought years have been focused on finding grass for their livestock, fences get cut and there are arguments (sometimes violent) with landowners and police if they are forced to move. I’m not pretending there has never been trouble, there has, but not on this scale. Most droughts don’t result in the killing of such large numbers of wildlife, most droughts don’t result in the burning of houses and tourist lodges and most droughts don’t result in the murder of at least 20 people. In fact, no previous drought had resulted in anywhere near this extent of extreme violence and intimidation.

For as long as people keep saying that the drought is the main cause of the trouble in Laikipia and blaming the violence on ordinary herders, desperate for grass to keep their animals alive, the real cause, and the real perpetrators, will continue unchecked.

UPDATE: These two articles published in the Kenyan Star newspaper provide some further information and useful background to the Laikipia violence.

Land Invasion Wrecks Laikipia

Voice from the grave: Tristan Voorspuy puts Laikipia invasions into perspective

Cows Guns and Trouble

Cows Guns and Trouble

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