A New Wave of Activists Is Challenging Kenya’s Approach to Conservation

A New Wave of Activists Is Challenging Kenya’s Approach to Conservation
Environmental and wildlife campaigners march to the Chinese embassy to protest the proposed construction of a Chinese-built railway bridge, in Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 17, 2016 (AP Photo by Ben Curtis).
A year ago, in July 2021, a prominent environmentalist was killed in Kenya. Joannah Stutchbury had been a vocal critic of a development project that was about to begin construction in Kiambu forest, a protected area of more than 1,000 acres near Nairobi, the capital. A third-generation Kenyan with British ancestry, Stutchbury had been fighting against the illegal corporate takeover of these lands when she was shot dead while clearing branches outside her home. On the global stage, Kenya has a reputation as a center for wildlife conservation work, boasting 24 national parks, 15 national reserves, six marine parks and more than dozens of private conservancies. Its massive wildlife tourism industry is one of the most popular in the world, and the Kenyan government has been held up as an example for its investment in geothermal energy. The country even co-hosted the United Nations’ Stockholm+50 climate summit in early June. But activists say the reality on the ground contradicts that image. Stutchbury’s death forms part of a pattern that has seen environmentalists across the country face harassment, abuse and violence from opponents and even from government officials and police. Despite the rising attacks, Kenya’s political leaders have done little to protect targeted activists like Stutchbury herself, who had received several death threats prior to the fatal attack. What’s more, activists on the ground say the government often fails to implement and enforce its own environmental laws and policies. In addition to turning a blind eye to illegal land grabs like the one Stutchbury opposed, Kenyan authorities also regularly release poachers from jail early in exchange for small amounts of bail money. Its National Environment Management Authority has become infamous for failing to investigate things like pollution. And, in a particularly prominent and recent example, it allowed developers to cull hundreds of trees in Nairobi, including some in the 32-acre Uhuru Park, without any form of public consultation. Since Stutchbury’s killing, fear has been at all all-time high within the environmentalist and conservationist communities, especially since they are unable to rely on government support and protection. Everyone is “walking on eggshells,” as prominent wildlife conservationist Paula Kahumbu said in an interview with AFP. “We’re all scared for our own lives.” Unfortunately, the government’s alleged negligence is just one of the challenges facing conservation and environmentalism in Kenya. Work on these topics is complex, touching on a wide variety of contentious issues, including race and racism, the rights of Indigenous peoples and questions of economic growth and historical legacy. Then, there is the dizzying array of actors involved, including the government, corporate entities, civil society groups, farmers and pastoralists, all of whom clash in different ways and for different reasons. In other words, ending the violence will not be easy.

The Conservancy System

To understand the sources of violence and tension in Kenya’s conservation space, it is important to first examine its structure and history. Kenyan activist Elizabeth Kiprop argues that there are two main types of environmental activists in Kenya. The first are “the privileged,” who focus mainly on wildlife conservation. This includes many white landowners and their descendants, who work alongside foreign conservationists and enjoy the support of Western donors. The second are the “grassroots" activists, who increasingly go beyond wildlife to consider people, communities and the environment as a whole, guided by a sense of justice, rather than preservation alone. It is the first group that has the most power within Kenya’s current conservation landscape, which is dominated by institutions called conservancies. The country is home to 167 conservancies, which fall into four categories: private conservancies, which are owned by private individuals; group conservancies, which are set up by groups of private individuals; co-managed conservancies, which are collaborations between the government and individuals or groups; and community conservancies, a newer addition that some activists say are not as inclusive as they sound.

Fear has been at all all-time high within the environmentalist and conservationist communities, especially since they are unable to rely on government support and protection.

The Kenyan Wildlife Conservancies Association, a national umbrella body for these institutions, describes conservancies as “offering hope,” “securing livelihoods” and “reversing wildlife decline, resulting in the protection of Kenya’s iconic wildlife for future generations.” Supporters of the conservancy system say many of these institutions provide jobs for members of local populations, while bringing in visitors to contribute to local economies. But the existence of conservancies in Kenya is far from a win-win situation for everyone involved. According to the work of Francis Mwaura, a conservation expert from the University of Nairobi, prior to British colonialism, wildlife heritage ownership in Kenya was very much communal, although the particular approach varied among different groups. In some communities, animals were used for ceremonial purposes, or seen as totems and therefore protected. There were very few, he writes, that chose to use “wild game as a source of food, clothing, ornaments or currency”—with the exception of the small groups that were engaged in the East African ivory trade. In fact, as John Waithaka writes, Indigenous communities were already “able to sustain ecologically viable resource management systems with considerable success” before the British arrived in 1895. British colonialism brought with it professional hunters keen to kill and collect large game, particularly elephants, as “trophies.” As a result of this and other colonial practices, thousands of wildlife had been killed by white farmers and colonial officials by the mid-1930s. The significant drop in wildlife populations eventually inspired calls for the creation of national parks and reserves where the hunting, killing or capturing of fauna and destruction of flora would be prohibited. It is clear that Kenyans and Indigenous Kenyan institutions largely did not play a role in these population declines. Nevertheless, as tourism researcher John S. Akama has explained, advocates of conservation at the time led with the assumption that precolonial resource management systems and practices were inadequate, ill-equipped and ultimately incapable of tackling the problem at hand. Rather than reverting to precolonial conservation practices, the British established formal conservation areas, “mark[ing] a major departure from communal or customary ownership” to a “state property regime,” Mwaura explains. The creation of these reserves involved displaced Indigenous communities that had coexisted alongside wildlife populations, separating them from their ancestral homes and from the animals and environments that formed central parts of their heritage. Over time, many Kenyans came to see the conservation initiatives as ploys for white Westerners to seize yet more land and agency from Kenyans—under the guise of solving a problem the colonists themselves had caused. Yet even after Kenya declared its independence from Britain in 1963, these reserves and parks remained. Over the years, various governments have enacted different wildlife management and conservation policies—but, as critics like ecologist and conservation writer Mordecai Ogada have argued, the state’s approach to these projects has not changed. “The practice of conservation and the narrative around African wildlife is a kingdom, albeit without a single monarch. The monarchy and nobility consist of an eclectic mix of royalty, commoners, idlers, misfits, scientists, killers (who refer to themselves as ‘hunters’) across a very broad spectrum of backgrounds,” Ogada wrote in The Elephant. “We have youthful cowboys in their 20s, and we have octogenarians. There are also wealthy lords and scruffy backpackers. The one thread that links them is the fact that they are all white.” Kiprop, the activist, agrees. “In Kenya, conservation cannot be separated from whiteness,” she noted during an interview with WPR. “This is why wildlife conservation remains at the forefront of everything: Because it is prioritized by white Westerners.”

Race and Conservation

To this day, conservation in Kenya remains rooted in and upheld by white privilege, Ikal Angelei, a Kenyan environmental activist and director of the Friends of Lake Turkana organization, explained in an interview. Many conservancies are run by white conservationists, and the decision to approve these projects is often justified “with the argument that white people have the resources” to take proper care of the land. Western donors, she adds, are attracted to the “convenience” of conservation projects. As an example, Angelei pointed to Prince Harry, who in 2019 said he and his wife, Megan Markle, were keen to spend “the rest of our lives” working on conservation in Africa, commenting, “There’s a lot of problems here, but there’s huge potential for solutions.”
Prince Harry in an operation to fit electronic tracking devices to critically endangered black rhinos.
Prince Harry in an operation to fit electronic tracking devices to critically endangered black rhinos in 2017 (Photo by KGC-375/STAR MAX).
“That is very patronizing, that just because you sit in a place of privilege and you are British, that you have the solutions,” Angelei said. The privileging of white and Western approaches to conservation persists on a systemic level, too. Angelei explained that nongovernmental organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund or the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, as well as foreign agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development, tend to direct their aid to the conservancy system, rather than supporting new, Indigenous-led conservation projects. “Why is it that we are easily giving out our national heritage to other people to determine how it is managed?” Angelei asked. To her, a better approach to conservation would be “holistic,” considering more than just wildlife. “Where I come from and where I sit, conservation is really around an ecosystem. That means the relationship between water, land, forests, parks, animals and people’s livelihoods,” Angelei said. Similarly, she noted that while white-dominated spaces tend to focus on “conservation” alone, people of color in Kenya and globally tend to talk more about “environmental justice.” The problem with a conservation-only approach is perhaps best exemplified in the recurring violent conflicts between conservationists and pastoralists, who have fought over access to protected land. As security and governance expert Abdullahi Boru Halakhe wrote for Al Jazeera in 2017, “Discussions on wildlife conservation and pastoralism in Kenya are always cast in Manichean terms; wildlife conservancy is ‘good’ and pastoralism is ‘bad.’” Conservationists view pastoralism as being detrimental to wildlife and as having “little economic value,” while pastoralists see conservation as “land grabs,” Halakhe explained.

“In Kenya, conservation cannot be separated from whiteness.”

Indeed, the economic aspect of these conflicts is key. Private owners of protected land often develop and market new conservancies as tourist attractions, which generate revenue. But pastoralists who lose access to the land and livestock see their livelihoods take a hit. “And when they revolt against it, they are branded ‘criminals,’” Kipror said. Economic incentives also explain the actions of the Kenyan government, Kiprop argues. Official authorities “see little value” in protecting and aiding pastoralist communities, but are highly motivated by the prospect of economic growth through development and tourism.

A ‘Decolonized’ Conservation—and Beyond

In the 1990s, conservationists attempted to make their work more inclusive by building “community conservancies,” partnerships between conservationists and local communities to conserve habitats and wildlife and to attract tourism, with profits going back to the community. To some extent, this model has worked to spread the economic benefits. A recent study of the Naibunga Community Conservancy in northern Kenya found that “a vast majority (nine-tenths) of local community members perceived that their overall socioeconomic status had improved” since its establishment. Respondents to the study’s survey also noted other improvements, including to the region’s “security situation, household income, livestock numbers, and accessibility to grazing resources, schools, and health facilities,” which they attributed to conservancy-led initiatives. However, there are those that question the ethics and impact of community conservancies. One activist in northern Kenya, who asked to remain anonymous, said that her community remains under constant pressure to vacate their land from conservationists supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust. According to the activist, while the NRT claims its community conservancies are supported and led by local communities, it often obtains that support through intimidation, and community members are rarely involved in decision-making. “Community conservancies are just another legacy of the colonial model,” the activist added. “It is not inclusive and simply allows those working in conservation to look as if they are doing good by working with the locals.” An increasingly common framing for addressing the legacies of colonialism across the world has been “decolonization”—the “political, economic, cultural and epistemic overcoming of empire and its legacies,” as historian Adom Getachew explained to WPR in 2020. But the activist from northern Kenya said “decolonization” might not be a good fit for the conservation issue. “If we say ‘decolonize,’ that does not necessarily remove [conservation] from a neoliberal capitalist model,” she said. “Furthermore, a lot of the people leading these approaches can argue that they are Kenyan,” as many are third-generation descendants of families who moved to Kenya during the colonial period. A better solution, she said, would be “creating an indigenous model to conservation” to supplant the colonial-era conservation system. For Kiprop, an Indigenous model of conservation would start with education, and specifically with sharing Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous approaches to conservation. Any new initiatives would also need to include Indigenous people at all decision-making levels and ensure that Indigenous communities are given access and rights to the land, even when it is “protected” from development and other uses. “We’ve got to understand that conservation has been a way of life for many local communities—from Indigenous groups to pastoralists—and that current approaches are leaving them disenfranchised,” Kiprop said. However, a true overhaul of Kenya’s conservation system would require the government’s support—and considering its approach to environmental issues thus far, building momentum for fundamental reforms won’t be easy. Until activist and Indigenous voices are not only protected, but heard and heeded, Kenya’s conservation space will continue to be plagued by controversy and violence.

Samira Sawlani is a journalist, writer and analyst with a focus on East Africa. She writes a weekly column in The Continent and has been published in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, VICE and African Arguments, among others. She has a master’s in international studies and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies and previously worked in the humanitarian aid sector.

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