In December 1994 the UN General Assembly declared June 17 the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. This year the focus was on turning degraded land into healthy land. In Kenya, communities living in the northern border districts, coastal areas, and many parts of the Rift Valley are already seeing the first signs of desertification.
The resulting challenges of desertification and drought are among the most complex and threatening threats to the world’s community and national stability. This requires urgent action at local and global levels. Desertification, along with climate change, has impoverished the country and its dependent communities. A common denominator of these processes is the removal of topsoil and vegetation cover, which leads to an expansion of the bare soil.
This is a threat to Kenya’s pastureland, which makes up 80 percent of the land mass and the bedrock of our livestock, wildlife, and tourism economies. Unfortunately, competition for water and pasture has led to frequent conflicts. Recently, a conflict between two shepherds over pasture access resulted in the premature death of six people in Buffalo Springs National Reserve. However, the protected areas concept now anchored in Kenya could offer some practical lessons on how to curb desertification and minimize the effects of drought and climate change.
Contrary to the misinformation that protected areas exclude communal livestock, they actually include grazing plans based on traditional grazing norms. This allows the cattle to graze in the open blocks while allowing rest and regeneration on the closed blocks. This concept is a replica of how communities such as the Maasai, Samburu, Rendille, Ilchamus, Turkana, Borana, and other pastoral groups kept the land in a functional state.
This time, however, it is formalized and institutionalized to counter internal forces such as the weakening of traditional norms that regulated grazing.
There is scientific evidence that unmanaged open spaces with poor traditional pasture management, plant diversity and productivity have declined. In addition, the grazing lands’ ability to recover from drought and flood shocks is impaired. These are early signs of desertification. There is evidence of positive effects from this grazing model. A remote sensing analysis of nature reserves in northern Kenya over the past decade shows, for example, that green vegetation, leaf litter and soil moisture have increased significantly in nature reserves compared to non-nature reserves.
These positive changes in vegetation are indicators of an improved habitat through sustainable pasture management. In the Greater Masai Mara, where six nature reserves have existed over the past two decades, the vegetation cover has increased compared to other grazing areas in the country. Hence, the land management conservation model promises a practical way to mitigate droughts, curb desertification, and tackle climate change.
To benefit from this model, further efforts are needed to expand geographic coverage, effective governance and investment by the state, public and private sectors, and increased participation of target communities.