Jeevan Vasagar in Laikipia district, Kenya
Sunday 25 July 2004 20.39 EDT
Using a long stick with a hooked tip, Mary Kinyanga tugs a branch of the thorny savannah tree and brings juicy green seed pods cascading down for her goats.
As her flock munches audibly, she casts an envious glance at the neighbouring white-owned ranch, where guests are arriving by light aeroplane for a wedding party.
“They are giving us big problems,” Ms Kinyanga says of her neighbours. “They have grass. We need the land. It belongs to us, but if somebody goes grazing there, they get put in jail.”
Driven from their land at gunpoint in 1911, Masai tribes in Kenya’s Laikipia district are demanding the return of their ancestral territory. Their campaign pits them against a handful of white farmers whose families created vast ranches on the land after the expulsion of the tribes.
But the farmers accuse the Masai of destructive overgrazing of the land, and fear that attempts to reclaim the territory will spell doom for its wildlife and ruin a lucrative tourist trade.
The Masai campaign is based on a belief that a treaty signed with the British colonial government in 1904 gave the colonial power a 100-year lease on their ancestral lands, which will expire next month.
“Everyone is aware of the impending land issue,” says Michael Dyer, whose family owns the 13,000-hectare (32,000-acre) Borana ranch. “We had nothing to do with the ancestral land being taken away. We do recognise there is an issue [but] we are concerned about the ecological preservation of a very valuable resource.”
The vast Laikipia plateau stretches across 2m acres of mountain, savannah and forest from Mount Kenya in the east to the Rift valley in the west. Local wildlife experts say it is home to more endangered wildlife than anywhere else in Kenya, including more than half the country’s rhino population and 80% of the world’s population of Grevy’s zebra.
In recent years, prompted by falling beef prices, the white ranchers have shifted from farming to ecotourism for the ultra-rich: prices at some lodges top $500 (£270) a night.
“It does not matter to me who owns the land,” Mr Dyer says of the Masai claim. “It is more important what happens to it. Sections of the land are vastly overgrazed.”
There is a stark and visible contrast between the regions of Laikipia where the Masai are free to wander and the commercial ranches. The hills where Mary Kinyanga’s goats graze are bare and brown; the grass is baked a bright yellow in the dry season, and there is little sign of wildlife.
The white ranches are lusher and vast herds of elephants, giraffe and antelope roam behind electric fences.
But an expert on the resettlements argues that the Masai were forced into overgrazing by British colonial policies which took their best land and confined them to reserves.
“Of course they overgrazed,” says Lotte Hughes, an east African historian at St Antony’s College, Oxford. “They were confined to reserves, banned from leaving them, and banned from selling their surplus cattle because the British were obsessed by the idea of ‘disease-infested’ native cattle alongside exotic, imported stock.”
Dr Hughes criticises the wildlife preservation argument as the “Fortress Conservation model”.
“People don’t seem to realise that the landscape is shaped by people and their domestic herds,” she says. “For centuries there was no problem.”
The campaign to win the return of Laikipia was launched at the weekend by Osiligi, the community group which was instrumental in the Masai’s successful campaign for compensation from the Ministry of Defence for alleged injuries from British army ordnance.
In September 2002 a group of Massai and Samburu tribesmen received a £4.5m settlement for injuries and deaths blamed on munitions left over from British soldiers’ training exercises. That payment, and a further £500,000 settlement in February this year, has encouraged the belief that the Masai can win further compensation.
At a press conference staged with theatrical flair, the community group gathered 18 Masai elders, who dressed in their traditional scarlet robes and chanted a battle song adapted to their new theme.
“God, give us back our land,” a wizened Masai chief crooned, while the men who sat around him in a semi-circle cried their assent with a deep-throated “heh”. “May the world listen to us,” the chief chanted.
James Legei, manager of Osiligi, says: “The movement of the Masai from Laikipia marked the end of us conducting our [religious] ceremonies, because there are sacred sites that are now within electric fences.
“We hope that by August 15 our land will get back to us, and we can go to visit the graves of our great fathers.”
The belief that there is a 100-year lease expiring in August 2004 is the Masai equivalent of an urban myth, however. The 1904 agreement cleared the tribe from prime land to make way for white settlers. Their territory was reduced by two-thirds, but they were permitted to stay in Laikipia. But rather than a lease, the treaty promised the Laikipia plateau to the Masai in perpetuity.
That promise was broken between 1911 and 1913 when the Masai were forced to move from Laikipia to distant reserves.
Dr Hughes says: “I have every sympathy with the Masai. Their sense of betrayal at the hands of the colonial British government is justified and rooted in strong historical evidence that I have spent several years researching.
“But I must point out – with the greatest respect to my Masai friends – that some of the claims [they are making] are factually incorrect. [The 1904 agreement] was not a lease.”
The descendants of the white settlers are conscious of the need to contribute to the wellbeing of the people the British dispossessed. Even in the colonial era, some Masai returned to work for the British and built close ties with white landowners.
Some ranches in the district are now “community-owned” – run by Masai as farms and tourist lodges with the aid of their white neighbours.
Profits from the big ranches have been spent on mobile clinics and schools for the Masai, and the white farmers employ many Masai as park rangers, drivers and domestic staff.
Both the white residents and some Masai fear that the land claims will lead to violence, which will scare away the tourists and ruin livelihoods. David Masere, community liaison officer for the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, says: “It is a fact that this land was taken from the Masai. But if force is used, then we are going to have conflict and we are going to lose a lot.”