Story and Photos by Kang-Chun Cheng

 In August 2020, an enterprise called KiliAvo Fresh Ltd began establishing an avocado farm on its 72-hectare (180 acres) plot in a critical wildlife corridor and dispersal area 20km east of the main gate to Amboseli National Park in southwestern Kenya.

Goats grazing just outside a herding family’s home. Pastoralism is a staple livelihood within Kajiado County, which speaks to its significant Maasai population.

KiliAvo had obtained a licence from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) despite concerns over its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on a parcel of land constituting the former Kimana Tikondo Group Ranch. The natural vegetation was cleared and electric fences set up around its perimeters, partially obstructing wildlife movement and disrupting communal pastures where local herders swap and share grazing resources.

The drylands of Amboseli accommodate the needs of livestock and wildlife, whose fates are inextricably linked. For both, mobility is essential. In a resource-scarce environment, the survival of all animals depends on constant movement to viable resources. Rangers and herders alike understand how these animals constitute the local economy and Maasai culture.

The thorny forage that livestock munch on appears so unpalatable to humans that the conversion of prickly dryland bush into meat and milk seems like a small miracle. No wonder the Maasai consider their cattle as gifts from the great god, N’gai.

Kajiado County has seen rapid changes in land use, from British colonial rule to the formation of Group Ranches in the 1960s, post-Kenyan independence, to secure land against non-Maasai moving in and expropriating the most arable fields. A side effect of Group Ranches was sedentarization, decreasing the degree to which livestock roam to satisfy their grazing needs.

The entrance to a manyatta (a community meeting place consisting of groups of huts within a common fence) a few kilometres from the main gate of Amboseli National Park. There tends to be a lot of foot traffic at the end of each day as herders guide their livestock home for the night.

Subdivisions for which title deeds were issued to individual owners – followed not long after by granting landowners the right to sell their land as they pleased. In 2000, Kimana Tikondo was partitioned into 0.8-hectare agricultural parcels in areas close to permanent water sources, and 28-hectare (60 acres) ranch plots in open semi-arid rangeland. This assigned land title deeds for both an agricultural and a ranch plot to every Maasai man who had been registered as a member of the Group Ranch.

In KiliAvo’s case, the land had been purchased in 2019 from an ethnic Kikuyu owner who had purchased it from the original Maasai titleholder.

Post subdivision, two-thirds of the former Kimana Tikondo Group Ranch from the Maasai community merged their plots in 2008, establishing the Amboseli Landowners Conservancies Association (ALOCA) with support from African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

Feeling the pressures on pastoral social networks, ALOCA aggregated access to individual plots in a bid to avoid the vulnerability of fragmentation from the subdivision, allowing their livestock to graze across borders through the use of reciprocal rights and obligations as they always had. The proximity of the ALOCA conservancies to Amboseli National Park had also created investment opportunities for wildlife tourism businesses, and knock-on benefits for local community members who benefit from land lease payment and employment among other tourism-related income streams. The Amboseli region illustrates how although land tenure may change, strategic land use can maintain continuity.

Pastoralism is grounded in traditional social networking customs. Trust is imperative. In the Maasai system, livestock is permitted to move on various owners’ land as imposed by the seasons and conditions. Movement is the lifeforce of pastoralism. In 2009, an extended drought forced many Maasai to walk with their herds to areas near the port city of Mombasa — more than 400km away — in search of pasture and water. That was the only way to survive.

This collective mobilization illustrates Maasai pastoralists’ adaptive management strategies. It is their way of combating the tragedy of the commons, a pitfall endemic to Western capitalistic systems of ownership. But other ramifications of the subdivision persisted, including opportunities for outsiders to further fragment a livelihood already under threat.

A view from within the fenced land of KiliAvo leading down to its operational facilities and boreholes.

As the ecological demands of drylands are exacerbated by growing human and livestock populations and land-use change, including irrigation and deforestation, it is a matter of time before one too many structural changes induce a system collapse. Collaborative strategies only work within policy constraints – and on the condition that incoming players abide by the rules.

KiliAvo is situated in a truly stunning location. On a clear day, the snowy caps of Kilimanjaro seem tantalizingly within reach. It is also in the middle of the Kimana wildlife dispersal area, which serves as a corridor of conservancies linking Amboseli National Park with Kimana Sanctuary and opening into the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo West to the north and east respectively.

This site fundamentally lacks water. The estimated volume of water required to sustain the 72 hectares of KiliAvo surpasses the current annual output of the local aquifer, one that thousands of people and livestock rely on. Jeremiah Saalash, a shareholder and manager of KiliAvo, conveyed his vision of the future from the path leading down to one of KiliAvo’s newly-drilled boreholes: “Soon, this area will be covered with farms just like this one. My ancestors farmed in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, and I have made it here.”

This story is neither about avocados nor elephants. Both are offshoots of the heart of the issue — land usage rights. KiliAvo’s potential operations, before the National Environment Tribunal (NET), dismissed its appeal on 26th April 2021, stemmed from ambiguity regarding the definition of the term ‘agricultural’ in land-use guidelines from the local zoning authority, the Kajiado County Council. The chief lands officer has since clarified that the ‘agricultural’ land is in this case meant for livestock production, as zoned by local management plans for the area where KiliAvo’s plots are situated.

Parmuya Ole Timoye, a camp manager at Amboseli Bush Camp, leading the way past man-made water holes designed to attract wildlife for guests to view.

NEMA on 27th April 2021 revoked KiliAvo’s licence to farm vegetables, including avocados in the Kimana area of Amboseli. In a statement, local community members commended NEMA for following through with its warning from September 2020 regarding concerns about KiliAvo’s Environmental Impact Assessment. (The first application had been denied in August 2019 due to concerns over water sourcing in the semi-arid area and chemical leaching from fertilizer-rich runoff.)

Benson Leiyan, Chief Operating Officer for Big Life Foundation, says that the decision to cancel KiliAvo’s permit illustrates “the systems and institutions regulating how Kenya balances development with environmental protection are strong … [the decision] sends a very clear message that only sustainable enterprises that fit with local land-use plans and that conserve the environment for people and wildlife are welcome in the Amboseli ecosystem.”

Furthermore, both NET and NEMA’s rulings were a win for local communities, whose interests are too often sidelined in the development trajectory.

Kenneth Nashuu is a retired warden whose 40-year career with the Kenya Wildlife Service took him across Kenya. He spoke of an ideological schism between those who do not come from pastoral backgrounds and the local Maasai community. The former may not understand or care about the integration of wildlife with livestock and their mutually dependent dynamic. It is this exact awareness that has fuelled Maasai culture into the 21st Century.

Abrupt transitions in land-use systems have historically been costly to the most vulnerable and poverty is generally high amongst East Africa’s pastoral households. Shocks to the system may only aggravate destitution. Nashuu anticipates a grim transition. “When people change their livelihood, what happens is poverty. A loss of culture.”

Cattle egrets feeling very much at home amongst elephants in Kimana Sanctuary. Kimana Sanctuary is special. The Sanctuary is a central part of a crucial corridor that links Amboseli National Park with the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo protected areas, providing animals with a route through the narrowest part of the space between two settled areas. Leased from the local community, it hosts majestic elephant bulls and family herds as they undertake their seasonal journeys.

It is worth noting that the Maasai are not against farming by any means. Many are smallholder farmers who grow maize, beans, onions, and other vegetables along wetland areas adjacent to rivers or natural water sources. It is the location and scale of KiliAvo that raises concern, as well as the precedent that would be set if the development were allowed to continue. Runaway land conversion would result as investors pour money into an activity that might deliver short-term profits, but is completely unsustainable in the long term.

The loss of land extends far beyond the plot itself in true domino-effect fashion. “Everything is connected here,” said Parmuya ole Timoye, a manager at nearby Amboseli Bush Camp. “One person’s actions can affect everyone else.” By obstructing wildlife migration corridors, eliminating critical pastures for local Maasai herders, and monopolizing scant resources, a farm such as KiliAvo is fundamentally incompatible with the drylands of Kimana. “It will be very expensive to translocate animals, even more, costly to lose them,” Nashuu pointed out.

Although the KiliAvo case served as a critical milestone for both wildlife conservation and the continuity of Maasai pastoralism and signalled to potential investors that such a farm does not align with land usage goals in the area, the story does not end there.

As of June 2021, KiliAvo had rejected both the Tribunal’s dismissal of its case and NEMA’s decision to revoke the company’s licence. KiliAvo has launched a separate legal process at a separate court to overturn the rulings against it. Investors have the option of appealing NEMA’s licence revocation and can revise strategies and submit a new EIA. Only after exhausting these options will KiliAvo be laid to rest. Meanwhile, several witnesses report it continues to operate at the farm site.

Kang-Chun Cheng is a Nairobi-based freelance environment photojournalist with an interest in community-based natural resources management.