A woman leads a herd of goats while carrying a tree log in Tamil Nadu. Weak tenure arrangements, complexities of land policies and resource rights need immediate intervention and alternative resolution that is sustainable and inclusive. Photo by: Nicolas Mirguet / Photo by: CC BY-NC

Who owns nature’s resources that are essential for life — sunlight, air, water, soil, minerals, micro-organisms, flora, fauna?

The answer is, often, associated with land rights. For example, ownership of trees is often linked to land ownership, although that’s not universal. In many countries, the “bundles of rights” to resources are held by different owners. In many Western societies, a land title confirms ownership of trees on the land. But, under traditional customary ownership in many developing countries, people may have the right to collect tree products, but not own the land underneath.

In other cases, planting trees may confer, or strengthen, customary ownership of the land beneath the trees. Inorganic plant nutrients in surface soil are normally, in effect, owned with the land, but subsurface minerals of commercial value — ores, hydrocarbons, gems — are property of the land owners in some countries, at times just for fixed periods, and of the state in others. Complex, and often uncertain, rights also exist to indigenous fauna and flora. While air and sunlight are considered “global property,” that doesn’t mean activities on your plot of land that affect these resources may not be regulated to control pollution or shading a neighbor.

Use rights rather than outright ownership are often at the crux of tenure relationships for renewable resources like forests and water. It is no coincidence that these two resources are key in discussions of climate change — forests as affected biodiversity hotspots, carbon sinks and climate change mitigators, and water resource quantity, quality and distribution as directly impacted by global climate factors. As such, these and other resources are at the heart of many intensifying conflicts between rural peoples and between them and government in developing countries.

A recent project in Kenya called ProMara, implemented under the Property Rights and Resource Governance program by Tetra Tech with support by the U.S. Agency for International Development, focused on a suite of land and resource tenure issues in the upper Mara River catchment of the Mau highlands, which form part of the western side of the Great Rift Valley. Originally dense montane forest, some still designated as national or county forest reserve, much of this fertile and moist area is now heavily settled and farmed, including land legally held within the reserves. Population growth rates are twice the national average as a result of new arrivals and high fertility rates. The Mau highlands were also seriously affected by inter-ethnic post-election violence in 2007/8. The root of these conflicts is in tenure of land and other natural resources.

In the precolonial period, the upper Mara River section of Mau forest resources were used by Ogiek hunter-gatherers living deep in the forest, Maasai pastoralists seeking water and forage for livestock, especially in dry periods, and Kipsigis on the edge of and penetrating into forest for farmland. All these groups were also using wood and non-wood plant products for subsistence purposes. During the colonial period, white settlers, and increasing in the post-colonial period, diverse Kenyan ethnic groups, settled in the Mau, degrading further the forest through timber extraction, the expansion of field crop production and industrial agriculture. This influx of people and concomitant central government controls inevitably disrupted customary land and resource tenure arrangements, though these were by no means static before the colonial period.

Downstream, the Mara River provides the permanent water source that drives the annual wildlife migration from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. Dry season flow-reductions linked to deforestation in the Mara jeopardize biodiversity, wildlife viewing and associated tourist revenues. Depletion of water resources affects transboundary water rights since the Mara River flows through Tanzania into Lake Victoria and eventually the Nile.   

ProMara supported a government-led attempt to restore Mau forest and water resources. But how does this restoration attempt affect land and natural resource rights in the upper Mara and the resulting actual and potential conflicts? And how does Kenya manage these issues while transforming from a centralized state, which largely consolidated post-colonial political and economic power in the hands of the few, to a new constitution and land policy that emphasizes individual and community rights, decentralization and resolution of “historical injustices” related to land and natural resources?

What did we learn from ProMara?

Foremost is that land and resource rights are subject to many layers of complexity in areas such as the Mau where land rights have been in flux for hundreds of years. Understanding and formally recognizing historical injustices is a good start to equitably reaching agreements in disputes.

Climate change in the Mau forest may be affecting the agricultural production systems. In this mountainous area, the optimum temperature for the production of some high-value crops, especially tea, is shifting ever higher. This is leading to new land pressures especially among vulnerable groups displaced by more powerful commercial interests.

New constitutionally mandated land policies are expected to devolve resource management control to local communities. New co-management opportunities are springing up. But much more public education is needed on how to use new constitutional provisions to manage natural resources equitably. Community groups need strengthening to be part of that public education process and to equitably co-manage natural resources, recognizing the rights of different resource users.

In areas like the Mau forest, conflicts are ever-present. Alternative dispute resolution requires capacity building for all stakeholders and for independent, third-party mediation by local civil society organizations. To ensure equitable tenure arrangements for women and youth, their differing roles and relationships to land and natural resources need analysis, recognition that cultural norms will change slowly, and that adult men need to be active and willing participants in the analysis and promotion of interventions that promote equitable tenure.

ProMara was a short intervention that demonstrated alternative mechanisms for “people-centered” conservation of the upper Mara catchment. Recognition of legitimacy of all inhabitants’ interests (including government and commercial interests) is central to managing conflicts around land and resource tenure. The project captured the interest of these inhabitants as they felt their voices were heard by political and economic elites, often for the first time.

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

About the author

  • Ian Deshmukh

    Ian Deshmukh is an ecologist and a senior associate at Tetra Tech, for which he has worked since 1985 (then ARD Inc.). For much of that time, he has resided in Africa on field projects. Prior to that he was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, and a visiting scholar at Oxford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

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