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The Maasai and Rendille Indigenous communities in Kenya are facing an existential threat to their lands; development impacts to their wildlife-rich territories are killing off species at an alarming rate. Local communities recently shared their concerns, their community conservation practices, and the threats their territories and efforts are facing. Such community efforts are vital to biodiversity conservation and strengthening Indigenous Peoples’ rights over their lands, and their participation in policy work is crucial if biodiversity loss is to be curbed.

This photo essay is the effort of the Community Conservation Resilience Initiative, a joint effort of a large number of Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, women’s groups, and NGOs coordinated by the Global Forest Coalition, which is carrying out bottom-up participatory assessments of community-led conservation efforts in 22 countries.

View of the forested Great Rift Valley Kenya from Escarpment Road, which runs between Nairobi and Narok County. Photo credit: Jeanette Sequeira

Narok County’s inhabitants are mostly the Maasai Indigenous Peoples. It is also home to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which has some of the most stunning wildlife in the world. The Maasai peoples are principally nomadic pastoralist communities and have co-existed with the wildlife here for centuries.

Two indigenous communities, the Maasai from Trans Mara, Narok County, and the Rendille from Kargi, Kamboye, Korr and Logologo of Marsabit County carried out an assessment of their conservation practices as well as threats their efforts face. The communities explained that in the past their territories were abundant with flora and fauna, but they can see the biodiversity decreasing year by year.

The Nyekweri Kimintet Forest is the last remaining indigenous-controlled forest in Trans Mara with a total area of 216km2. This area has forests, wildlife, grasslands and the River Mara. Photo credit: Edna Kaptoyo

The predominantly Maasai Indigenous Peoples here are taking key steps to protect their forest areas. Community members here donated their private lands and created the 6,000-acre, indigenous-managed Nyekweri Forest Kimintet Trust in 2005 to conserve the forests and wildlife in this area.

These forests are socially and culturally significant for the Maasai peoples who have conserved them through their customary laws.

The forests host sacred sites, provide medicinal plants, honey, fodder for livestock, building materials, and wood fuel among other things. The forest is home to diverse wildlife like buffaloes, elephants, waterbucks, impalas, and leopards. More than 200 species of birds including Turacos, Trogons, Eagles, Wood-hoopoes and Hornbills are found here.

Indigenous Maasai women gathered at a community meeting in Kimintet, Lolgorian Trans Mara. Photo credit: Edna Kaptoyo

Maasai are a patriarchal society and indigenous women are primarily care givers, rarely participating in decision making bodies. In this photo, the women have gathered with the support of the Indigenous Information Network, a Kenyan community organization to discuss the key problems that they face and their role in community conservation.

Women are in charge of domestic chores such as fetching water, getting fuel wood from forests, cooking, taking care of children. Men are responsible for taking care of livestock. Often men spend periods of time away from home and women become the sole breadwinners of their households raising their income through sale of beadwork.

Women are the holders of traditional knowledge relevant for conservation and ensure inter-generational learning and transmission of knowledge and values.

Although Kenya has set up affirmative action policies to redress any disadvantage suffered by women and set up the National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC), women continue to face discrimination. Women pointed out that there needs to be a continuous process of conversation in the community to influence men to support women in decision making.

Rendille women in Marsabit. Rendilles are nomadic pastoralists keeping camels, goats, and sheep. Because of acute drought, most of the men had migrated away. Photo credit: Edna Kaptoyo

Like Maasai women, Rendille women too are the principle caretakers. Among their other roles, both Maasai and Rendille women are responsible for constructing houses for the family and continue with the practice to date.

Many Rendille women in Marsabit have been vocal against extractive industry activities that took root in their community without their free prior and informed consent.

Rendille women milking their goat. The life of the Rendilles is closely tied to their camels and goats. More frequent droughts are killing off livestock, affecting their livelihoods, and leading to migration of the men. Photo credit: Alice Lesepen

Traditional Rendille huts, built by women using locally gathered material. This is a cultural center built by the Merigo Women’s Group of Marsabit, which is run entirely by indigenous women. The group’s principle aim is to promote Rendille culture and environmental conservation, and also to engage with women’s issues. The women convinced local leadership to acquire the land for this space. The center provides various training classes, including adult education, and shepherd classes (night school) for indigenous children who take care of livestock during the day and may miss out on school. Photo credit: Edna Kaptoyo

Charcoal burning, deforestation and soil degradation are major threats to Nyekweri Forest and other forests, resulting in loss of key tree species and wild animals. These affect the habitat of the wild animals living in these forests. Above: Impact of charcoal burning resulting in forest fires in Nyekweri Forest. Photo credit: Edna Kaptoyo

Over-exploitation of biomass driven by high energy demand for industrial and domestic use poses a serious threat to biodiversity. The use of inefficient technologies in charcoal making contributes to losses in energy. Cutting down trees for charcoal and building poles has threatened acacia, alea and terminalia species with extinction. Recent statistics indicate 416 bags of charcoal bags are sold in Marsabit town daily. Sixty-three per cent of the urban population in Marsabit Central uses firewood.

Volunteer scouts guarding the forest from illegal charcoal burners, illegal loggers and poachers. Photo credit: Edna Kaptoyo

In order to protect the forest from threats, community members voluntarily conserve their area, carry out reforestation initiatives to restore degraded areas with indigenous tree species and support volunteer game scouts in monitoring the conservation area. Such efforts require both policy and financial support.

Maasai and Ogiek indigenous children, students at Eor-Ewuaso Primary School in Narok County, Kenya, are performing a song and dance about the importance of protecting water and trees in the community. They have a strong ethic of protecting Mother Nature and routunely carry out tree planting, conservation, restoration and other activities as part of their education. “Educating youth about biodiversity protection at a young age will ensure that our territories are conserved,” said Edna Kaptoyo of the Indigenous Information Network. Photo credit: Jeanette Sequeira

Students at Eor-Ewuaso Primary School in Narok County have put up signs throughout the area to remind the community to conserve and protect the local forests. Photo credit: Jeanette Sequeira

Rendille women from Korr in a mapping exercise, while a little girl keenly watches. These Rendille women are collectively drawing a map of their territory. This helps them demarcate boundaries, point out threats and encroachments like charcoal burning and deforestation, and map their community territories. Young children also participate in such activities and there is an important exchange of knowledge. This is a way for the women to understand and collectively decide how to address the threats to their territories and conserve the biodiversity within. Photo credit: Edna Kaptoyo