The British Empire Library

Eroding The Commons: The Politics Of Ecology In Baringo, Kenya, 1890 -1963

by David Anderson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by John Peberdy (Department/Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya 1954-70)
This book covers attempts to develop parts of semi-arid areas of Kenya's Baringo District between 1890 and 1963. Based on archival records and discussion with some of the people involved, it is well sourced and annotated. Detail is its strength although more references should have been cited on the rising concerns about land degradation and related poverty driving the desire to change. It describes attempts to bring better land use in four areas (i) reducing trespass in the disputed settlement areas of Esageri and Solai, (ii) preserving Lembus Forest for commercial forestry rather than permitting expansion of human settlement, (iii) developing a medium sized, self-financing irrigation settlement scheme at Perkerra, and most significantly in sociological and environmental terms, (iv) trying to improve lowland grazing management through control of stock numbers and movement together with reintroduction of fire.

The outcome of these attempts tends to be portrayed as colonial will being finally overcome by African determination, since trespass continued, forest was eventually lost, organised grazing management failed and Perkerra proved uneconomic. The colonials are blamed for lack of understanding and failing to take the people with them. Is this the whole story? Were the colonials the only losers? Were they wrong to try and were there other alternatives? Development is a continuum and much good has happened subsequently affected by what went before.

Anderson is correct in describing the politics of Lembus Forest, Esageri and Solai borderlands as a need for land and entitled to believe the 1932 Land Commission was wrong in its assessment of rights and in the alleged bias of Commissioners. However, the preservation of forest reserves and control of soil erosion were significant world concerns at the time and all evidence suggested that transfer would have wrought denudation with relatively little benefit. With limited resources and logistics, these areas were maintained generally intact despite the conflicts he describes.

The symbiotic relationship described between Tugen and Masai is questionable. Masai departure however, did lead to a land grab to fill the vacuum by those who had stock, leading quickly to loss of grass cover and soil, followed by severe bush encroachment as fire declined. A phenomenon repeated elsewhere in East Africa. Anderson is correct in describing the Administration's despair at a time when the world was concerned about famine, but various strategies were discussed at all levels and Local Land Use bye-laws passed. Following staff increases in the 1950s, arable conservation improved, but lowland overgrazing remained intractable. The root of the problem was sociological not administrative. Methods to bring back some order to the Commons were world-wide concerns and Kenya was at the forefront with its attempts to develop rotational grazing for reconditioning. Field experiments in Baringo demonstrated the advantages of reseeding, rest, fire and even mechanical clearing and herbicide control. The dire circumstances did encourage some graziers to support block grazing, but the internal social contradictions of personal objectives made full compliance impossible without an administrative control which was unattainable. But many lessons were learnt by all concerned, in Baringo and elsewhere, leading to the establishment in the Ministry of Agriculmre of a specialist Range Management Division in 1963. It created entities where stockowners had legal rights and responsibilities and ran their own schemes. These proved impractical in Baringo where some of the area has beneficially moved to individual land ownership.

Who have been the winners and losers in Baringo? Could it have happened any differently? Perhaps this should be Anderson's sequel.

British Empire Book
David Anderson
James Currey Ltd
0 85255 468 0


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