Beatrice Lempaira is a Maasai woman living in a semi-nomadic community on a vast stretch of open land to the northwest of Mount Kenya. Making up one of East Africa’s most famous indigenous groups, these red- and purple-robed Maasai herders have been grazing their cattle on the plains of Kenya and Tanzania for centuries.
Beatrice was the first woman from her village to attend university. Now she’s one of CI’s newest indigenous fellows.
Although once covered in fertile savanna — and still home to iconic species like elephants, zebras and lions — land degradation has become a growing concern in this part of Kenya. A combination of overgrazing, charcoal production, sand mining and climate change has resulted in lands that can no longer sustainably support livestock, threatening local livelihoods and straining household incomes.
In response, nine communities — including Beatrice’s — have rallied together to address the problem of overgrazing and have set aside over 40,000 acres [almost 16,190 hectares] of land for active management.
Since 2009, CI’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Conservation Fellowship has created opportunities for indigenous leaders and scholars to explore solutions to the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss.
The fellowship offers funding for research, which the fellow identifies and leads, as well as funding for professional development activities such as attending conferences or educational courses.
After graduating from university in 2009, Beatrice returned to her community, where she currently manages the collection of group ranches called the Naibunga Conservancy. Many of these villages are practicing “planned grazing,” a practice where livestock are made to mimic how herds of wildebeest and other wild animals use the land. Instead of being allowed to widely graze, livestock are kept in a smaller enclosure that herders move across the land periodically.
These concentrated herds are able to break up the hard land — allowing for water saturation and seed deposits — and provide more manure for soil fertilization. At the same time, the vacant land is able to regenerate.
Planned grazing is not a new concept; in fact, it is based on a traditional method of livestock management. Throughout her eight-month fellowship, Beatrice plans to speak with village elders to document this knowledge, and explore other traditional management techniques that could help these communities be more resilient in the face of a changing climate.
Beatrice also plans to conduct research about the roles that men and women play in decision-making for livestock management. According to traditional Maasai culture, men are the owners of livestock in these communities, with decision-making rights over buying, selling and management of livestock. In part because of this, it is generally men who are elected to the grazing management committee and who attend trainings about how best to graze cattle. Ironically, though, it is women who are expected to look after livestock (in addition to taking care of the family’s food, water and fuelwood needs).
As Beatrice explains, “According to the constitution, women are supposed to account for at least 30% of elected positions, such as on the grazing council, but in reality this is unfortunately not the case.”
Better understanding how men and women use their environment and adapt to changing conditions will be a key element in building climate resilience. Climate change, particularly in arid conditions such as Kenya, can have very different impacts on men and women given their unique roles in natural resource use. For example, increasing drought conditions will result in increasing the distance women must travel to fetch water, collect wood for fuel and fodder for livestock.
Beatrice hopes that by understanding those different roles and responsibilities, as well as supporting and encouraging women to better access information and training and to become more involved in community decision-making, community livestock management can be more equitable.
At the end of the fellowship, Beatrice will present her research at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, held in May in New York City. I look forward to seeing what she discovers.
Kame Westerman is the advisor on gender and conservation in CI’s Center for Environment and Peace.