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Kenya on the Brink

In Kenya a cataclysmic change in land ownership and use is happening. After reforms placed land in the hands of small farmers, it appeared Kenya was leading the way in social justice, but the new ownership meant large foreign companies could easily pick off owners and slowly gather enormous farm holdings. Most of these companies want to grow cheap fruit and vegetables for export. Their standards in terms of pay and ecological practices are low.

As this new agricultural land frontier creeps towards Kenya’s prized game areas, a new threat has emerged. The great migrations will be disrupted, perhaps ended. But local people are fighting back. Near Masai Mara, a group of 500 Masai landowning families have put their small plots together to create a new conservation zone, the Naboisho. It is one of many new cooperative ventures that seek to preserve the land for wild animals and pastoralists.

At Naboisho the locals are leasing the land to tourist companies who are obliged to train and employ the local people. It is causing a huge social change. We follow some of the Masai men and women who have been affected: in particular John Saruni, a local Masai and community development worker. He is trying to keep the conservancy project on track, balancing very different forces of foreign investors and local herders. It is complex and exhausting. We see him grappling with many issues: a leopard has been attacking sheep and the people want it killed, other people have driven cattle deep into the protected zone, a contractor has failed to put a roof on the medical clinic, foreign clients want to come and have a luxury stay in a tented camp, and never far away are the local politicians who will sell out to the foreign agricultural multinationals.

It is vital, both for local people and wildlife, that Naboisho succeeds, but for now it is forever on the brink of disaster: too few tourists, too many mouths to feed. And all around, throughout John’s work, we are aware of the environmental threats: drought and lions - Naboisho has more of the big cats than anywhere else in Kenya and they are an ever-present danger. The only consolation is that they are here to feed on the vast herds of wildebeest – if they come. As the rainy season approaches, everyone waits to see if the migratory herds will arrive, as they have for centuries. Naboisho is unique in gathering herds from two great East African migration routes. Without these visitors, the conservancy, and all the hopes of the local Masai, cannot survive.

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