Managing the Loita Maimina Enkiyio Forest 

By Parselelo Kantai 

“As a Loitan, as the custodians of the forest, we think the idea might sound good,” begins Dennis Sankaire, cautiously, answering my question on the possibilities of developing the Loita Naimina Enkiyio Forest for tourism. We’ve been driving for about an hour since we left Narok. Our next stop is Naroosura, a small trading center where we will buy fuel, sold at the exorbitant but non-negotiable figure of Kshs 67 ($US 0.84) per litre. Enough, we hope, for our tour of Loita division. The road is passable because it is late afternoon and several vehicles – matatus mostly – have gone before us, martyred themselves in the black cotton soil, opened up ruts that we now faithfully follow. It’s green over these plains, amazing how one or two downpours can transform what just a few days ago was a greyish-brown dust-bowl. Several times we pass old skeletons, new carcasses, dwindled herds of emaciated cattle barely saved from death by the recent rain. It rained on Saturday for the first time in a year.  

In his early twenties, and a new graduate of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), where he obtained a diploma in information technology, Dennis is the younger of my two companions. One of the growing number of young Western-educated Loita Maasai, he likes to use such colloquialisms as ‘Loitans’ to define his community. The other is Moses ole Kipelian, 46, a cultural ambassador of the Maasai. He has traveled widely in the USA and Australia giving lectures about Maasai customs and lifestyle. Occasionally, he takes groups of tourists through the Naimina Enkiyio forest. He has just negotiated a deal with the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi to present a series of lectures on the Loita Maasai in February next year. Like most of the money he makes, the proceeds from this lecture will go back to his community, in this case as donations to victims of this year’s drought. 

We move bumpily forward. Morijo, our destination, is still about four hours away, even though it is a mere 60 km away. Before we arrive there we will have to tackle the Naroosura escarpment road, a terribly twisting, terribly dangerous, terribly rocky drive up the Loita hills. In my view this savage parody of a road – you get the feeling that its existence has more to do with fast-flowing water than travelers beating back the bush to create a path — is one of the reasons Loita remains so remote, so cut-off from the outside world. Bad roads, black cotton soil and government apathy. Opinions differ about whether this remoteness is a good or a bad thing. Has it protected the Loitans and the forest from the corruption of the outside world, from ‘private developers’ greedily eyeing the forest and hordes of tourists with their dollars for ‘development’, or has it locked them in?  

“This forest,” says Dennis, “might be developed for tourism but then we are really worried because we might not benefit from it. But generally I think the idea is good as long as we are the ones who do it and not outsiders.” 

Moses holds a different, more cautionary view: “Our traditions have preserved the forest all these years,” he says. “But what would happen if we were to go ahead and develop the forest and a severe drought like this one occurs and nobody could move the cattle to the grazing areas within the forest because of the tourism sites? What would we do?” 

These issues and others are at the heart of a lengthy debate over the future of the Loita Naimina Enkiyio Forest and, indeed, the Loita Maasai. It is a debate that has raged in Loita since June 1993, when the Narok County Council, the legal custodian of the forest, announced its intention to turn the Loita Naimina Enkiyio Forest into a nature reserve and by so doing, open it up for large-scale commercial tourism.  

The Loita Maasai objected. They, not a government agency, were – are – the real custodians of the forest, they said. Any decisions about the future of the forest should, they asserted, be made by them. The forest has been preserved all these years by traditions. A remark Moses had made in earlier during our discussion on tourism in Loita perhaps typifies how fiercely the Loita community protects their forest: “If it was an idea [developing the forest for tourism] from the bona fide owners of the forest it would have been okay…” The high-handedness of the County Council, the epitome the government’s style of governing, the complete lack of consultation was, perhaps, what the Loita Maasai resented most. 

A company they had formed in December 1992 and registered in May 1993, the Loita Naimina Enkiyio Conservation Trust (LNECT), acted as the community’s representative – acted, in effect, as the manager and custodian of the forest. Its officials were a mix of traditional leaders, NGO workers, government representatives and politicians. They included the chief laibon (spiritual leader), the project leader of the Ilkerin Loita Integral Development Project (ILIDP) - the most influential NGO in the area, the government-appointed chief of Loita location, the sitting councillor of the Loita ward in the Narok County Council and the chairmen of the six emurua (sub-locations) in Loita. Commenting on the organisation – it had managed to incorporate formal political structures into a basically traditional one – a World Conservation Union (IUCN) technical report said: “the people of Loita have created a unique combination of power, namely the Loita Council of Elders, which has integrated local government structures into their traditional ones.” 

In September of that year, a Narok County Council meeting reiterated the council’s decision to turn the Loita forest into a nature reserve and further resolved, through Council Minutes 69/93, to request the Registrar of Companies and Societies to de-register the LNECT. The Council felt that the company had overstepped its mandate and had no legal basis for asserting ownership of the forest.  

In May 1994, the LNECT took the Narok County Council to court. In a landmark ruling the court overturned the Narok County Council’s Minutes 69/93. The LNECT also obtained an injunction against any Council decisions over the Loita forest, thus barring the Council from turning the forest into a nature reserve. A ruling on whether the County Council has the right to alienate the forest has, however, not been made. Six years later the people of Loita have won the battle but not the war. The case, nevertheless, set a legal precedent: for the first time customary law was pitted against statutory law and had not buckled. 

The drive up the escarpment is more traumatic than we had anticipated. It rains. A deluge, pouring over massive boulders as we inch forward and upward, struggling to keep the car from slipping 200 feet or more into an abyss, its edge, for the most part of our hour-long ascent, only a few feet away. We arrive in Morijo at 8:30 pm in the middle of the heaviest downpour in Loita for two years. 

Dennis’ grandmother’s house in Morijo, where we spent the night, was unexpected but as I found out later, not unusual: it’s a stone house with a tin roof and wooden beams made of cedar poles harvested from the forest. Two or three adults and three shuka­-clad uncircumcised boys sat in the living room, watching an analysis of the Donde Bill on KBC TV, waiting for dinner. It was a scene repeated that night in many of the homesteads in the area – in the country. So much for remoteness. 

The Forest and Tradition 

At a glance there seems to be little reason for any intervention  in Loita. There is no environmental degradation, no erosion, no serious degradation of rangelands, no overstocking, no large scale agriculture, no severe encroachment in the forest, no commercial exploitation of the forest resources and no threat to the wildlife. There is still a well-functioning system of social control managing the use of the natural resources. 

-   IUCN Technical Report No. 9, “Tenure of Land and Natural Resources in Loita Division, Narok District: Options for Future Management    

The Loita Naimina Enkiyio Forest, classified as dryland afro-montane, stands at an altitude of about 2,300 feet above sea level and covers an area of 33,000 hectares. It is one of the last remaining closed-canopy truly indigenous forests in Kenya. Cedar and podocarpus are the two most numerous tree types. Other species include Olea capensis, Olea africana, Pavetta gardenifolia, Juniperus procera, Zantholyum usambarensis, and Warbugia ugandensis. The hilltops are dominated by afro-montane dry conifer forest and populated mostly by the Juniperus procera, the African Pencil tree; the mid-upland region is dominated by the semi-deciduous species, while mixed species cover the lower regions. Bush, glades and wetlands can also be found throughout the forest. 

The forest supports a vast number of mammals and birds – elephants, buffalo, hippo, antelopes, lions, leopards, cheetah, approximately 100 bird species including some threatened species such as the Grey-crested Helmet Shrike. Naimina Enkiyio is also the only Kenyan site for the Brown-capped Apalis and also supports such globally threatened species as the Red-throated Tit, the Jackson’s Widowbird and the Hunter’s Cisticola. 

Predictably, the forest is the main water-catchment area in the region. Receiving between 600-1,200 mm of rain per year (the surrounding area receives on between 600-700 mm in good years), the forest gives rise to several tributaries of the Ewaso Nyiro river. The value of its water catchment protection services alone is estimated at Kshs 105 million ($US 1.3m) per year.  

The forest remains largely untouched. The huge significance of this fact in a country that has systematically degraded its forest resource to a criminal extent cannot be overstated. In 1963, 30% of the country was forested. Today, forest cover is estimated at 1.4 million hectares, slightly over 2% of the country’s area.    

Early in the morning, the tinkle of cattle-bells echoes across the vast, green panoramic expanse of the Morijo plains. Last night’s rain, today’s mist and mud, tomorrow’s pasture. Across the plains, up in the hills at the edge of the forest is Endasekera, another small trading center and our next stop. 

On the surface, life in Loita is placid, maintaining a cycle established generations ago. Breakfast - these days a cup of tea - take the cattle out in the morning, bring them back in the evening. A community of tall men, handsome women and their cattle, at peace with nature. The simple, stereotypical, romanticized life.  

Beneath this façade, debate over the future of the forest simmers. The court case remains unresolved, although there are indications that an out-of-court settlement is imminent. It will involve, it is said, the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the LNECT and the Narok County Council, a sort of joint ownership and management agreement. But there are other issues beneath even this, and central to all of them is the issue of land ownership.  

Like the Naimina Enkiyio forest, the main resource of the Loita Maasai, all land in Loita is held in trust by the Narok County Council on behalf of the government. In the 1970s, the community resisted government attempts to demarcate the area and issue individual title deeds.  

Land, like the forest, has always been regarded as a communal resource to be used by everyone. Now, however, the threat of increasingly frequent droughts, a rapidly growing population, the widening gulf between rich and poor Loitans and the slow encroachment of modern life is producing subtle changes: cultivation, increasing encroachment on the forest for building materials to construct bigger and bigger houses, poaching. 

Life in Loita has, traditionally, been regulated by a council of elders, the ilaiguanak and the chief laibon, the community’s spiritual leader. “They are lifelong officials chosen by their respective age-groups,” explains Moses ole Kipelian. “Their power stays throughout their lives.” The chief laibon makes all the major decisions on the community’s behalf (and these days passes on those recommendations to the government-appointed District Development Committee); he performs all the major ceremonies of initiation, rites of passage and sacrifice, all of which are held in the forest. The forest is therefore not just an economic resource but the spiritual center of the community. The Council of Elders is the community’s judiciary, settling disputes and meting out punishment, usually in the form of fines. Depending on the seriousness of the matter, however, the laibon can impose curses and, in the severest cases, ostracize an individual from the community. 

That is the extent of their power. Customary law. It is all-encompassing as long as people continue to live within the strictures of Maasai life and law and as long as the outside world does not encroach on the inner, traditional one. The biggest threat to the council of elder’s power had been lurking within the country’s statutes for decades. It only came forward during the dispute between the Loita and the County Council. While written Kenyan law recognizes the authority of customary law, it only does so as long as there is no conflict between the latter and the former. Considering that formal Kenyan law has its origins in colonial law, whose objective as far as environmental and land tenure issues were concerned was to exploit resources rather than to manage them, it becomes clear that conflict is inevitable. 

The Loita Maasai may have won the first round against the County Council but will they win the war? The community now recognizes that in order to secure their land and forest, they have to accept a new property regime. They must privatize their land and create both individual and group holdings. This goes completely against the spirit of communality, but at least it will secure the forest. 

Meanwhile, the forest faces other threats. Since the 1993 drought, whose severity matches the present one, the Loita have turned to a semi-sedentary life. These days each family has set aside a portion of their land for cultivation.  “In 1993, we were on relief food from the donors,” recalls Moses. “We began to rely on relief food. We became beggars. People now know that they should start cultivating to build a store of food for the dry season.” 

Today, 5,347 acres of Loita land are under cultivation, according to IUCN estimates. Individual farmed settlements average 2.4 acres, usually under maize and beans. While most of the farms are on the plains, there are now more and more settlements at the edge of the forest. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that in a few years, when subsistence agriculture has given way to commercial farming, people will begin to fence-off individual holdings and move closer to the water-catchment areas. Cattle will be unable to reach traditional dryland pastures within the forest. The delicate ecosystem of the water-catchment area will be destroyed. Today, the Loita Maasai protect the forest from this: “If the agriculturalist tries to cut the forest, he will find the Maasai saying, ‘don’t cut trees from the forest and don’t cultivate near the rivers’,” says Major (rtd) Raphael Loolopapit. But what happens when the cattle-keeper begins to rely increasingly on farming, for security against drought, when his herds have been decimated and he faces the humiliation of relief food? A type of conflict unknown to Loita, that between livestock-keeper and farmer, a conflict with himself, may ensue.

Talking to us at his home in Endasekera, Major Loolopapit, an outspoken independent-minded elder, comments on the effects of this latest drought: “During this particular drought, I must admit that we have destroyed a lot of olive branches to feed our cattle, particularly on the periphery of the forest. But it was necessary because without our livestock we do not have much to live for.” Then he goes to the heart of the matter: “Our forest is not exceptional. This forest may come to be destroyed – by the Maasai themselves. We used to live in huts which required very few branches. Now we are building more sophisticated houses.” He points at his roof: “Look at it. All that is timber, cedar. The Maasai are moving away from tradition - from the old to the new. Can you imagine the extent of destruction just in this area alone?” 

What Can Be Done? 

There is, presently, no legal opening which would allow the Loita community to have exclusive property rights or to independently manage their forest. Only a Presidential decree or the granting of the forest to the Loita people by the Narok County Council would make this possible, under the Local Government Act…” 

- IUCN Technical Report No. 9. 

“We have now felt that there is a need to have a more organized way to protect the forest,” says Raphael Loolopapit. “Now there is need not just to go with the traditional way of doing things but to create a new forest management policy and a new way of policing the forest.” 

Along with the issues of ownership and management of the forest, is the fact – and the Loita have now recognized this – that they have little in the way of technical know-how to sustainably manage the forest when faced with the unique challenges of working in a world that is quickly closing in on them. As a result, they have for the past two years been working with IUCN to build the skills that will enable them to confront the modern world and modern law from a position of strength. The IUCN project, whose objective is to build capacity among the Loita community to manage their forest sustainably, started by emphasizing awareness of legal rights and possibilities.  

Unlike so many projects of its kind, which start off from the premise that the community knows nothing, which adopt the missionary position – we, the NGO, are here to preach, you, the community, are here to un-learn the knowledge bequeathed to you by tradition and absorb the modern new ways we are peddling – this project has, in its preparatory phase, adopted a give-and-take approach. The community educates the NGO as much as the NGO educates them.  

This attitude, of making intelligent compromises with outsiders (including the talk about a Memorandum of Understanding between the Loita and the County Council), is perhaps the only way the community can continue to protect and own the forest, while preventing the danger that they will destroy it themselves.  

“What we need to do is educate the people,” Dennis Sankaire had said, talking about another problem - managing vast herds in the face of cyclical and ever-more-severe droughts. “That is perhaps, not the biggest challenge. Educating them in the right things is.”


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