Over the past few months, huge swathes of Kenya’s Chyulu Hills have been on fire. The mountain range in eastern Kenya covers approximately 100km. It’s an impressive sight, consisting of several hundred small flows and cones.

Although fires were traditionally used for pasture management, recurrent uncontrolled fires in the hills have been linked to illegal activities. The fires are often attributed to squatters who live there.

They have been known to use fires as a form of passive resistance in an attempt to draw attention to their plight. But the fires are also linked to illegal activities by other groups. This includes charcoal production, poaching, marijuana cultivation, the extraction of the stimulant plant khat and harvesting of valuable sandalwood.

All of this has had a devastating impact on the Chyulu Hills, which have been nominated as a UNESCO world heritage site.

They are rich in biodiversity and contain both animals and plants of high ecological value. The range is part of a major wildlife corridor and is an important water catchment for the Mzima springs – a series of natural springs in the arid Tsavo National Park. The hills also host scenic lava flows, cones and craters which present outstanding examples of major stages of the earth’s history.

The Chyulu hills have one of the longest histories of conflicts between squatters and conservation in Kenya. This is because their settlements are adjacent to two major protected areas, the Tsavo West National park and the Chyulu Hills National Park, and straddle the Kibwezi Forest.

It’s hard to accurately establish how many squatters live in the hills. A 2008 report put the number at more than 30,000. Even less obvious are the cycles of repeated migrations and phony squatters who repeatedly masquerade as destitute for free land allotments.

Though squatters aren’t the only challenge, the government must come up with a way to effectively address and include them in conservation efforts if environmental degradation is to be halted.

Squatter challenges

Nearly a decade ago I sought to understand the squatter problem, conservation issues and the colonial history of the Chyulus. It seems not much has changed. Some challenges in addressing the squatter dilemma have persisted, if not worsened:

  • Historical policy and institutional inadequacies are an impediment, particularly in terms of land laws, land classification and the institutions set up to resolve the issue.
  • Emphasis on resettlement as the solution. History has proved that this is a short term remedial action. The colonial government and successive governments attempted settlement schemes on government land or on purchased land, but these were found to be expensive and had limited results
  • The management of human movements lacks definitive policies. Although the Constitution of Kenya provides for the freedom of movement, migration statistics are not clearly embedded in population censuses and therefore not accounted for in development planning. There are also no explicit provisions for the management of squatters.
  • Common approaches used by public authorities to manage squatters are largely reactionary. These include upgrading housing and the provision of sanitation and infrastructure. Many approaches, especially in developing countries, are short term and their effects short-lived
  • Where commitments to squatter resolution exist they are underpinned by political motivations. For example, the plight of the Chyulu Hills squatters surfaced during Kalembe Ndile’s parliamentary term (2002-2007). He was himself the son of a squatter. This attention waned significantly when he was voted out in the 2007 parliamentary elections.
  • Conservation approaches tend to be at loggerheads with squatter settlements. They tend to be authoritarian in character and non-participatory. This engenders negative attitudes from squatters and complicates conservation efforts.

Squatters and conservation can coexist*

A critical issue we discovered in our research was that squatters have been portrayed as environmental villains. The truth is that environmental degradation can be attributed to history, laws, policies, patterns of resource access, social changes and economic forces.

But because local squatters are commonly the most visible agents of degradation, they’ve been blamed for rapid deforestation, destruction of water catchment areas, the fragmentation of wildlife habitats and threats to wildlife.

This has in turn sustained a policy process that sees government institutions as the most appropriate custodians of natural resources. Recognising squatters as significant custodians is an essential step for the sustainable conservation of the hills. One possible solution, for example, could be to support livelihood options which depend on less land and in which people can co-exist with conservation.

Kenya’s bias towards large game tourism has meant very low investment in marketing and infrastructure in the Chyulus. Yet they hold great potential for ecotourism. Successful ecotourism models in adjacent districts are built on similar attributes.

The bitter truth is that it is neither politically feasible nor ethically justifiable to exclude squatters from parks. This is particularly true given that they have limited livelihood options. Solutions should anticipate the arrival of more squatters, and focus on their integration into other economic sectors.

Article by Program Manager, Food Systems Program, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland. Republished from