It is widely questioned if the Mara conservancies pay enough to landowners, compared against other land uses, like agriculture, livestock or commercial development. In superficial terms, looking simply at how much money the landowner receives per hectare for his/her land, it’s easy to understand why some say that conservancies don’t pay.
On average the Mara conservancies make a direct payment to landowners of US$30-50 per hectare per year, whereas livestock pays at least $40-50 per hectare and land under agriculture estimated up to $100. So to move this debate forward, we are asking: would landowners be better off putting their land under agriculture or turning the greater Mara ecosystem (outside of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve) into a cattle ranch?
Firstly, focusing only on the money is too simple an analysis. Both agriculture and livestock are heavily dependent on rainfall, which is increasingly unpredictable with the changing climate, causing heavy downfalls and long droughts, making both land uses risky and unknown. And owing to the soil quality and the amount of rock in the conservancies’ area, researchers agree that agricultural productivity would not be as high as other parts of the Maasai Mara ecosystem. Plus with a Reserve so close, crops are likely to be badly damaged by wildlife causing a high and untenable cost.
Thanks to the Conservancies, the community can self organize, enabling elective and accountable leadership, with Annual General Meetings for all members to attend. Nominated conservancy boards with both tourism parties and landowner representatives cultivate a common vision, a sense of communal decision-making and are a prerequisite for community development. Government and non-governmental actors use these structures as entry points for implementing and managing community based projects.
Currently almost 3,000 local landowners and their families (approx. 24,000 people) benefit directly from this guaranteed income. No other activity provides as much income to as many people as conservancies. Landowners can access loans, pay for education and health services, veterinary care for livestock, as well as survive extreme weather conditions, like droughts, where families use the money to buy food and move their cattle.
Many operational conservancies allow managed grazing of landowner members’ cattle, at agreed times of year and agreed numbers, with a fine system for illegal grazing. With a lot of unprotected land under private title deed and at the risk of being fenced, some conservancies absorb herds of cattle under the stewardship of the conservancy management that would otherwise illegally graze in the Reserve.
Cultivation practiced in areas north of the conservancies exclude livestock, often degrade the land and increase soil acidity owing to fertilizers and herbicides, as well as trigger human wildlife conflicts. Unlike other land uses, conservancies are compatible with two or three simultaneous land uses at the same time. They can protect wildlife and land, plus provide grass for cattle and store carbon thereby potentially earning carbon credits.
No intensive farming practice disintegrating the fertility of the land, no over-grazing and soil erosion caused by too many cattle and no commercial development turning the greater Mara ecosystem into a built up environment. Conservancy land has more grass cover and less bare ground, absorbs more rainwater thereby reducing flooding and has a higher diversity of plant species. Further, the no settlement policy being practiced ensures that the edges of the Reserve such as the Olare Orok area are not settled, avoiding the challenges currently experienced in other centres like Talek. This well-managed land primarily paid for by the tourism sector, has better value to the landowner lowering the risk of being sold to land speculators or households being dispossessed and the youth being disinherited.
Rather than competition to the Reserve, conservancies diversify the tourism product of the Mara, adopting low volume, often eco-rated and socially conscious tourism, with complementary products such as walking safaris and night drives. They provide more space so that lodges/camps are spread out over a larger area, de-congesting the Reserve and improving the tourism experience. It is widely understood that a greater amount of tourism income reaches the community, as lease payments are paid directly to the landowners and conservancy management paid directly by the conservancy boards. For some conservancies tourism has the potential to produce a self-sustaining business model.
60%-70% of the staff working in camps and conservancies is drawn from the local community. Across the conservancies approx. 1,200 people are employed, with 700-800 being from the local community, all supporting their respective families. Initiatives such as Koiyaki Guiding School are particularly important in training the local youth with job skills. The tourism sector provides both skilled and unskilled work, thereby employing people with different levels of education.
Tourists visit cultural villages and enjoy entertainment by the local Maasai dancers, as well as buy beadwork and other locally produced curio items from Maasai women. Tourist operators hire vehicles, purchase water, buy food from the local markets and hire casual labour, to serve the needs of tourists, providing more income for many more families and communities.
Tourists need to move and visit the wildlife, so conservancies develop the road network, river crossings and water sources to aid the functioning of the conservancy. The surrounding community benefit from better access to the markets, schools and mobility of goods and services in areas where government infrastructure is insufficiently developed. This ease of transport means lower living costs and costs of trade for all.
Charitable foundations and tourism operators raise funds to establish the conservancies and undertake social community projects. Through initiatives of the lodges/camps and Trusts established by the conservancies, there has been a significant increase in charitable projects such as schools, health clinics, training, social enterprise and water provision for the local communities, as well as the related local employment and skill development.
Daily patrols by scouts and the back up and support from the county and national state security, ensure the areas surrounding conservancies are safe for tourists, local traders, the community and wildlife. Conservancies employ security teams, community scouts and create intelligence connections with Kenya Wildlife Service, Narok County rangers and the police personnel in the area. Illegal activities such as petty theft, poaching, cattle rustling, organised crime and other social ills are prevented or minimized.
Conservancies provide a strong incentive for communities to continue tolerating wildlife on their land owing to the multiple incentives. In doing so, it keeps land within the local Maasai community and enables grazing of their cattle, thereby continuing their ancestral practices and avoiding the syndrome of ‘selling land and buying poverty’. The conservancies honour the Maasai culture in terms of their dress, dancing traditions and practices like medicinal plants.
Conservancies currently pay tax on income generated and therefore contribute to funding the state parks and reserves, providing a direct benefit from the Mara conservancies to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Further, conservancies currently pay tax on land rent payments paid and sometimes even on donations for conservation projects.
Approx. 30% of Kenya’s wildlife is in the greater Mara ecosystem. Conservancies create safe dispersal areas, wet season pastures, migratory corridors, breeding and feeding areas for migratory and resident wild grazers as well as carnivores. This increase in space, habitats and natural resources largely ensures a continuous landscape to protect a greater range of biodiversity and currently is undertaken at little financial cost to County or State governments. Together with the Reserve, conservancies are maintaining a global heritage for us and our children’s children.
With all these additional benefits the true value of the land under conservation per hectare, is so much more than US$30-50 quoted at the start of this article. In fact, Dr Crystal Courtney in her research thesis: Sustainable Africapitalism? Grassroots Perceptions of Maasai Mara Conservancies and their Relationship with Development, 2014, concluded that with all the additional benefits provided, the true value of the land under conservation per hectare is US$ 112 (Ksh 10,000) for Olare-Motorogi and US$ 122 (Ksh 11,500), for Naboisho, per annum: (the two conservancies she studied). These figures are significantly higher than the rental payments alone: 2.5 to 3.6 times higher respectively, representing not only the direct land lease rental payment, but the money going into the local area more broadly.
Thus it is fair to conclude, that the Mara conservancies are in fact, the most beneficial land use option!
A cultural landscape where communities and partners secure wildlife and sustainable livelihoods for a better future.
To conserve the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem, through a network of protected areas, for the prosperity of all – biodiversity and wildlife, the local population, and recreation and tourism for the nation of Kenya.