The Tana Delta’s changing landscape: What’s in it for the Orma pastoralists?

The author, Eric Kadenge. Photo/ Courtesy

Direct foreign investment will see about 300,000 ha of land around the Tana Delta curved off for large scale farming of sugar cane, food and bio-fuel crops.  The Orma pastoralists who are the inhabitants of the area now have to come up with new ways of coping with these developments if they are to safeguard their livelihoods.  A recent study outlines some of the ways in which they are doing so that includes:-

–       Fencing of their land and

–       Tapping into the new market linkages that have come with these developments.

The Delta is located along Kenya’s longest river, the river Tana and forms one of Kenya’s top three largest and important fresh water wetland systems.  Mr. Abdirizak Nunow, a lecturer at the Moi University School of environmental studies and FAC researcher describes the delta as ‘a unique ecosystem, the only one of its kind that exists in the Horn of East Africa’. The delta covers an area of 130,000ha (320,000acres) whose diverse ecosystem includes savannah, semi-arid Acacia thorn bush, coastal forests, grasslands, beaches, dunes, lakes, mangrove swamps and water.

The study points out that international investors have taken interest in the delta region that has been found to be extremely fertile and capable of supporting any kind of production.  International capital is set to flow into the area with ‘a potential threat to the existence of the wetland and by extension, the pastoral systems of the Orma people,’ observes Mr Adbirizak. 

Some of the deals on the Delta include:-

–       The Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA) a government agency and the Mumias Sugar Company that plan to convert about 40,000 ha into a sugar cane plantation.

–       TARDA was also allocated 40,000 ha to grown rice and maize as a response to Kenya’s recent drought and food shortage experienced in 2009-2010.

–       Mat International that plans to acquire 120,000 ha also for sugar cane.

–       Bedford Bio-fuels Inc., a private multinational company based in Canada that plans to convert 90,000 ha into a jatropha plantation for the next 45 years.

–       Tiomin Kenya Ltd, a company also incorporated in Canada that plans to mine titanium in the delta.

–       Qatar intends to lease about 40,000 ha for the growth of food crops in exchange for the construction of an international port in nearby Lamu town. 

–       The Chinese are also eyeing a piece of the delta in exchange for the construction an airport in Garsen. 

Abdirizak blames a weak legal framework for the quick turn of events at the Tana Delta.  Although Kenya has passed a new constitution, it is yet to be totality implemented where organs like the National Land Commission will be established.  Until then he adds, ‘the current weak framework will continue to be abused.’  The study further notes that these developments will have a tremendous impact on the areas biodiversity that could lead to the extinction of the same.

The study’s focus however, is the impact on the pastoral communities and how they are coping with it. 

A pastoralists leads his cattle. Photo/

It notes that the pastoral communities in the Tana Delta are adjusting their activities in order to cope with these modern challenges.  Among some of the initiatives that they have undertaken include:-

–       The purchasing of 80,000 ha by the Orma elite for use as pasture for their livestock.  Other members of the community are purchasing smaller pieces for the same reasons.  This land is being marked off though fencing.

–       Tapping into the market opportunities that have arisen by forming market linkages and creating decentralized markets.  They have formed market groups through which they can sell camel meat and other products such as milk. 

–       Value addition – and this is achieved by the upgrading of livestock to increase milk production. 

–       Women playing a key role in this market growth as they do most of the trading.

Although this sounds like sure way of coping with the changes in the pastoral livelihoods, the study is quick to observe that these new systems could create wealth differentiation as the poor get excluded.  There is also the fear for future strife between farmers and pastoralists as they fight for the limited resources in the form of land and water.   

The study concludes that the Orma pastoralists are getting absorbed in the activities and political economy of the coastal region but the pressure that comes with these developments are on the increase and so is the commercialization of the Orma pastoral economy.  It hopes that the new Constitution that was passed in August 2010 will protect them from the land ‘rush’ in the Delta. 

Other researchers pinpoint the importance of African governments ensuring that environmental productivity and the relationship of people to their land inform the future of pastoralism.

Mr Kadenge is the Development Programs Team Leader at Transworld Radio in Nairobi, Kenya.


About meshakenya

Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture in Kenya (MESHA) is an association of communicators who are specialized in science, environment, agriculture, health, technology and development reporting.
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