The shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Rift Valley are dotted with bustling shanty towns but it has not always been like this.
The local economy has grown dramatically since the late 1980s when the first commercial flower farms were established in the area, around 90 km (55 miles) north west of Nairobi.
Today, the Lake Naivasha region is the country’s biggest hub for floriculture, earning billions of Kenya shillings for farm owners, creating unprecedented job opportunities and drawing thousands of migrants from other parts of the country.
According to the Kenyan Horticultural Crop Directorate (HCD), Kenyan growers exported 122,825 tons of cut flowers worth 62.9 billion Kenya shillings ($620 million) in 2015. An estimated 500,000 people are employed by the industry, which generates 1.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
For Naivasha Maasai pastoralists, however, the push by big farming companies has not sparked opportunity but panic that their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle could be at risk.
In many parts of East Africa, governments are pushing for pastoralist communities to switch to settled farming with supporters saying such a move will create better food security, curb conflict between herders and farmers, and free up land.
Critics, however, say switching from pastoralism to settled farming could make communities less resilient to climate change.
The growth of cut flower farms has intensified competition for dwindling grazing land and vanishing water supplies for the herdsmen whose traditional grazing grounds between Lake Naivasha and Mount Longonot have shrunk as the industry has expanded.
There are fears that further land acquisition in the area, which already accounts for around 70 percent of total floriculture production in Kenya, will erode their livelihoods.
NOT ALL ROSES
The cut flower companies say they have acquired land from communities and the government through a legitimate and transparent process.
But the Naivasha Maasai community say some big farms neither consulted them nor paid compensation for land.
“Land grabbing by elite individuals and encroachment of the lake by floriculture farms has dispossessed us of our ancestral territories thus denying us access to the lake by blockading access route to the only water source,” Jackson Shaa, a community leader, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Community leaders say the privatisation and subdivision of their ancestral lands threatens ancient pastoralist practices, endangering livestock production and ecological sustainability and eroding communal rights to land and natural resources.
While they accept that floriculture and linked investments might stimulate economic growth in the region, they fear that reduced access to land will widen social inequalities and put their livelihoods at risk.
“We have had talks with the Lake Naivasha growers’ group on how to promote sustainable agricultural and pastoralist practices but we are yet to see meaningful results,” Shaa said.
Losing their grazing land has also forced some Maasai to abandon their traditional livelihood to sustain their families.
“We have a few of our members employed at these flower farms, but their wages are low compared with those of outsiders since they lack formal education,” he said.
“The community’s cultural attachment to the lake’s resources has not been considered in the establishment of these private investments.”
GAP BETWEEN LAW AND CUSTOM
Formal land rights were strengthened in the new Constitution that was promulgated in 2010. These created a three tier system of land classification and ownership: private, public and community lands.
However according to the Naivasha Maasai, their land rights remain insecure.
“We want to see more reforms in land governance that would protect our land from further acquisition by these investors. We hope the Community Land bill 2015 which is yet to be passed by legislators could be expedited,” says Shaa.
Proving community land claims is difficult under Kenyan law, he said, and this is how their tenure has been held traditionally.
Jane Ngige, chief executive officer of the Kenya Flower Council, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the flower industry has always consulted with local communities.
“We continue to engage with these communities through various groups such as the Lake Naivasha Growers Group (LNGG) and Lake Naivasha Riparian Association (LNRA) where the interest and concerns of these communities are taken care of,” she said.
She acknowledged in recent years there has been a growth in investment by commercial flower farms around the shore of Lake Naivasha, but stated that “due process” has always been followed in acquisition of land.
“The local communities should not panic since the law protects them from any illegal acquisition of their land. No investor would want to invest millions of shillings where the land is not secure. The current constitution and proposed amendments to the law will guarantee these vulnerable groups land is protected,” she added.
NEW LAND LAWS
The Kenyan Government moved to address the legality of community ownership of land last year, introducing a Community Land Bill to the Parliament.
“The new law shall recognize, protect and formally register community land rights; govern the management and administration of community land and create a role for county governments to oversee unregistered community lands,” the bill states.
If the new law passes through the parliament, it will confer special rights, including grazing rights and allow the leasing of community lands and benefit sharing of natural resources on community land.
The law would also create new tiers of tenure including customary, freehold and leasehold and give customary land rights equal recognition with freehold or leasehold rights while County governments
would be empowered to hold unregistered community lands in trust on behalf of the communities.