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Written by Kathleen Godfrey
Heading into my fieldwork in the Maasai communities of Olkiramatian and Shompole in May 2017, I was focused on conservation as an idea, as a practice, and as an industry. On day one with my colleagues at the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO) around the table, before I began speaking about my Masters project, my colleague Samantha said “you can’t approach community members with the term ‘conservation’ – it’s not a Maasai term”. No one had ever made me question [conservation] as a tool of inquiry in this context. Of course I was already thinking of ways of being, worldviews, and practices that go beyond ‘conservation’, but it wasn’t until that first conversation that I realized “Yeah, good point. I can’t start there, nor should I.”
Maasai pastoralists are an ethnic group found mostly in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Pastoralism means livestock husbandry, or raising cattle and other livestock animals like sheep and goats. In the Maasai context, pastoralism was and continues to be peoples’ main livelihood and source of income in much of southern Kenya, and specifically in the communities I work with. Since the late 1960s, Maasai people have been living in “group ranches“, or allocated parcels of land that were originally communally owned and managed by an executive committee. Over the last few decades, some communities have opted to subdivide their land due to increased pressures on land with growing population, and fear of land-grabbing. We’ve seen that subdivision and fencing can have negative consequences for the health of ecosystems and livestock.
How do we translate ‘conservation’ to fit a Maasai context? Why does a Maasai person or pastoralist in Kenya have to understand this English word [conservation]? It’s an imposed word, and practice.
I heard people explaining that ‘conservation’ brings clients, and it a place where wildlife are and visitors go. So I found that there was a place-based and tourism-based idea of the English word conservation. And this makes sense, that’s how and for whom conservation has been ‘done’ here! So there’s a point to be made about how tourism investors, visitors, and even community leaders communicate conservation, and how honest stakeholders are about benefits, we can work it into our practice and the way we communicate what conservation can actually do economically for people, and what it can’t. [In the interview, I overstated the contribution of wildlife-based tourism and park visitation, a 2017 figure puts it at 9.7% of Kenya’s GCP in 2017].
Apart from what I think has been a miscommunication about what ‘conservation’ is or can mean—which I think misses the larger point of a vision that incorporates human and environmental care—when we moved into the realm of eramatare, people definitely linked it to raising livestock, but more and more people classified it as a ‘wide term’ involving tender care of your children, your home, yourself, your domestic animals, and some people also volunteered that wildlife are included. Sometimes I would ask “what about wildlife, what about those zebras out there, can they be included in eramatare?”, to which people responded “of course!”.
That was a really rich kernel that came out of these [fifty] conversations [I had with members of the Olkiramatian and Shompole communities], and led to my using eramatare as the centrepiece of my whole thesis insofar as it’s a lens through which we can think about, write about, and learn about holistic rangeland management; thinking about humans, domestic livestock, wildlife species, the grasses, the trees, the ants, the management and care of all these beings.
Complexity and landscape level ecology is not only in vogue but is what we need to be doing when we’re thinking about land management or ‘conservation’. This led me to think about eramatare as a social-ecological system, as a way of bring the [social/cultural] and [environmental] spheres together. More importantly, eramatare decenters the wildlife-first thinking that so many people brought up in the west are used to, the conservation narratives that I was exposed to growing up.
Is my academic research more useful for researchers or community members? SORALO was looking for a way to communicate ‘conservation’ to the communities they work with. Maasai pastoralists in these communities don’t go around saying “We are doing eramatare”, but we’re talking about a term that historically seemed to only mean husbandry. Annoyingly what’s come out of my thesis is perhaps a more useful lens for researchers working in Maasai communities and pastoral ecosystems [rather than a ‘finding’ that will help the communities I work with develop more drought-resistant cattle breeds, for example], but that doesn’t mean that it’s useless, because I imagine it contributing to a global movement of indigenizing or localizing knowledge, research, and practice. It also contributes to the movement of indigenous leadership on conservation that is (finally) underway and gaining ground.
Everybody has knowledge and information to share, and it’s about breaking down those barriers [between ‘expert’ and public] by connecting with people, which I guess is the whole point of the Connecting Conservation platform!