The Maasai community of Musul have lived on the same land in Laikipia county for generations. It is their source of food and water, the heart of their culture and beliefs, and their ancestral home. But until recently, their legal rights to govern it were tenuous.
Thousands of rural and Indigenous communities in Kenya are in the same position. This lack of clear legal rights puts them at high risk of being exploited by greedy investors and powerful officials or becoming embroiled in conflicts over land use. Risks that, in recent years, have intensified. Large-scale development projects in Laikipia and other areas of Kenya are increasing and commercial ranches are expanding, heightening the likelihood of communities’ lands being grabbed or contested.
This historic injustice was finally righted for Musul in October 2020 when they received the deed to their community land. They are only the second community in Kenya to attain this legal recognition of their customary land rights since it was made possible under the 2016 Community Land Act (CLA). They are the first to have done so using a legal empowerment approach.
The registration process for securing the land title requires communities to, among other things, demonstrate that they have legally-binding bylaws for land management and governance in place as well as an elected Community Land Management Committee, with a third of members being women, and a map of established boundaries.
These requirements are a well-intended attempt to bring about positive change, but it is easy for communities to view them as nothing more than a list of boxes to tick in order to obtain their deed. The bylaws and committees they put in place do little to change the patriarchal and potentially discriminatory norms.
A legal empowerment approach to registration equips communities to dig deeper, to develop a system of land management and governance that not only protects them from external threats, but respects the needs and interests of all groups and plans for the community’s future.
The deed gives them the legal right to govern their land. The legal empowerment approach gives them the tools to do so equitably and effectively.
Community paralegals with Indigenous Movement for Peace and Conflict Transformation (IMPACT), a Namati partner, began supporting Musul with their registration process in early 2019. The first step was to help the community develop a thorough understanding of the CLA and Kenya’s Constitution, and their rights and obligations under them. With that foundation, they proceeded to support the community to carry out the registration requirements, doing so with a deliberate focus on ensuring inclusivity, participation, and transparency.
As a result, nearly half of the elected members of Musul’s Community Land Management Committee are women, including the committee treasurer. This marks the first time in history that women are meaningfully involved in deciding how Musul’s land and natural resources will be used.
The bylaws Musul developed further democratized and strengthened local governance. They stipulate what type of decisions can be made by the committee and what ones should involve the entire community, and ensure high-level transparency in all decision-making. They also established rules around land and natural resource management, environmental conservation, and sustainable grazing practices — ensuring all are compliant with national laws, making them legally-binding.
The thorough understanding of the CLA that the paralegals fostered also resulted in Musul knowing when their rights were being ignored. By the time they had fulfilled their application requirements, the government had still not put in place the personnel to process registrations, as was mandated under the 2016 law. So representatives from Musul and 10 other communities supported by Namati and our partners, traveled to Nairobi and marched to the Ministry of Lands where they demanded the government accept and process the applications on a timely basis and deploy personnel needed to process community land registration applications at scale. In the months that followed, they persistently followed up until finally, their rights were legally recognized.
Although Musul has now acquired the title to their land, they are continuing to advocate for the full implementation of the law throughout Kenya. Their efforts, together with those of the other communities we support, will go a long way towards securing land rights for thousands of communities and advancing equality and justice for all.
This blog was first published on Namati's website.