Kenya: The importance of cross-border dialogue in the drylands

A meeting between two pastoralist groups has reduced tensions over grazing land and could lead to a cross-county platform for negotiating access to resources during drought periods. If successful, this will enhance the resilience of both communities to climate change says James Pattison.

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Insight by 
James Pattison
19 March 2014
Somali and Boran pastoralists came together to discuss ways to share water resources at a meeting this month. (Credit: James Pattison)

Somali and Boran pastoralists came together to discuss ways to share water resources at a meeting this month. (Copyright James Pattison)

Tensions are running high in Isiolo County in Northern Kenya, where Somali pastoralists from neighbouring Garissa County have arrived to graze their herds on land the local Boran people call their own.

The Boran dedha committees manage the grazing lands within their territories, restricting access to different areas for use during drought, and in the dry and wet seasons. Traditionally they preserve pasture areas near permanent water sources for use in the event of drought. They also reserve areas for use during the wet season, when there are many temporary water sources, as this allows herds to access to pastures that have no water during the dry season.

The Somali pastoralists, who are ordinarily residents in Garissa County, do not have an equivalent to the Boran system of dedha for managing resources or negotiating access with other groups. They have grazed their animals in Boran drought reserves during non-drought periods, which compromises the resilience of the Boran to drought.

In response to the latest episode, the Isiolo County Government has stepped in to support the traditional natural resource governance regulations of the Boran people and evict the Somali pastoralists from the Boran’s strategic grazing reserves.

It was timely, then, for IIED and the Resource Advocacy Programme to hold a meeting in Isiolo (on 7-8 March) to discuss ways communities on each side of the border could share the grazing resources.

Tensions over grazing land

As the meeting began there was a palpable tension between the two communities. However, when it became clear that the Boran supported the principle of resource sharing, a more relaxed dialogue began. As one Boran participant said: "We don’t want to chase the Somali away but we must keep pasture for tomorrow."

They began to discuss the reasons the Somalis didn’t negotiate to use the grazing land prior to their mass migration. The Boran explained that negotiating access to resources before migration was not a pretext to deny access to the land (as the Somalis commonly believed), but a genuinely important aspect of their wider resource management system.

"We restrict access to different resources at different times," said a Boran participant. "But this is not to punish anyone. It is for better resource management for everyone." As the rapport between the two groups grew, Somali participants resolved to put in place a structure for negotiating access to resources.

They went so far as to say that they would also like to emulate the Boran system of resource management in their own county. "We must buy a leaf from your book," said one Somali pastoralist referring to Boran’s system of resource management.

The Boran took this to mean that the Somali pastoralists really accepted the Boran’s traditional system of resource management. The Boran in turn committed to supporting their neighbours in the development of resource management institutions and regulations.

Regular dialogue key to success

Everybody agreed that regular dialogue would be the key to the success of any negotiated cross-border resource-sharing arrangements. They proposed a seasonal platform for dialogue which will be jointly supported by the two County Governments four times a year.

Planning at appropriate scales has long been regarded as essential in the drylands where mobility allows pastoralists to capitalise on the highly variable climate, but where but unplanned movements create tensions and can lead to conflict.

Bringing together cross-border communities to discuss resource management and to resolve potential conflicts before they start is clearly important. Surely the modest costs of such meetings are more than offset by the benefits.

Clearly, there is a role for the government to facilitate and support the outcomes of these negotiations. Under Kenya's new constitution, the central government is devolving power to the county-level; new government structures and systems are taking shape in the drylands.

Designing a platform and allocating resources for regular cross-border dialogue seems to be a very cost-efficient way for these new government structures to build local communities’ resilience to climate change. Managing resources at scales beyond administrative boundaries represents a real opportunity to improve the climate resilience of dryland communities of Kenya and beyond.


James Pattison is a consultant working with IIED on drylands development and climate change adaptation, under a project led by Ced Hesse ([email protected]). The meeting was part of a Department for International Development funded project implemented by the ADA Consortium. In the coming weeks IIED will publish research on the Boran customary resource institutions.