Politicians have been accused of stoking land conflict between farmers, herders and indigenous groups to win votes, while failing to address the root cause

Pasture for cattle is in short supply following drought in Laikipia County, Kenya (Pic: Flickr/Regina Hart)

A racially-charged conflict between private landowners and nomadic herders in the drought-stricken county of Laikipia, Kenya, has spread to affect indigenous forest-dwellers.

Water shortage is driving Maasai pastoralists to roam further in search of pasture for their flocks, encroaching on land managed for tourism and ranching primarily by white settlers. In recent months, they have also entered Mukogodo Forest, home to the Yaaku people, cutting down trees to feed livestock.

The death toll since trouble first flared up in February is estimated at 20, with many more wounded. In the highest profile case, British-Kenyan dual national Tristan Voorspuy, founder of a luxury safari company, was shot dead.

Under environmental stress, resentment has surfaced among pastoralists against the white minority ownership of large areas of land – a sentiment politicians are accused of stoking to win votes for the general election on 8 August. Opposition lawmaker Mathew Lempurkel was arrested in connection with the Voorspuy murder, but prosecutors decided not to press charges, citing lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, there is no solution in sight to the underlying problem: a shortage of pasture.

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Manasseh Ole Matunge, a spokesperson for the Yaaku people, told Climate Home one of their members was recently shot and wounded in a dispute over forest land.

Traditionally hunter-gatherers and bee-keepers, his tribe of around 4,000 people now keeps small livestock herds and has largely assimilated with the larger Maasai culture. But they are protective of their heritage and forest home.

The Yaaku understand prolonged drought – exacerbated by global warming – to be at the root of the problem, but believe politicians must take some responsibility. “Politicians told the pastoralists that the private farms were under a leasehold from government, therefore they were free to graze their livestock there,” Matunge said. Some are reportedly promising to requisition private land from white farmers if elected to office.

An intervention by the police and army did more harm than good, added Matunge: they shot livestock as well as armed people. “Government is doing nothing about the conflict between the pastoralists and the Yaaku because we are poor and marginalised,” he said.

The private landowners describe the pastoralists as “terrorists”. Aside from Voorspuy’s murder, they cite destruction of property and poaching of wildlife that attracts tourists to the…