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Size of herd determines status and access to resources in Kenya


Less livestock wealth, means less chance of access to arable land, grain production and friends. Kenyan and Dutch researchers Adano Roba and Karen Witsenburg have discovered that this is the hard truth faced by poor households in North Kenya. They therefore argue that poverty alleviation measures should also focus on guaranteeing better prices for livestock and a broader approach to developing drylands.

Between 1997 and 2000, Adano Roba and Karen Witsenburg studied the life and welfare of nomadic livestock herders in the area around Marsabit Mountain in North Kenya. They discovered that the number of animals has a major influence on access to important sources of help. The more animals a household has, the greater claim his family can make on social networks within the wider family, the clan and the village. Also, the people with larger herds receive more land and higher incomes, with which they can purchase grain for example.

The researchers demonstrated that extremely poor families in particular, earn money by selling wood and charcoal. This tree harvesting has a detrimental effect on the water supply, as forests protect the watershed and retain the water in the soil. Without forests in the neighbourhood there is a threat of rain-fed agriculture and critical water shortages in the long term. As soon as these poor people can obtain income from other activities, they become less dependent on the National Park on Marsabit Mountain. According to Roba and Witsenburg, measures to protect the National Park would also be more effective if these people could obtain incomes from other sources and if they are involved in decision-making processes of forest resource use.

Poor families with small herds not only sell charcoal but also the little milk they have to buy grain, which is richer in energy. However, this has a negative effect on the health of young animals, and the growth of the family herd. It also calibrates other studies that find that children do not consume enough dairy products which are needed for a healthy growth and development.

Until about 1990 the population of Marsabit District could feed itself with its own livestock, dairy products and grain production. Since 1990, food security has decreased to the extent that a large proportion of the population have become dependent on sales of animals and food aid. However, the Kenyan economy could not support the need for increased livestock sales to purchase additional non-livestock food because of the structural decline of the Kenyan economy. Both Ph.D. students described the circumstances which led to this change, and presented possible sustainable solutions for the poverty problem.

Roba and Witsenburg correlated annual data concerning population size, rainfall, agricultural production and livestock from about 1920 onwards and described the trends in these data. They also studied changes in forest management, institutions on water use and management, indigenous institutions of sharing and redistributing herd-based resources, the links between violent conflicts and resource scarcity and the government policy to concentrate nomadic livestock-herders in farming settlements. In the light of the research results, the authors advocate more diversified approaches to future development programmes among livestock herders because a single resource is unable to meet household needs.

The research was jointly funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and the University of Amsterdam.

Sonja Knols-Jacobs | alfa
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