Customary land rights and the search for belonging

The road to Kalacha

A landscape in Marsabit, Northern Kenya

On the 14th of April we held a one day workshop entitled Cultural Rights in Critical Perspective: a Socio-cultural Conundrum at the British Institute in East Africa (BIEA). We invited a wide range of stake holders and had approximately 40 attendees. The day was divided into three different discussion panels on human rights, land rights and devolution. This panel was chaired by Zoe Cormack and included Ikel Angelei, Hassan Roba and Odenda Lumumba. The panellists all spoke briefly to allow as much time as possible for discussion; we hope to continue those discussions here. Please read the panel summary below and feel free to comment whether you attended the workshop or not.

Customary land rights and the search for belonging

The panel brought together civil society representatives and advocates working on land and environment to reflect on how cultural and land rights intersect and on the opportunities offered by the new constitution and community land legislation to protect the cultural rights and livelihoods of marginalised communities.

The discussion opened with a call to recognise that land has different kinds of value beyond economic value and is imbued with layers of meaning. The interests of different actors can be in tension. Nowhere is this more apparent than in arid and semi-arid areas that have recently become the focus of large scale development plans. These projects can heighten local concerns about land and cultural assimilation, especially when communities feel they have not been fully consulted and included in decision-making processes. While it is accepted that culture is dynamic, there may be a pragmatic advantage in strategically essentialising ‘culture’ and ‘customary institutions’ in order to protect land ownership. Could new legal instruments like Bio-Cultural Community Protocols and participatory mapping provide communities with the legal tools to translate customary tenure arrangements and engage with multi-nationals and governments?

An important focus of discussion was on the Community Land Bill, which is due (in accordance with the constitution) to be enacted into law by August 2015, although delays seem likely. This bill is important because it will provide a strong legal foundation of communal land ownership. But there are many questions unresolved, for example who is the community?

One thought on “Customary land rights and the search for belonging

  1. It is interesting to see how land that was previously considered useless has now acquired some level of importance when some kind of mineral has been discovered. Most of this land belongs to pastoralists who do not practice farming. When a large project is being implemented in these areas, the main problem then becomes, Who owns the land?
    Take the case of the Lake Turkana Wind Power project. Is it Communal land, trust land or government land?


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