News Archive

posted 11/27/02

Grasslands Exchange Proves Fertile for Discussion

Boys are in charge of herding cattle on Maasai lands in Kenya.

Columbia University/UNESCO Joint Program on Biosphere and Society (CUBES) Field Coordinator Ben Lane recently returned from Kenya, where he traveled for seven days with Maasai herdsmen as they held discussions with ranchers from New Mexico and grasslands experts about rangeland management. Here, Lane speaks about the trip, and just what the Maasai and American ranchers have to learn from each other.

What are some of the land management issues facing the Maasai at present?
The Maasai need a lot of space and mobility to keep the land healthy and protect their herds from periodic and localized drought conditions. They have been losing land for a long time; first to European settlers, then to national parks. More recently land has been subdivided and sold to individuals who have sometimes put up fencing. It is critical now both to protect Maasai ownership of the land and to find mechanisms, such as land trusts, so that the remaining land can officially belong to the group, or belong to individuals but remain available to the group and unfenced. The land needs to be open to both wildlife and cattle, so there also needs to be funding to cover the unavoidable costs incurred where wildlife roams.

Maasai elders exchange opinions and expertise with visitors from America.

What issues are the American ranchers facing?
In southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, rangeland fragmentation began with the arrival of Anglo-American ranchers. By the early 1900's the land was divided into parcels too small to be economically or ecologically sustainable for cattle ranching. In the past decade or so a group of ranchers formed the Malpai Borderlands Group to protect their way of life from the growing threat of subdivision. The Malpai Group has reached out to government agencies and conservation interests to form a unique coalition to promote sustainable ranching, and they have developed a system of moving cattle to grass banks so that the ranch land can rest. This in a way simulates the mobility of the Maasai in their unfenced lands.

Bill McDonald, a rancher and president of the Malpai Borderlands Group

Bill McDonald, a rancher from New Mexico and president of the Malpai Borderlands Group, shares thoughts on grasslands management with Maasai elders in a traditional council.

What did the Maasai and Americans have to teach each other?
The Americans from the Malpai Group are a little further along in engaging with government. Kenya is in the process of enacting a new national constitution, and the Americans encouraged the Maasai take a proactive role in policy areas that affect their lands. The Arizonans also showed an example of how ranch families can survive economically while retaining traditions by holding second jobs in a town, something the Maasai will increasingly need to do as well. The Maasai had a lot of technical expertise to offer in terms of managing fragile lands and water for the long term. They also set an example of the strength of communal land management and the value of real mobility on land without fences.

In April 2003, a group of Maasai ranchers will visit the Malpai Group in Arizona and New Mexico for a continuation of this productive interchange.

The Columbia University/UNESCO Joint Program on Biosphere and Society (CUBES) is the first partnership between Columbia University and the United Nations. Its mission is to assist local communities around the globe in adapting to rapid environmental and societal change and to share information between societies.