On April 2, The Star carried an opinion piece titled 'Sir Richard Wrong About The Maasai'. The article was in response to a blog post by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson in which he had announced his investment in a new camp, Mahali Mzuri, in a conservancy near the Mara National Reserve.
The writers ridiculed Sir Richard and also questioned the motives of the former chairman of the Tourism Federation, Jake Grieves-Cook, for his role in Sir Richard's investment in the camp, accusing him of being a neo-colonialist and taking advantage of the Masaai community. Grieves-Cook had invited Sir Richard to invest in the land along the route of the great migration in order to secure a safe and extended passage for the wildlife, which he claims has been threatened by locals grazing animals in that area.
The investment has also ensured employment for the local people. Sir Richard's direct investment is in contrast to the illegal land grabbing going on inside the Mara by the Maasai elite. The conservancies, which Branson and Grieves-Cook are involved in, are leased directly from the land owners who are paid monthly rents. The land is located adjacent to the park and not inside the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Tourism activity in conservancies is regulated; visitor numbers are limited by having a maximum of one camp per 700 acres and 12 tents to any camp.
Tourist companies running these camps must pay the rent for 700 acres for every tent. Richard Branson will therefore have to pay rent for 8,400 acres for 12 tents. This is in contrast to the fees paid by camps and lodges located inside the Mara Reserve. Direct investments have benefited the community. Branson, for instance, has funded the building of a school at Sekenani. Porini is another camp that has been supporting a school at Oloibormurt near Ol Kinyei Conservancy. The camp contributes $10 for every tourist to a trust that is providing water projects for communities, among other community development initiatives.
Contrast this with the investment of a former elected leader of Narok County Council, who has also been an appointee of other statutory bodies; he allocated himself a 10 km stretch along a river inside the park, for which he drafted a 33-year lease with the council. He paid Sh60,000 for the lease and within the last three years has earned more than Sh51 million as brokerage fee since he could not afford to invest in property on the land himself.
Over the same period, the county council of Narok has only earned a total of Sh13m from this asset. If the deal had been a direct agreement between the council and an investor, the Sh51 million could have been spent on development of the roads in the Mara. In this case, however, the broker will continue to earn an average of Sh20 million a year for the next 26 years, with little benefit to the people of Narok County.
So who is really exploiting the Maasai? Most residents of Narok are rightly concerned about the controversial contract between Equity Bank and Narok County Council. However the dubious deals between the Maasai elite and the council should get as much attention. The outright exploitation of the community's assets by land-grabbing former Narok County Council officials is an injustice that cannot be ignored. The writers of the aforementioned article seem to have been more interested in grandstanding; taking on a billionaire was obviously more thrilling than addressing the real issues that affect the Maasai.
Grieves-Cook's record in conservation work speaks for itself and it is unfortunate that he has been labelled as an agent for neo-colonialism without due regard for his service to the tourism industry. No one can argue with the fact that the Maasai people have been exploited historically, but it is disingenuous for the writers to refer to a treaty signed at the beginning of the 20th century as the only evidence of the suffering of the Maasai people.
Since independence, successive governments have continued to expropriate Maasai land. It seems, however, that it is politically and historically convenient to focus only on the past while ignoring present injustices. The article claims that there is no need for extra land to be protected for wildlife on the migration path as there is already land set aside for this purpose.
However, wildlife is not confined to this area and often 'spills over'; it is common practice for private landowners to enter into agreement with investors or conservation groups for them to allow the passage of wildlife on their land. There is, therefore, nothing strange about the concept behind the Mahali Mzuri camp. If the community is happy to open their lands for wildlife then that should be respected as a community decision and not exploitation.
The Maasai understand that the Mara is an important resource for the county. They have lived with the animals for years and they will support any initiative that protects the ecosystem. Moreover, despite the common human-wildlife conflict the Maasai have always shown incredible restraint even when the Kenya Wildlife Service has been slow to deal with wayward animals.
In fact, there is no greater expression of how much the Maasai value the Mara than their vociferous protest of the council's neglect of the deplorable Lemek road, which is undermining business in the town. They also know that the lack of garbage collection services and poor drainage in Narok town can be fixed by the council's prudent use of park fees collected from the Mara. The people of Narok can also see through the hypocrisy of those who choose to talk about non-existent exploitation while ignoring their real concerns.