Matito Leruso was born and raised in the herding community of Lengurma in Isiolo County. Communal grazing land has been central to her community’s livelihood, wellbeing, and identity for generations, but they have never had their legal rights to govern it recognized. None of Kenya’s thousands of pastoralist communities have. This changed in 2016, with the passage of the Community Land Act. Since then, Matito has joined other residents of Lengurma in working to understand, use and shape the new law to ensure that their community land rights are respected and upheld. And in the process, she has become an inspiration for other women in the community.
Communities like Matito’s have experienced years of injustices due to a lack of legal rights. They have had their lands acquired or exploited by private projects, such as sand harvesting, and by public infrastructure projects such as the current Lamu Port South-Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor project.
The Community Land Act, which was signed into law in September 2016, is a progressive piece of legislation that provides a legal basis for the recognition, protection and registration of community land in Kenya. The Act encourages communities to manage and administer their land themselves through bylaws, governance structures, and the inclusion of all members of the community. Those that fulfill the registration requirements will be able to decide how their land is to be used and managed, and by whom. Through this, they will be able to protect their community’s greatest resources.
Community paralegals with Samburu Women’s Trust, Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (IMPACT), Kenya Land Alliance, and Il’laramatak Community Concerns have supported 11 indigenous communities from Isiolo, Tana River, Turkana, Laikipia and Kajiado counties to understand the provisions of the law and their rights and duties under it. Lengurma was one of the 11 communities that participated. And Matito was one of the Lengurma residents most heavily involved.
The 11 communities, with the paralegals’ support, then worked to fulfill the requirements for legal recognition of their rights to land. They drafted and adopted bylaws to govern the use and management of their land and natural resources, elected Community Land Management Committee members (such as Matito) to manage the day-to-day functions of the community—including involving women and other minority groups in governance and decision making—and, as the last step, completed the application forms in accordance with the law.
Members of Lengurma gather for a community meeting. (c) Namati
But there was one problem: the government had failed to appoint community land registrars and deploy them to the county governments. In short, there were no officials ready to receive the communities’ applications.
As a pastoralist, Matito had never had the opportunity to engage with the government. However, in July 2019 Matito and other community representatives from the 11 indigenous communities traveled to Nairobi and marched to the Ministry of Lands and demanded that their applications be received and processed.
Matito and her peers requested to meet with the Cabinet Secretary to hand over their applications to her since there were still no existing structures at the county government level.
They spoke to the Deputy Director of Land Adjudication and other government representatives who received their application forms and informed them that their documents would be processed in four months.
On 11 October, the community representatives marched once again to the Ministry of Lands to follow up on the progress of their applications. The Deputy Director of Land Adjudication and the Deputy Director Land Rights Monitoring, National Land Commission, addressed their questions and concerns, and updated them on the steps that the government had taken since their last meeting.
Matito and other community representatives appealed to the government officials to stick to the timelines they laid out and to ensure that the community land registrars work with the communities to encourage full community participation in implementation of the Act, once they are deployed. They also emphasized the need for the ministry to engage civil society organizations in the civic education process that the ministry was currently undertaking, especially those that have worked with these communities since they have already taken them through the process, and that their communities be used as pilot communities.
On their end, the community representatives promised to work closely with the government to ensure effective and prompt implementation of the Act, and to hold the government accountable in performing their duties. They also promised to continue empowering their community members and other communities to take the necessary steps to register their land.
As the meeting came to a close, Matito conveyed her gratitude to the government officials, noting that she would take the news of the government's promises and plans back to her community and assure them that the government is working towards safeguarding their rights in accordance with the law.
Written by Sophie Adhiambo, program associate with Namati's Community Land Protection program