On one side of the fence line, the farmed grass grows thick and trembles in the wind. On the other side, the ground is nearly bare, chewed down in places to the rocky topsoil. In between are splintered fence poles and scattered strands of electric wire that, until last month, closed off a 20,000-hectare central Kenyan commercial ranch from the communal grazing lands of Masai herdsmen.
To the Masai, most of whom make their living raising cows, sheep and goats, the landscape's stark divide is testimony to their need for grazing lands. With a population of about half a million, the Masai are one of the smallest tribes in this country of 32 million, but at the time of European arrival in the mid-19th century they dominated most of what is now western Kenya. Starting with a 1904 treaty with the British, they ceded much of the region's best grazing land to European farmers and consigned themselves to isolated reservations. That treaty, the Masai claim, has lapsed with its 100th anniversary. The Kenyan government rejects that claim, but the Masai are undeterred. "The land is ours," says Sailudari Masekonte, 32, a Masai herdsman. "We can destroy every single fence on this land."
And destroy they do. Though the Masai make claims to vast tracts of southern and central Kenya, the most active dispute has arisen on the western slopes of Mount Kenya, 200 km north of Nairobi. In just over a month, the Masai have ripped up dozens of miles of fencing and driven tens of thousands of cattle onto ranchers' fields. Riot police have chased invaders off the land, and used tear gas and bullets to break up demonstrations.
The 38 mainly white landowners, most of whom are Kenyan citizens, have their own claim to the land: 999-year leases issued before independence by the British colonial government and later recognized by Kenya. The ranchers complain that the Masai have stolen their livestock, robbed their staff and set fire to their fields. The landowners also claim to be superior environmental stewards. Drivers passing through their ranches can see more wildlife elephants, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes and gazelles than in some of Kenya's national parks. "The farmers really care about the land," says Lance Tomlinson, 35, who manages the Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, one of the properties at the center of the conflict. "The pastoralists don't look at the land. They look at the livestock numbers."
The land conflict is but the latest chapter in the troubled history of the Masai. The 1904 treaty was theoretically meant to protect them. By the late 1800s, the tribe had been devastated by civil war and smallpox. With a new railroad making it easier to access remote lands, the British government created reservations that would be off-limits to white settlement. The treaty set aside as Masai lands 23,000 sq km in two regions: the Laikipia plateau and an area south of Nairobi. This left the fertile Rift Valley and what would become Nairobi open for the settlers. It was to be "enduring as long as the Masai as a race shall exist." But it lasted just seven years. In a 1911 treaty, the colonial governor grabbed the fertile lands of Laikipia and exchanged them for an expansion of the Masai's southern holdings. This treaty was challenged in court, but the suit was thrown out on a technicality.
Since Kenya's independence in 1963, the Masai have watched as other tribes notably those of sitting Presidents have been granted land. Says John Oletingoi, of the Masai advocacy group Osiligi, "Do they want to tell us, 'Wait until a Masai is President, and then you'll get the land?'" Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki of the Kikuyu tribe is unsympathetic, but anxious to contain the dispute. The government has been brokering meetings between ranchers and Masai elders. "The invasion of this land is illegal and the government is committed to protecting private properties," says Lands Minister Amos Kimunya.
That position has led to several violent protests and the arrest of more than 100 since the invasions in August. In one incident, paramilitary police fired on a group of Masai just outside Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, killing an elderly man, Ntinai ole Moiyare, and wounding four others.
The Masai feel they have no choice but to demonstrate. While they plan to take their case before an international court, their efforts are now focused on public opinion. "This is the problem with this government", says Gilbert Ombachi, a lawyer defending the Masai. "To be heard you must agitate. You will be beaten, jailed and then you get what you want."
The invasions continue to make the farms unworkable. The invaders scatter at the arrival of the police, who along with the farmhands spend most of their time pushing Masai livestock off the ranches. Ranchers have asked the police to guard their houses, but their real fear is that the Masai will get their way. "This problem, if it is not finished, it will become the same problem that Zimbabwe had," says Tomlinson. "All the other tribes will say, 'The Masai were given their land, why can't we be given our land?'"