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  • Contesting the Commons: Privatizing Pastoral Lands in Kenya
  • Thomas A. Smucker
Carolyn K. Lesorogol. Contesting the Commons: Privatizing Pastoral Lands in Kenya. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. xiii + 250 pp. Tables. Figures. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $28.95. Paper.

Concern over the fate of pastoralist societies and their responses to myriad internal and external pressures has given rise to important debates about the policy implications of the sedentarization of pastoralist life and the diversification of pastoralist livelihoods. For almost two decades the view that indigenous pastoralist production strategies and customary tenure arrangements are well suited to the environmental variability of East African drylands has been ascendant. Yet as Carolyn K. Lesorogol’s book adeptly illustrates, as rapid changes in statutory and customary tenure systems affect pastoralist societies, these people are increasingly drawn to new economic activities that sometimes are at odds with the preservation of mobile pastoralism. Contesting the Commons explores the dynamics and effects of such changes among Samburu pastoralists in northern Kenya.

The author first examines the political dynamics of institutional change in Samburu society to assess the role of human agency in the process of tenure reform—from customary tenure, to group ranching, and finally to group ranch subdivisions. Her analysis of land adjudication and the political dynamics of institutional change is based on extensive field research with residents of the Siambu group ranch, an area that demarcated the Kenyan state in the late 1970s. As elsewhere in Kenya, community misconceptions surrounding the legal process of land adjudication created an opening for prominent Samburu with business and farming experience (and an understanding of the adjudication process) to claim prime individual holdings in areas suitable for farming. This development set individual land owners and group ranch elders on course for conflict in which the latter succeeded in mobilizing wider community support (including the intervention of an influential general in the Kenyan military).

Lesorogol’s detailed account of the conflict and its eventual resolution provides a thorough assessment of the competing strategies of elders and individual landholders. Her analysis provides rich ethnographic insight into the conflicting parties’ use of political and social networks in pursuing [End Page 170] different land tenure outcomes. An interesting later chapter fleshes out the biographies of some of the “group of 37” individual claimants for whom land ownership had become a harbinger of modernity. She concludes that subdivision of part of the group ranch into equal sized parcels—shared equally among group ranch members—reflected “equal bargaining power” among the parties and an outcome in which “all were treated equally” (115). Yet given the variability of agroecological conditions in Samburu, it seems important to consider who in the community received parcels of highest agroecological potential and which segments of society were harmed by the alienation of what must have been important dry season grazing lands.

Lesorogol’s research sheds considerable light on the effects of the move to individualized land tenure on pastoral livelihoods, personal well-being, and the cultural norms that are the cornerstone of customary tenure systems. Drawing on data from an extensive household survey in Siambu and neighboring Mbaringon (a group ranch that was not subdivided), she illustrates divergent paths of pastoralist diversification, though the differences between the two study areas are not solely a product of distinct tenure systems. The use of experimental games—inspired by experimental economics— that test participants’ adherence to community norms of sharing and solidarity is an unexpected addition to the book. The author is careful to interpret and contextualize the results within the broader picture of social complexity in Samburu society developed in earlier chapters.

Based on extensive field research and life experience in Samburu, Contesting the Commons provides a highly nuanced account of pastoralist institutional and livelihood change that neither validates the most optimistic claims of property rights advocates, nor suggests the immiseration of dryland communities in the aftermath of privatizing the pastoral commons. The book makes a rich empirical contribution to contemporary literature and policy discussions on pastoralist development. [End Page 171]

Thomas A. Smucker
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio


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