Ranches ownership a ticking time bomb in Taita Taveta

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020 00:00 |
Taita-Taveta Wildlife Conservancies Association chair Bong’osa Mcharo during the launch of a strategic plan for Kabanga Ranching Company in Mwatate recently. Photo/KNA

At midnight on December 31, 2019, the 45-year lease for Mkuki Ranch Limited expired. The lease was issued to the late Brigadier Cromwell Mkungusi on January 1, 1975 in Mwatate in Taita-Taveta county.

The expiry has triggered an unprecedented storm with experts warning of a probable full-blown crisis if the future ownership of the gemstone-rich 6,000-acre land in Mwatate is not well handled.

Already, a fierce tussle is underway. From a local council of elders to politicians and even the county government, all are demanding the custody of Mkuki Ranch. 

Through their chair Ludlordvick Mcharo, the Chawia council of elders has written letters to Ministry of Lands and National Land Commission (NLC) demanding that the ranch lease should not be renewed.

The elders insist the ranch should be subdivided to their 7,000 members who regard Mkuki as their ancestral land. 

The county government also wrote to NLC opposing Mkuki’s lease renewal. The county wants to become trustee of the land on behalf of the residents. 

In the County Assembly, MCAs say the ranch should be parceled out to landless people.

This jostling over Mkuki Ranch offers a glimpse into the looming turbulence over land ownership in Taita-Tavata.

This tussle is seen as a precursor of things to come after reports that leases for several other ranches are also due to expire this year.

“The land should be used to settle our members who have lived in Chawia for ages,” argues Mcharo.

 Christopher Mwambingu, a nominated MCA in Mwatate, says such land should not only benefit the residents in the ranch’s immediate vicinity but also those in faraway places.

“There is no land for people in Wundanyi. They can also be settled in the ranch,” he says.  

However, Mkuki management views such calls as illegal and premature. Victor Were, Company Secretary, says the ranch is a fully registered legal entity with a board of directors.

“We are a company guided by established rules and guided by a board,” he said.

 Eugene Micho, a director at Mkuki with powers of attorney, says it is unfortunate the elders are fighting to grab the ranch which has bona-fide owners.

Mkuki has until 2021 to comply with all requirements before a lease renewal. “Mkuki remains a private entity.

My grandmother, Gladys Mkungusi, is wife to the original owner and is still alive to take care of her family property,” he said.

Taita Taveta county occupies approximately 17,084 square km of land. Out of this, Tsavo National Park, managed by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) sits on 10,649 square kilometres.

This translates to 62 per cent of the total county landmass making KWS the owner of the largest chunk of land in the county.

The over 28 ranches occupy the second largest land share estimated at over 1.1 million acres.

The ranches have since converted into wildlife conservancies to embrace a growth strategy meant to tap into the benefits of livestock rearing, tourism and conservation.

While most local politicians argue that ranches occupy community land and therefore must revert to the people after lease expiry as per Community Lands Act 2016, ranchers term such claims as misguided and informed by ignorance.

 Taita-Taveta Wildlife Conservancies Association (TTWCA) chair  Bong’osa Mcharo  points out that ranches occupy what used to be hunting grounds for wealthy European sport-hunters during the colonial period. 

The lands teemed with wild game due to their locations between Tsavo East and West National Parks.

The veteran rancher says that after independence, the elders requested to be allocated the land and the government agreed.

“Hunting blocks where ranches are located were lands owned by the government. These were not trust lands. It is the Ministry of Lands for post-independence government that gave them out,” he says.

Ranches in the region are classified into three groups based on ownership. Directed Agriculture are under National government while community ranches are owned and managed by residents. There are also private ranches which are owned by families and individuals.

While the issue of mismanagement has been reported in some ranches, other ranches have been unveiling development blueprints contained in strategic plans to reap maximally from the land.

Still, in a region dogged by perennial wrangles of landlessness, the issue of expiry of leases is bound to generate a lot of heat especially from the political class placing any development agenda in jeopardy.

Mwambingu says it is unfair that ranches with vast tracts of land only benefit a small number of people.

He says the county should reap benefits of the land. “The land should benefit everyone. The ranches don’t even support community projects yet they have been making money,” he said.

Generating income

His reference to money alludes to income generated by ranches. Through conservation initiatives, dozens of ranches under Wildlife Works Carbon Credit project have been receiving annual income that runs into millions. 

However, the bone of contention is on membership. Residents complain that they cannot gain membership of the ranches due to severe restrictions imposed on entry by ranch management. 

Most say the members deliberately lock out others to avoid sharing in benefits.

Already, trouble beckons. In March this year, police were deployed at Mkuki Ranch to evict squatters who had invaded the land after allegedly being assured by a local official that the lease had expired and the land had no legitimate owner. Such confrontations are likely to escalate as more leases expire.

 Mcharo warns that some politicians were eager to capitalise on ranches to bolster their re-election chances for 2022, adding that introducing politics is bound to cause conflict amongst people who have lived as brothers for decades.

Juma Ibrahim, MCA for Kasighau which  is home to six ranches argues that though all ranches are in his ward, none of area residents are members.

The membership for all ranches hail from other areas.He has demanded to know the ranch directors, minutes of members in AGM, status of ownership, dates of lease registrations and expiry. -KNA

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