Catherine Loiyan looked in dismay at her patch of land in Kenya’s northern Laikipia County. A month ago it was bursting with tomatoes, maize, cabbage and potatoes.
Now all that is left are a few trampled leaves and crushed stalks after herders drove their cows onto her farm in the drought-hit region, where competition for grazing and water holes has ignited a series of deadly attacks in the past few months.
“I have nothing to show for my farming,” said the mother of six, watching clouds of dust form as she sat under an acacia tree to escape the afternoon heat.
“I have nothing to feed my children for the next season,” she said.
At least a dozen people have been killed in a recent spike in insecurity, prompting President Uhuru Kenyatta to announce on March 17 that he was sending troops to the northern regions of Laikipia and Baringo to stem the violence.
Some residents say local politicians are fanning tensions in the under-developed, semi-arid region in an effort to win votes from ethnic blocs in national elections scheduled for August.
Drought is a regular feature of life in northern Kenya, but locals say the changing climate has led to more frequent and more severe dry spells, exacerbating the battle for scarce resources.
Cattle herders who have roamed the region with their cows and goats for years see no reason to stop driving herds onto land that was once communally owned before being divided and subdivided in the 1980s and 1990s.
“We can’t let our animals die when there are plenty of pastures and water in these farms,” said Joseph ole Rapanke, a herder who has let his animals graze on farm fields.
Under Kenyan law, trespassers risk a prison sentence of two years and a maximum fine of 500 shillings ($5) for illegally entering property. They can be prosecuted under criminal law and sued in a civil case.
But in reality, few serve time in prison.
Ole Rapanke has paid more than 16 fines for illegal herding this year alone, both in court and out of it.
The owner of 200 cows, 50 goats and 20 sheep, Rapanke said he has lost more than 125 animals to drought, which has scorched grass and fodder for miles around.
“I can’t risk losing more,” he said. “I would rather graze on private land and ranches and be fined 500 shillings than risk losing an animal worth more than 20,000 shillings ($195).”
Farmers say attempts to seek justice lead only to frustration.
When Beatrice Lankenua’s farm was first invaded by cattle, she reported the matter to the authorities who told her to get an officer from the Ministry of Agriculture officer to come and assess the damage to her crops.
She was then told to get photographic evidence of the damage and have an expert from the Ministry of Public Works survey any damage to structures such as fences.
“This not only cost me money but it was so tedious a process that by the end of it all, the illegal herders had only 500 shillings to pay in court,” Lankenua said.
“A LITTLE TOO LITTLE”
Joyce Naserian, another farmer, said she had been taunted by herders who ask whether they should pay the 500 shilling fine to her or to the court.
“(They) are just too glad to plead guilty to the illegal grazing charges after which they cheerfully move on,” she said.
Passed in 1962, the Trespass Act was introduced when Kenya was still a British colony – and has not been amended since.
“The Trespass Act is one of those old laws that we inherited from the colonial government,” said Ramadhan Abubakar, a partner at Magee Wa Magee Advocates based in Kirinyaga County.
He agrees that the fine for breaking the law is now too low.
“This amount is a little too little and does not serve one of the main purposes of punishment,” he said. The fine needs to be larger, he said. But “be that as it may, it is a necessary law.”