Nomadic herders are invading wildlife conservancies in Kenya's Rift Valley in search of pasture for their cattle. That's culminated in violence, as police move in to push the herders out.
But some local farmers say it's more complicated, that the cattle don't belong to the herders but to wealthy politicians, who are storing their wealth in cattle and laundering ill-gotten money through cattle.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Let's go now to Kenya's Great Rift Valley. It's an area of intense beauty and lately violence. On the line from Nairobi is NPR's Eyder Peralta, who was just in the valley. Hey, Eyder.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey.
MCEVERS: What's happening there?
PERALTA: So you have nomadic herders who are moving into private wildlife conservancies with thousands of head of cattle. A few weeks ago, all of this came to a head when herders killed the British owner of one of those conservancies. And in response, the Kenyan government launched a military-style operation to push the herders out. But what we've seen is an escalation of violence. Police have killed lots of cows. And the herders have responded by burning tourist lodges on the properties.
MCEVERS: What do the herders want?
PERALTA: The easy answer is grass. In the past few years, conservancies have bought up land and expanded into territory that has been historically used by the herders to graze their cows. And right now, there's a gruesome drought in Kenya. So the herders say they need to get grass wherever they can get it. I was up in Northwest Kenya where the heart of the problem is, and I heard a much more complicated explanation.
MCEVERS: Let's listen to that.
PERALTA: The Laikipia Nature Conservancy spreads out over 90,000 acres. It's home to giraffes and lions. And Sveva Gallmann, who runs the conservancy, says they've always allowed local herders to graze on their land. But over the past few years, things have changed. Herders have shown up from far away with thousands of cows. And they've vandalized their place, destroyed the pipes and killed wildlife, including almost 80 elephants.
SVEVA GALLMANN: That's not just grass. That is heavily politicized violence. And that is what's much more worrying about this situation.
PERALTA: What Gallmann suspects and government officials deny is that those cows are not owned by herders.
GALLMANN: There's a lot of actually politicians, people within the police, people within the administration storing their wealth in cattle and laundering ill-gotten money through cattle.
PERALTA: Not only that, Gallmann says, but those cows might also help some politicians make political gains as they move a friendly constituency onto those lands. After I leave Gallmann's conservancy, I travel to Kamwenje Village. There I meet Paul Njerogi, who owns a small five-acre farm. As we speak, he pulls out a stack of documents from a big plastic bag.
PAUL NJEROGI: I tried to accumulate the number that has been attacked and that has been evicted.
PERALTA: He's documenting it to push authorities into action. In this small village, he's counted about 200 people who have reported some kind of harassment by the herders. Out here, the conflict takes an ethnic dimension because it is for the most part ethnic Pokots and Samburu invading and looting plots of land owned by the ruling Kikuyus. According to Njerogi's number, 19 of them have been forced from their homes and four have been killed. He calls the herders an invading militia.
NJEROGI: In fact, they come in large numbers. Like the other time they come to my place here, they were 70 number who were armed with AK-47.
NJEROGI: What would I have done? Only me and my wife, what would I have done?
PERALTA: Njerogi asks if I'd like to see some of the herders. So we climb the side of a mountain that looks over a valley. It's a piece of earth gouged by the violent movement of tectonic plates below.
NJEROGI: This is now the Baringo side. You can see how many cows you can see now climbing.
PERALTA: Hundreds at least. They're being guided onto private conservancy land by two guys with weapons slung around their shoulders. There is no way, Njerogi says, that these guys can own all those cows. He says that not too long ago, this valley was a home to many, but the tribal violence after the 2008 elections pushed them out. As we stand there, we see another big group of cows right below us. This time, they're being herded by a little kid, maybe 7 years old.
NJEROGI: You can't imagine this is Kenya at this time, such a thing happening. This child does not know school, does not know home. She lives in the bushes. You cannot imagine all this.
PERALTA: A scene like this leaves no doubt, he says, that some really powerful people are exploiting vulnerable Kenyans for their own enrichment.
MCEVERS: Eyder, it's been about two weeks since you were up in the valley. What's happened since then?
PERALTA: So government forces moved in and they killed something like 500 cows on the conservancy. And the Pokots counterattacked. They burnt down a tourist lodge. And Sveva Gallmann says she dodged three bullets. Paul Njerogi called me late one night. He said he had been hearing gunfire, but the government soldiers had all left. He told me he felt abandoned.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thank you very much.
PERALTA: Thank you, Kelly.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE AND ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD SONG, "COFFEE AT MIDNIGHT" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.