Land Tenure and Biodiversity: An Exploration in the Political Ecology of Murang'a District, Kenya

By Mackenzie, A. Fiona D. | Human Organization, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Land Tenure and Biodiversity: An Exploration in the Political Ecology of Murang'a District, Kenya


Mackenzie, A. Fiona D., Human Organization


This paper situates the relationship between biodiversity and land tenure in the complex interrelationships between the local and the global. Through a case study of Murang'a District, Kenya, it explores how power is exercised through struggles to define rights to land in highly complex situations of legal plurality and how these struggles in turn interrelate with issues of land management, including biodiversity. Gender, cross-cut by class, is a deeply contested arena of social differentiation, and the outcome of struggles for land, labor, and the product of labor have significant implications for the maintenance of biodiversity.

Key words: land tenure, biodiversity, gender, political ecology, local knowledge, Kenya

Following the signing of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992, biodiversity has become a salient component of international discourse and, as discourse, a key means through which power relations at the global level are redrawn (Escobar 1996, 1998). The struggle over intellectual property rights and plant breeders' patents is one dimension of this and the focus of substantial research (Mooney 1996; Posey and Outfield 1996; Crucible II Group 2000, 2001). In the struggle to establish whose knowledge counts and in the effort to promote the conservation of biodiversity globally, those people who depend on the maintenance of biodiversity for their livelihoods are increasingly recognized as central players. Yet despite global recognition of the need for research at the local level, research into the relationship between tenurial rights to agricultural land and biodiversity has been neglected (Howard-Borjas 2002).

In sub-Saharan Africa, questions of land tenure have long been the subject of attention with respect to debates about the "efficient" use of land, yet early studies frequently failed to recognize, or else dismissed, the complex sets of rights and responsibilities, of individuals and collectivities, through which tenure issues were defined. More recently, research in sub-Saharan Africa has recognized that small-scale farmers, producing often for the purposes of subsistence as well as exchange, are responsible for maintaining the genetic diversity of their crops. But such studies have generally ignored the part played by property rights and those issues concerning control, access, and use of land. In particular, there has been a lack of consideration of how people-differentiated, inter alia, by class, gender, generation, marital status, race, ethnicity-negotiate rights of access and control of resources to foster or undermine plant genetic diversity.

This paper seeks to move research forward by suggesting ideas for conceptualizing the relationship between land-based property rights and biodiversity at the local level, drawing primarily on fieldwork conducted in Kenya in the mid-1980s and literature pertaining to sub-Saharan Africa. The paper focuses on relations between the political and the ecological at the local level but argues that research into the relationship between tenurial practice and land use, and thus biodiversity, must engage iteratively with the complexity of relationships through which the "local" intersects with the "global." As Michael Watts and Richard Peet (1996: 266) have demonstrated, the local may not be completely displaced by the global in an age of "market triumphalism," but neither does it exist in isolation from it. The promotion or otherwise of genetic diversity at the local level is entwined with social, economic, and political relations at far larger scales of inquiry. Ecological issues, including biodiversity, are multiscale (Bryant 1998) and intricately connected with political issues at multiple scales.

The theoretical ground for this proposal is informed by what may broadly be termed poststructural political ecology. Recognizing both the advances and limitations of such work as that of Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield (1987) and Michael Redclift (1987), more recent research, inspired in part by postcolonial and feminist theorization of difference and discourse theory, has extended earlier work in political ecology by exploring relations of power and knowledge as articulated through discourse in the relationship between people, land, and economy, and by examining the construction of nature in social struggle (Braun and Castree 1998; Escobar 1996, 1998; Neumann 1998; Peet and Watts 1996; Watts 1998). …

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