Reclaiming the Rift Valley: Sustainably Managing Land in the Village of Suswa for Environmental and Economic Prosperity

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Clemens Olbrich
Some of the Maasai women of Suswa in the Rift Valley stand to greet their guests from the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative.

Swift views of the Rift Valley carve a pathway through Kenya, offering dusty red and green vistas of the ancient lands of the Maasai people. Several hours west from the cluttered noise of Nairobi is a small village called Suswa, nestled amidst the hills and valleys of Narok County.

Here, the arid land is smudged with dusty soil from volcanic ash and spotted with clusters of the musky camphor bush. However, drought and overuse of the fragile land in this small corner of the Rift Valley has led to deforestation and depletion of the vegetation cover, which served to stabilize the top layer of hard pan soil and retain the nutrients in the soft clay soils underneath.

To survive in the new conditions that land degradation brought, the Maasai in Suswa have come to rely more heavily on charcoal production for income, even though it is unsustainable and degrades the landscape further. While they may be able to feed their families for a year or two with this income, what will they do in the next five or 10 years when the soil is so poor the land will be unable to produce trees or grow grass for livestock herds to graze?

Given the arid features and on-going degradation of the fragile landscape around Suswa, these problems need to be and are being addressed now. Simple technologies to rehabilitate the landscape and return it to a level of sustainable productive capacity are being implemented with the support of local universities and global research institutes, with 250 hectares of land already reclaimed. The successes being seen here can serve as models for other regions experiencing decreasing livelihoods and sustenance from land degradation, not only in Kenya and East Africa but globally, too.

Traditionally, this land was communally managed with rotational livestock grazing. The red-robed Maasai roamed with their herds, allowing the lands left behind time to regenerate, preserving their productive capacity. However, the tenure regime changed over time from this communal management to private leasing, a practice mirrored in many other African countries. This created broken-up parcels of individually owned ranches, and the larger holistic management picture was lost. Many native trees were cut down to make way for intensive farming in these plots, which destabilized and reduced the productivity of the soil.

Under these circumstances, when the rain comes—which it often does with force—it barrels down these now-exposed and fragile hills, washing the precious soil away with it and creating large gullies up to 25 meters deep and 30 meters wide. This is detrimental not only to the delicate architecture of the landscape, but also in providing sustenance and livelihoods for the villagers as a result of lost biodiversity and soil productivity. The gullies also pose other dangers, such as humans and livestock falling in and injuring or killing themselves.


Naomi Stewart
The Maasai have developed long trenches to capture soil as it washes downhill as one of their sustainable land management techniques applied in Suswa.

As the land became less productive and their livelihoods became threatened, the inhabitants of Suswa resorted to cutting down trees to convert to charcoal and sell for income (a bag of charcoal could fetch 600–700 shillings in the countryside, with much of it flowing towards the growing nearby town of Narok and even Nairobi). The Maasai increasingly depended on charcoal for income, and sustainable practices were abandoned in order to meet their short term economic and sustenance needs.

Recently, a collaborative project was set up in the village to address this issue and develop a sustainable land management plan with funding from the United Nations Development Programme, Global Environment Facility, and the Government of Kenya. Other collaborative institutes included the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and the Kenya Forest Research Institute. The idea was to restore alternative livelihoods, reduce the dependence on charcoal, and increase the resilience of the community economically while the land’s productive capacity was being restored sustainably.

The Masaai have built retention and infiltration ditches dug at strategic locations along the hillside that capture water and soil and prevent it from washing away as it streams downhill during periods of rain. Many of these are not much more than long, rectangular trenches reinforced with sandbags (all impressively done with their own manual labor), but these simple techniques go a long way in preventing and reducing downhill loss of soil and nutrients. In other areas semicircular bunds, check dams, grass strips, and cut-off drains have also been constructed with the same purpose. These adaptive techniques not only provide novel sources of water replenishment but also capture the soil and prevent the precious nutrients from being lost.

With enough water and nutrients now available in these stores, the Maasai are starting to regenerate the landscape with native trees and grasses, provide fodder and water for livestock and vegetation, and ultimately diversify their incomes so that they are not dependent on one degrading practice that will render their land unusable in the near future. Other adaptive techniques include establishing perennial grasses, tree planting, improving soil fertility, upgrading livestock breeds, and temporary area closures. They also implemented livelihood diversification by setting up beehives, with farmers already harvesting kilograms of honey.

Training and capacity building is also a key element of the project to ensure that the knowledge gained is captured and can be shared with others. Local farmers and villagers collaborated to learn about drought-tolerant crops, water harvesting, postharvest loss control, and other best-practices. A demonstration site was set up in the reclaimed area, where farmers experiment with different farming techniques as well as supporting a bulking site for pasture seeds. All of these practices allow the villagers in Suswa to develop their own environmental and economic sustenance, which are key in securing their long-term health and well-being.


Naomi Stewart
Another sustainable land management technique applied by the Maasai in Suswa: a massive water reservoir reinforced with sandbags to capture the soil and water as it washes away when it rains.

As the Maasai learned, these types of sustainable land management solutions are not necessarily difficult to put into practice. It’s more a matter of being armed with the locally appropriate tools and knowledge and having access to enough capital. Sometimes, not being able to afford seedlings, gravel, or shovels can be a very real barrier to change. A key component of tackling this problem lies in understanding the short and long-term values and rewards in productive, healthy landscapes and accessing the support to transition to sustainable land management.

While there has been a lot of movement towards sustainable land management, the issue of economic drivers, costs, and benefits was not always as clear. An initiative called TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) saw great success in framing issues around biodiversity loss and concentration with economic understanding.

After the success of TEEB, a multinational organization called the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative was established in 2012 to apply the same type of solutions for land. Their goal is to “transform global understanding of the economic value of productive land based on both market and non-market values…improve stakeholder awareness for socio-economic arguments to improve sustainable land management, prevent the loss of natural capital, preserve ecosystem services, combat climate change, and address food, energy, and water security.” They are a global collection of researchers, practitioners, and interested stakeholders working to solve land degradation issues through economic understanding of sustainable land management.

In September 2015, the ELD Initiative released a comprehensive report called “The Value of Land” on the knowledge and research amassed in this field globally to date, inclusive of new research and perspectives aimed at total economic valuations. This included novel estimates of the cost of land degradation, placed between USD$6.3 and 10.6 trillion annually—a staggering 10 to 17 percent of the world’s entire GDP.

These estimates of financial loss show just how economically practical it is to shift from degrading practices to sustainable ones. It is hoped that uncovering and sharing these powerful economic numbers will motivate action on sustainable land management as they highlight the value of land and the potential it holds for economic and environmental empowerment. It is important to note that land degradation is a problem at different scales—not just globally but also regionally, nationally, and locally—and thus solutions must be able to transition across scales.

At the global level, the recent enactment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN General Assembly in September 2015 included one for land, specifically number 15: to sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss. This type of agreement provides the impetus for worldwide efforts to protect land—for instance, motivating rewards for local users who protect land and in doing so, reduce atmospheric carbon levels—benefits which are redistributed at the global scale. The success of setting these types of global targets was seen with the UN Millennium Development Goals which pushed progress on issues like reducing gender inequality and eradicating poverty. Though these international agreements do not necessarily chart a course, they do provide a destination. Accomplishing SDG number 15 is a signpost and reminder that local solutions like those in western Kenya need to be seen as part of a regional and global approach.

Countries that share geographical landscapes or features that cross political boundaries (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa) must work together to ensure that downstream and upstream users have equitable distribution of benefits and rewards from sustainable land management. For instance, decisions taken by bordering countries like Uganda or Tanzania can have positive or negative impacts on Kenya. Alternatively, engaging in sustainable land management in shared boundary forests improves the value of ecosystem services across the whole forest, regardless of political boundaries. Countries need to ensure that benefits generated by one and collected by the other are justly rewarded. Economic understanding of land use works in a neutral, clear language that allows nations to confer together and implement harmonized cross-border practices from an equal platform of understanding.


Clemens Olbrich
Project leaders explain the sustainable and management techniques used by the Maasai.

Understanding that livelihoods and self-sustenance depends on sustainable land use and getting the financial means to support a transition to it can completely alter a rural community’s long-term economic and environmental well-being. Support from governments and international organizations can be very central in this change. Government support also includes ensuring equitable distribution of the benefits and rewards of sustainable land management practices across different types of land users, so that those who protect the land are justly compensated for doing so by everyone else who benefits from it. For instance, the Kenyan government co-funding sustainable land management projects for the Maasai is a recognition of the benefits that flow back to Kenya from their sustainable land-use practices. This redistribution of benefits reduces the Maasai’s dependence on degrading practices like charcoal production and instead allows them to reap rewards from land use activities that protect the land—like eco-tourism, agropastoralism, agroforestry, etc.—but end up with benefits delivered elsewhere, even though the costs are incurred locally.

In our current society, money talks, but it often flows through our systems in many ways that aren’t ‘tracked’ by the market, especially when it comes to natural capital. So why not use that language and gain a deeper understanding of where the value is being stored and moved around to empower people, governments, and the global society while also protecting natural capital? In the case of land, understanding the many benefits it provides directly and indirectly allows land users and owners to reap the economic rewards of sustainable land management. Having global agreements like the SDGs and networked organizations like the ELD Initiative allows for a web of knowledge sharing and capacity building, which can have genuine impacts at the local scale on real people like the hard-working men and women of Suswa.

Being able to put holistic values on land ensures that at all levels and types of stakeholders can work together to protect it while also providing livelihoods, sustenance, and environmental and economic stability. In this one small corner of the Rift Valley, it is clear from obvious renewed pride of the Maasai in their restored land that these are solutions worth creating and sharing with the world.