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Competition for natural resources a major trigger of conflicts in East Africa – new report

5 December 2011

Increased competition for land, water, forest products and mineral resources within territories occupied by minority and indigenous communities in East Africa is a major trigger of inter-communal violence, says a new report by Minority Rights Group International (MRG).

MRG research found that mining, cattle rustling, drought, post-conflict instability and the creation of national parks for tourism spark hostilities as minorities and indigenous groups compete with other surrounding majority communities, the State, national and multinational corporations for control of resources upon which they depend for their livelihood and cultural integrity.

‘Despite some positive government initiatives, the reality for East African minority and indigenous communities is that marginalization, globalization, population increase and climate change all converge, increasing demand for scarce natural resources,’ said Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of MRG.

The report is published amidst what has been billed as the worst drought in a century to hit the East and Horn of Africa region. Millions have been displaced and face starvation, while experts link the resulting humanitarian disaster at least in part to increased competition over natural resources.

The report also notes that many minorities have lived on their land for centuries, and see it as intimately linked to their identity; however their ownership has not been formalised in law, hence t are constantly exposed to evictions, incursions and displacements.

The report, titled Land, livelihoods and identities: Inter-community conflicts in East Africa, reviews the situation of selected minority and indigenous communities in relation to natural resource-based conflicts including; the Endorois, Ogiek, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu in Kenya; the Batwa, Basongora, Iteso, Karimojong, and Tepeth in Uganda; and the Anyuak, Dinka, Jie, Kachipo, Murle and Nuer of Jonglei State, South Sudan.

Although minority and indigenous communities in East Africa differ in size, mode of livelihood, location and culture, the report found that extreme livelihood challenges, vulnerability to conflict, and ongoing discrimination are common across all the groups studied, rendering them poorer and with more precarious access to land and natural resources than other communities.

The report emphasizes how resource-based conflicts and discrimination disproportionately lead to negative consequences for minority women, who are faced with double discrimination because of deeply entrenched patriarchal norms as well as exclusion by majority communities.

‘For minority and indigenous groups, the most progressive developments are emerging in the form of new national land policies in Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan, which have the potential to create harmony and effectively manage land conflicts,’ says Chris Chapman, Head of Conflict Prevention at MRG.

‘However, in all three countries, those policies either remain in draft form or poorly implemented.’

The report underlines the need for strengthening community-based conflict resolution strategies, as well as effective coordination between government and communities, as key strategies for resolving inter-community resource-based conflicts.

Notes to Editors

Interview opportunities:

  • Mark Lattimer, Executive Director, Minority Rights Group International.
    Tel: +44 207 4224205
  • Chris Chapman, Head of Conflict Prevention Programme, Minority Rights Group International.
    Tel: +44 207 4224205
  • Rose Othieno, Executive Director, Centre for Conflict Resolution, Uganda
    Tel: +256 772 462 319
    Email: [email protected]
  • Dr. Abdullahi Dima, a pastoralist and expert in resource conflict management
    Tel: +254722353168
    Email: [email protected]
  • Wilson Kipkazi, a Programme Officer with Endorois Welfare Council, a CBO in Nakuru
    Tel: +254721549649

Download a copy of the report on our website here.

Minority Rights Group International is the leading international human rights organisation working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.

For more information or to arrange interviews please contact:

Mohamed Matovu, Africa Regional Information Officer
+256 312266832 (Office)
+256 782748189 (Cell)
[email protected]

The following is a list of some specific cases of resource based conflicts among minority or indigenous communities.


Interethnic Conflict on Traditionally Held Lands

Case Study One: Iteso, Katakwi Region, Uganda

Iteso, meaning people of Teso, are an agro-pastoralist community that resides in eastern Uganda. Iteso are spread across a large territory in Uganda, comprising multiple districts. In the Katakwi district on the border of the Karamoja region, however, Iteso feel that they are a targeted minority and are losing access to their traditional lands.

As the result of a border dispute between the Iteso of Katakwi and the Karimojong of Moroto that is more than a century old, the two communities have lived under constant threat of conflict. The Karimojong, who are a pastoralist cattle-keeping community, regularly move into Teso territory in order to find grazing land and water. Because the rain that falls in the mountains near Moroto runs off quickly and drains into the wetlands in Teso, the Karimojong are known to say that they are following “their” water into Teso. Pastoralists in Karamoja have repeatedly made requests to the government for development of more water access points, either through valley dams or boreholes, but there has been little improvement in this regard.

Recently, Karimojong have also been settling in what Iteso consider to be their territory based on a colonial era map – Karimojong see the border differently. The border conflict has led to Karimojong raids into Teso territory, during which there are killings and property destruction. Iteso in turn have burned down Karimojong settlements in Katakwi that they believed to be illegal. This type of traditional territorial conflict creates an escalating cycle of violence. Multiple efforts have been made to address the Teso/Karamoja border conflict including use of local government arbitration, negotiations between elders and government officials from the regions, community based conflict mitigation programming, and even appeals to President Museveni himself. Despite these efforts, the border conflict continues to create negative repercussion for both communities.

Community in Conflict in Population Center

Case Study Two: Murle, Bor Town, South Sudan

Murle are an ethnic community in South Sudan whose traditional territory is in the south eastern portion of Jonglei State. They make up a small proportion of the national population, about 4 per cent.

The Murle are regularly in conflict with other ethnic communities in Jonglei, primarily as a result of cattle raiding, broken peace agreements, and child abductions. In recent years, small numbers of the Murle community have migrated into the regional capital, Bor, seeking work at the new state institutions that are being established there or fleeing conflict in the rural areas. Approximately 200 Murle community members live in Bor, which is deep within the traditional territory of the Dinka, a group with whom the Murle are regularly in conflict.

Because of the long-standing ethnic conflict, Murle report that they are unable to access housing or land in the town. One interviewee said that, “If I were to go out and try to buy a plot here to build a small house, it is all Dinka land, I would beaten and chased out.” As a result, the entire Murle community of 200 people in Bor lives in a compound with only two houses on it that were built by the government for the Murle ministers from the district to stay in. The compound is about one acre. The Murle report that when there is violence in the outer lying cattle camps, Murle living in Bor are subject to revenge attacks. Murle also report that they are harassed in town and insulted when they are heard using their own indigenous language.

For minorities who leave their traditional home territory in search of employment or as an escape from the violence in outer lying areas, access to land and other resources can become a serious challenge. This kind of discrimination flies in the face of important constitutional provisions on equality before the law and in non-discrimination related to property rights. It also reflects the conflict between customary tenure regimes that put land fully under the control of communities and the needs of states to develop multicultural population centers where all can have access to the services and employment opportunities of government.

Community in Conflict with State/Corporate Interests

Case Study Three: Olkaria Maasai, Lake Naivasha, Kenya

Inside Hell’s Gate National Park, near Lake Naivasha, the Olkaria Maasai are confronting land acquisition and natural resource development by the Kenyan government and a parastatal energy company, KenGen. KenGen began operating in the Hell’s Gate area in 1982 and the national park was established in 1984. The national park and the geothermal energy development affects multiple Maasai settlements, including some 20,000 people. The Maasai are also in conflict with the neighboring Kikuyu community over ownership of parts of the land.

In 2009, the Olkaria Maasai in Maiella won a court decision recognizing their traditional claim to the land they occupy on the border of Hell’s Gate. But, the court ordered that the land be individually allotted, between Kikuyu and Maasai families, instead of being held in common by the Maasai community as has traditionally been done. Efforts by the local government and the courts to proceed with the allotment have met with conflict, protests, and ultimately violence that resulted in the deaths of over 100 people. According to community leaders, several members of the community have been “bought out” and wish to proceed with the allotment so that they can sell their allotted portion to corporate interests that wish to build an additional generating station. In April 2011, a surveyor brought in to carry out demarcation as part of the allotment process was killed by community members. The community has also staged protests against the allotment process. These incidents have resulted in the local government stationing a rapid response unit of the Kenya police in a tented camp on a hill overlooking the community.

The community now lives in the shadow of a constant police presence as a result of their resistance to the allotment. In June 2011, police raided the community and used teargas to disperse community members. In fact, when the authors of this report were interviewing community members, all sitting in circles on the grass, police armed with rifles came down off the hillside to investigate the meetings.