An analysis of non-state protected area governance in Kenya

By Phil Franks, IIED

IUCN-Papaco and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) conducted a survey of non-State protected areas in Kenya where this type of governance is fairly common. These kinds of governance arrangements deserve to be better known as they may inspire governance evolution in other contexts leading to the creation or the reinforcement of protected areas (and PA systems) in Africa.

Elephants in Kenya

This study focuses on governance of protected areas (PAs) in Kenya where authority for management and governance is largely with civil society and/or private sector actors.  In governance terms we can call this the non-state PA sector and in most cases the resources of the PA are owned by non-state actors but this sector also includes PAs with resources legally owned by the state but largely under the authority of non-state actors – notably marine areas.

The study focuses on a sample of eight PAs covering three of the most important land- and seascapes in Kenya, seven of which are registered as conservancies under a provision of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of 2013 (WCMA) that seeks to better recognise the contribution of non-state actors to conservation in Kenya.  In all but one of these cases the traditional systems of resource management have been at least partially replaced by government or donor-driven initiatives of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s – Group Ranches in the Rangelands and Beach Management Units (BMUs) on the coast. Both have largely failed to deliver sustainable resource management let alone conservation.  The more traditional arrangements that preceded Group Ranches and BMUs have largely disappeared and the context has changed so radically that there is no going back.

Landscape in Laikipia

In all cases but one the governance arrangements aim to engage a range of different stakeholders who have a wide (and widening) range of interests. This requires a common property approach to resource management and governance fit for this purpose. This study explores the strengths, challenges, and enabling factors that are inherent to different governance types with the aim of supporting efforts to strengthen governance in the non-state PA sector. 

In order to better understand the different governance types we have proposed an expansion of the classic framework of PA governance type to include a set of sub-types that are distinguished primarily by the relative influence of local communities, private sector and government actors in decision-making.  Where local communities and private sector entities are the principal actors:

  • Plain private governance
  • Consultative private governance
  • Private-led shared governance
  • Joint shared governance
  • Community-led shared governance
  • Consultative community governance
  • Plain community governance

At this point in time, Kenya has 411 PAs listed in the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA).

Since the Kenya Wildlife Conservation Association reports that there are currently 119 conservancies in Kenya and a good number of these are not yet included in the WDPA, it seems likely that the total number of PAs in Kenya currently exceeds 500.  Because of the large number of forest reserves (234) and PAs under Kenya Wildlife Service, the state sector remains the largest part of this but most of the growth in the total number of PAs in recent years is coming from the non-state sector.

National policy is increasingly supportive of non-state PAs, notably the WCMA which gives formal recognition to conservancies and also landscape and national level associations that can strengthen these conservancies and give them a stronger collective voice. That said, the all-important regulations needed to operationalise WCMA have yet to be finalised and approved.  WCMA covers the marine as well as terrestrial context.  Although fisheries legislation does not yet have its own specific provision for PAs it is strongly supportive of community-based fisheries management and the 2016 Act adds conservation to the list of objectives of fisheries management.

Map of Kenyan protected areas by governance typesPAs are inherently Common Pool Resources (CPRs) – resources whose size and characteristics make it difficult, but not impossible, to exclude people from benefiting from use of its resources. Where the management and governance of a CPR requires addressing the objectives of more than one stakeholder a common property management regime is required.  In her seminal work on CPRs Elinor Ostrom defined eight key principles that are key to an effective common property management regime.  In terms of approach to PA governance – PA governance type – the defining principle is the one relating to stakeholder participation in decision-making.  Assuming that consultation counts as a form of (light) participation, all eight PAs in this study have a common property management regime (CPMR).  Secure resource tenure is a precondition for a successful and sustainable CPMR but, as illustrated by several case studies in this report, secure tenure does not necessarily mean ownership of the resource – secure use rights may also suffice.

This study explores the governance arrangements (structure and processes) of non-State PAs in Kenya through case studies of eight PAs covering community, private and shared governance types. Looking at three contrasting land- and seascapes, the aim was to study two to three PAs of each of the three major governance types (community, private, shared) although in reality it proved impossible to find private governance in two of the three areas:

Samburu area

  • Northern rangelands (Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu counties):

    • Borana ranch – consultative private governance
    • Kalama conservancy – consultative community governance
    • Ol Lentille conservancy – private-led shared governance
  • Maasai Mara (Narok and Trans Mara counties)
    • Mara North conservancy – joint shared governance (private/community)
    • Oloisukut conservancy – consultative community governance
    • Olderkesi conservancy  - community-led shared governance
  • North coast (Lamu and Kilifi counties)
    • Pate conservancy – community led shared governance (community/government)
    • Kanamai Locally Managed Marine Area – community led shared governance (community/government)

Our analysis of strengths, challenges and enabling conditions includes issues that are specific to one particular governance sub-type as well as generic issues, as summarised in the following sections.

Consultative community governance in Kalama, Oloisukut

Consultative means that the community seeks input from one or more other key stakeholders but doesn’t necessarily have to take it into account in its decision-making.  In the two case studies of this governance type, the other key stakeholders in question are principally county government and the tourism partners. This is the strongest community-based governance type to be found in Kenya. 

A key strength of this governance type is that community governance enables, more than any other type, a strong sense of community empowerment and collective commitment.  This is based on the recognition that this governance type gives the community and the strong participatory processes as much as more tangible livelihood benefits. 

Another strength of this governance type is the lack of ambiguity about who is in control. The community may agree to consult with other key stakeholders on certain issues but is not obliged to include representatives of other stakeholders in their decision-making processes. With respect to tourism and other forms of conservation-based business the downside is that business ventures may look more risky and thus investment may be more difficult to secure. 

Evolution of PA in Kenya (governance)

One other challenge that may affect community governance more than others is the vulnerability of the management system to local social pressure to bend the rules (e.g. regarding law enforcement and use of conservancy funds), especially where there is no clear distinction between conservancy management and governance.  Although this may affect all governance types at some level, the multi-stakeholder governance structures of other governance types enable, to varying degrees, other stakeholders to hold the community accountable.  Of course it is possible to have strong downward accountability to the communities that the conservancies serve, for example through an AGM and other meetings, but in most communities this is not a traditional practice and there will be a need for substantial capacity building/empowerment on accountability and other good governance issues if community governance in modern Kenya is to be successful and sustainable.

Community-led shared governance (Olderkesi, Pate, Kanamai)

The three PAs in this category are very different both in context (marine and terrestrial) and in tenure (state vs. community owned) and yet they have common strengths and challenges.   A major strength of this governance type is that it enables strong community engagement and ownership and at the same time, a substantive role for government or the private sector.  It is particularly relevant where the revenue generating potential of the resource base per member household is low since the community empowerment inherent in this governance type enables strong participatory processes that build community ownership and commitment despite relative low benefits. 

Because this governance type is community led it makes sense to build on existing community institutions that are relatively strong – the Group Ranch in the case of Olderkesi and BMUs in the two marine areas.  However neither Group Ranches nor BMUs have a strong track record of success in Kenya (with some notable exceptions).  Therefore conservation efforts based on these existing institutions must still be prepared to invest heavily in support for management and governance of the Group Ranch/BMU at least until such time as viable alternatives appear.  That said caution is needed regarding the tendency of external actors to want to create new institutions are needed. This is of particular concern where this leads to a two tier governance arrangement that could undermine the authority of the original governance structure and/or prove financial unsustainable.

Joint shared governance in Mara North

The major strength of joint shared governance is that it seeks to establish a genuine balance of power between the key actors such that contested decisions must be discussed in depth and at times negotiated. So long as transaction costs are carefully controlled this is likely to improve the effectiveness and equity of conservancy management, notably through better and fairer management of risks and the inevitable trade-offs between conservation and social outcomes.


Mara North which currently has two decision-making platforms more or less operating on the same level is in the process of turning this into a two tier system with the top tier being the Board of a joint company of the private sector tourism partners and the land owners, and the second tier being the existing Land Owners Committee and its sub-committees.  In fact there is also a third tier in the form of the four grazing committees at zonal level. While this appears complex, Mara North has the financial resources to make this multi-tiered approach work, and other conservancies in the Mara with similarly large revenues may in time adopt a similar model.  

Private-led shared governance in Ol Lentille

Prior to its on-going transition to a joint shared governance the arrangement of parallel governance structures in reality gave the private sector actors a somewhat stronger position partly by virtue of the fact that their company controlled the financial flows.  The on-going reform process reflects a recognition on both sides that this was increasingly problematic, as well as a sense that growing trust between the key actors presented a real win-win opportunity.

The governance arrangements at Ol Lentille are somewhat similar to the situation at Mara North prior to its ongoing reform process.  In this case there is just one private sector actor which controls all the financial flows and has full management authority within the conservancy.  However while this may have been, in principle, quite acceptable to the participating communities in the early years, there is a risk of growing misalignment between the power relationship inherent in the existing private-led governance model as it has matured, and expectations of communities that have also evolved over time.  This challenge is likely to be particularly an issue where the community owns the land and is therefore, ultimately, the more powerful actor.  In other words, while this governance type may, from the perspective of private sector actors, be necessary for effective risk management it is unlikely to be a sustainable model for community owned conservancies.

Plain private governance in Borana

A major strength of this governance type is the relative simplicity of decision-making processes and simple and clear lines of accountability since authority is concentrated with one actor.  However in the current context of Kenya a real challenge is the legitimacy of this model where the resource to which the authority relates is a large area of land with contested rights.  Although the politics around this issue relate more to ownership than governance, it seems likely that the resentment that some feel towards this and similar conservancies might be reduced by a more consultative (but still private) governance arrangement and a more substantial benefit sharing programme.  Enhancing equity as a way of countering resentment is as much about recognising and listening to peoples’ concerns and fairness in sharing of benefits as it is about the actual volume of benefits.

Given the serious on-going political debate about legitimacy of this and similar conservancies, the potential for this governance type in Kenya seems to be threatened by the possibility that it could disappear within a generation.  A shift to a more consultative approach might help to ease political pressures.

Challenges to all governance types

  • Good governance and traditional norms: Some notions of good governance may not align well with cultural norms, particularly in societies that have maintained strong traditional norms and values where decisions of the community are made by older men with little consultation with other community members let alone participation. 
  • ‘Short-termism’: This term – used by several informants in this study - simply refers to the fact that poor people understandably prioritise the benefits/costs of now and the near future (e.g. feeding the family) over future benefits/costs even though they well know that some strategies to generate immediate benefits are unsustainable.  Establishing sustainable management and the necessary governance systems to oversee this is a long term endeavour which frequently involves short term costs.  In some cases community members may be willing and able to live with these short term costs but in other cases external actors must support mitigation measures to avoid, minimise and/or compensate such costs if investment in stronger natural resource management and governance is to succeed.
  • Elite capture of benefits: The issue of benefits going disproportionately to a powerful elite in the community is a universal problem in conservation (and other sectors).  This did not emerge much in case study interviews since, given time limitations, we inevitably were mostly talking to the elite.  Effective stakeholder participation in developing benefit sharing policies, and downward accountability supported by transparent information sharing on who is getting what are key to more equitable benefit sharing.  While all governance types should be able to achieve high levels of transparency (especially in the modern age of SMS and social media) governance types that enable stronger community participation will tend to be better in terms of participation in policy development and downward accountability.
  • Financial viability: Effective natural resource management and governance, however much based on voluntary inputs from the community, will have significant costs that must be covered. With respect to revenue earning potential there is a huge difference between the conservancies of the Mara and the other case study sites. In the Mara tourism revenue may be up to 100 times higher per capita than in some conservancies in Laikipia/Samburu. While quite a lot may be done to boost the revenues in these other areas we must acknowledge that major differences are inevitable and what works with high revenue conservancies may not be an option, or indeed appropriate, where revenues are much lower. 

Not surprisingly, the conclusion of this study is that there is no one size fits all governance model - what is optimal for a given site will depend on a number key site-specific factors, in particular:

  1. Tenure.  Tenure security is a pre-condition for success of any governance type.  The key issue that may well affect choice of governance type is the nature of the tenurial instrument (freehold, leasehold, concession, group vs individual etc) and the level of legitimacy that the specific arrangements have in the eyes of local communities and politicians.
  2. Diversity of stakeholders, their objectives and other key concerns.  This will determine whether a common property management system is required, and, where it is, rule out governance sub-types that do not enable adequate stakeholder participation.
  3. Site-specific context: environmental, social, environmental, economic, institutional, political. While the traditional natural resource management systems of Masai and Samburu pastoralists and artisanal fishers on the coast may not have been dependent on financial investment the context has dramatically changed in the last 50 years, notably the increase in numbers of people wholly or at least partially dependent on the natural resource base.  While some PAs have no problem raising the necessary revenue themselves, others face a huge challenge in this respect that no governance intervention can solve.  But this not saying that viable non-state PAs must be able to generate the revenue they need from PA-based enterprise or ultimately fail.  There are several models for short-term and longer term financial assistance from external sources that can readily be justified in terms of social protection, development and environmental goals, and the fact that County governments in Marsabit and Samburu are now providing such support is an encouraging development.

Issues of human and financial resources, incentives to motivate key stakeholders to engage in governance and management and governance quality are strongly inter-dependent. In many conservancies in Kenya work on governance has lagged behind work in the other two areas. This study hopefully makes a useful contribution to addressing this imbalance and strengthening the synergies between the three areas of work. 


You can read the full study here.

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