Multi-layered mountain: Mt. Kenya’s hidden conflicts


By: Lys-Anne Sirks for Vice Versa

Control and access over land is an important issue that often causes conflict, yet what goes on behind the larger problem is often hidden and multi-faceted. The journey of how Mount Kenya became a World Heritage site shows how a complex, colonial background came into play and ultimately shaped the process and outcome.

Different groups can lay claims on land based on several grounds, be they cultural, religious, or legal. Yet who decides which claim overrides the others? It is assumed that supranational organizations at least attempt to stay neutral and above influence when making decisions that have an impact on multiple parties, but they too can unknowingly be influenced by local politics. The case of Mt. Kenya displays how an organization like the IUCN followed procedure and remained neutral, yet still unintentionally aided the agenda of those who put forward the nomination to designate the mountain a World Heritage site. Marlous van den Akker, lecturer at Leiden University, undertook extensive research to discover how UNESCO assigns World Heritage status unto a location looking at Mt. Kenya as a specific example, and found that what seemed like a straightforward approach turned out to be far more complex with many different actors and events involved.

Mt. Kenya, situated slightly south of the center of the country, is the second highest mountain on the African continent after Mt. Kilimanjaro. In 1997, the mountain became a World Heritage site after a nomination was submitted and approved by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). After a few suggestions and remarks, the nomination was accepted and the IUCN describes the mountain as follows: “With its rugged glacier-clad summits and forest middle slopes, Mount Kenya is one of the most impressive landscapes in East Africa.” Although it seems innocent enough, the progression leading up to the nomination had multiple layers with personal motivations and colonial traces shaping the process, and it all started at the Kenyan Wildlife Service.

KWS versus KFS

The original nomination form was drafted and written up by Bongo Woodley, the senior warden of Mt. Kenya National Park, as commissioned by his director David Western who considered it to be positive attention towards the conservation progress the KWS was making in preserving the landscape. What is interesting is that Woodley’s department of the KWS did not fully oversee the Mt. Kenya area, but shared responsibility and a rivalry with Kenya’s Forest Department, nowadays known as the Kenya Forest Services (KFS). This confusing set-up originates from colonial times, when the two institutions were set up separately befitting different purposes at different times. Woodley thought a World Heritage status achieved by the KWS would perhaps increase his authority over the area. He described Mt. Kenya and the surrounding forest as ‘rugged’ with ‘pristine landscapes’, providing a technical approach to the site that insinuated this was nature untouched by man. Yet Mt. Kenya was most certainly used and lived on, as Woodley well knew. Logging (which fell under the Forest Department) and farming on individual plots took place, to the dismay of Woodley. So, hoping he could assert his authority over the KFS, he sent in the form hoping the IUCN would agree with the superiority of the KWS in the area.

In the end, despite a glowing recommendation from the IUCN stating that the KWS was doing wonderful work and should be placed in charge over the newly minted World Heritage Site, actual administration and division of authority did not change. Woodley did not leave it at that and later with the help of international ngo’s, pressured the Kenyan government into making the KWS the primary institution in Mt. Kenya National Park. Van den Akker notes however that actual implementation of this superiority falls short, and that the KFS chooses to for the most part ignore the ruling that the KWS is primarily in charge, saying that this was ‘a misinterpretation by the government.’

Hiding the Kikuyu

In addition to this personal and institutional dispute between the KWS and KFS, van den Akker argues there was another layer involved in the designation of Mount Kenya, this time on a national scale. Why did the political elite of Kenya not block Woodley’s obviously biased nomination report, which labeled the mountain as ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’? She reasons that this had to do with the Kikuyu tribe, who live predominantly around Mt. Kenya and are thus associated with the site. The Kikuyu were considered powerful in the new, post-colonial Kenya, and the fact that Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta hailed from this tribe further reinforced this belief. The second president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, was not from the Kikuyu tribe but instead of the Kalenjin people, and shifted his favorable attention towards his own group. As a result, the Kikuyu became the opposition group and subsequently marginalized.

An important second factor is the use of the Mt. Kenya area by the Mau Mau rebels in the revolution that took place in the 1950’s. The Mau Mau rebellion was a military conflict during which rebels fought against the white settlers as well as the British army, but later fell out of favor with Kenyan citizens due to their often brutal methods. In the early days of post-colonial Kenya, president Kenyatta described the Mau Mau rebellion as ‘hooliganism’ and he strongly detached himself and the new government from this group. Because the Mau Mau mainly were localized around Mt. Kenya, the Kikuyu were wrongfully associated or equated with the Mau Mau, which further tarnished their status.

Van den Akker reasons that upholding a narrative focused on the natural aspects of Mt. Kenya would further limit the cultural and political importance the site held mainly for the Kikuyu tribe, which is what president Moi’s regime had been doing. She however is quick to note that ‘this is not to suggest that Mt. Kenya’s natural World Heritage state was the result of deliberate political engineering’. However, she does ascertain that if the narrative in the nomination favored more towards highlighting the cultural traditions linked to the mountain, the government would most likely have reacted differently. The designation of the mountain as a World Heritage site depoliticized the history and traditions surrounding the mountain and transformed it into a natural reserve. This effectively erased any cultural and societal significance from Mount Kenya and shows in van den Akker’s words ‘how much the commemoration of Mt. Kenya has been, and continues to be, a source of struggle, and it articulates a post-colonial government’s general uncertainty about how to deal with colonial legacies.’

The long and winding road towards designation

At first glance, Mount Kenya appears as ‘just’ another beautiful World Heritage site, bringing pride to its nation. Yet when delving into and evaluating the different processes that led up to the actual designation of Mount Kenya by the IUCN, it soon becomes apparent that many different actors and historic events were at play. Ranging from personal pursuits to traces left from colonial times, the road leading up to Bongo Woodley handing in the nomination form was long and winded.

Nature is not only a feature that needs to be conserved; it can also serve as a tool to further one’s own agenda. Furthermore, no matter how noble and detached an organization such as the IUCN aims to be, they are still –unwittingly- subject to underlying politics and cultural differences that may have been acting for hundreds of years. It is important to keep in mind that we assign values and meanings to objects or nature. Depending on who writes the narrative, values can be changed or silenced.

Dr. Marlous van den Akker’s full work “Monument of Nature. An Ethnography of the World Heritage of Mt. Kenya” is available online at the Leiden Repository.

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