Life for the Maasai pastoralists in the rangelands of Kajiado District, Kenya, has always been challenging, given the high levels of variation in rainfall that differentially affects their terrain. Maasai pastoralism centers on cattle and, like many other pastoral systems across the world, has always involved negotiated, seasonal herd movements between dry and wet season pastures within and outside Maasai territory. However, as the British colonized the area at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Maasai faced another challenge: adapting to changing institutions created by the British that ignored Maasai rules related to the highly variable ecology of these rangelands and imposed new rules to govern the commons from above. Outsiders’ lack of understanding of the Maasai’s indigenous institutions and how they worked at multiple levels not only made life even more difficult for the Maasai but also exacerbated ecological consequences.
The changes in institutions imposed by British colonial powers were probably motivated more by the desire to find land for British farmers than for protecting the commons. Nonetheless, colonial rule was the first of several stages of privatization that progressively shifted ownership and decisionmaking away from the Maasai community to a variant of communal ownership of substantially smaller titled group ranches to individual ownership of specific parcels of land held presently.
Anyone familiar with commons management will immediately think of Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” when they read the word “pastoralist.” Hardin presumes that the pastoralists involved in his allegory could not extract themselves from a process of destroying their own resources. He proposes that governments should control access and use of a commons or that private property rights should be assigned to avert this tragedy.
However, more than a century of history illustrates how top-down imposition of Western-style private property–rights systems to avoid overuse and destruction of a resource on highly complex social-ecological systems has generated “tragedies of the commons.” In this case, a decrease in the physical scale over which livestock can range accompanied the progressive reduction in the social scale of ownership and management. Livestock mobility, a prerequisite for pastoral economies and ecology, is restricted by privatization. Indeed, rangeland privatization is thought to be a key factor driving change in the Maasai’s social-ecological system; for example, from the early to mid-1980s, increased privatization has been associated with changing land use and subsequently with escalating conflicts between wildlife conservationists, Maasai livestock producers, and farmers.
These transformations in institutions and their implications for social-ecological systems are not unique to the Maasai rangelands but are shared by other similar social-ecological systems in Africa and Asia, and their lessons are broadly applicable. When institutions are not well-matched to the ecological and social conditions on the ground, tragic overuse is likely to result. The long history of institutional change in the Maasai region provides a very rich example of this idea. The problem of mismatch is currently a challenge when examining the lack of institutions on a large scale related to global commons, such as the ocean and atmosphere, as addressed by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. It is also a challenge when trying to reestablish private property for agricultural land in Eastern Europe after several generations of collective farms. Simple, cure-all prescriptions are not likely to work well in most settings given the importance of diversity of institutions to cope with the diversity of ecologies.