Meet… Ryan Unks

Ryan Unks – in Humboldt County, California – Photo by Deepti Chatti

The chance to work on the CONDJUST project presents an exciting opportunity for me to expand on my long-term interests in pastoral livelihoods, rangeland ecology, and environmental governance within a justice framework. A key motivation underlying my past work has been how long-standing mobile pastoral land use practices within ‘rangelands’ (i.e. mosaics of grasslands, savannas, shrublands, swamps, and forests) have tended to foster high mammalian and avian biodiversity. However, the diverse groups of people who practice pastoralism, their ways of managing and benefitting from their land, their ecological knowledge, and their relationships with non-humans have often been marginalized in conservation interventions. With a strong interest in the diverse ways that different actors, such as people who practice pastoralism, rangeland ecologists, and wildlife conservation practitioners understand these highly variable socio-ecological systems, my main interests are in developing a systematic understanding of the way that conservation interventions are designed.

I was originally trained as a plant ecologist, but during my PhD study in Integrative Conservation at the University of Georgia, I took a turn in my work, and began trying to develop interdisciplinary approaches for understanding environmental problems. I began to apply lenses from landscape ecology, environmental anthropology, and people-environment geography. In the research I have done since, I have attempted to do reflexive work that triangulates between social science focused on pastoral livelihoods and land, rangeland science that has been focused on understanding the ecological structure and function of rangelands, and the tensions and synergies between academic knowledge production and the knowledges of people who practice pastoralism.

My PhD research focused on pastoralism and semi-arid ecology in Laikipia, Kenya. This work explored how Maa-speaking people who rely heavily on pastoralism for a livelihood were adapting to increasing constraints on livestock mobility in a landscape where wildlife conservation was rapidly becoming a priority. Conspicuously, this work showed that conservation practices on private ranches that were a legacy of the colonial era ‘white highlands’, as well as new ‘community’ wildlife conservancies that were being established on pastoral land, had both limited pastoral mobility over time. Ultimately, this work showed how wildlife conservationists had envisioned connectivity of landscapes for wildlife across a mosaic of land with different underlying tenure relations, and had intervened to try to keep this land open to the movements of wildlife. However, these interventions were at the same time selectively filtering out people who sought to move with their livestock. The different strategies that people had adopted in response to these limitations had important implications for both ecological dynamics and people’s abilities to benefit from land, and reinforced highly socially-differentiated experiences of vulnerability in the face of drought events and other stressors like market fluctuations.

Following my PhD, I did postdoctoral research in areas surrounding Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. In Amboseli there have long been similarities in patterns of movements of both Maasai with their livestock, and wildlife, migrating side by side across the Amboseli landscape and benefitting from different seasonally variable vegetation and water sources. However, exclusion from formerly accessed national parks, conservancies on community land, and privatization of land have increasingly limited pastoralist mobility over time. My work gradually came to focus on ‘community’ based conservation on pastoral land that was intended to incentivize wildlife and pastoralism over farming, fencing, and extractive industry that posed threats to wildlife populations.

My research showed how ‘community’ wildlife conservation interventions that are spearheaded by international conservation and development actors are wrapped up in national political economic interests, local systems of mutual assistance and patronage, social processes of inclusion and exclusion, and asymmetrical influence over land use. Wildlife conservation interventions in Amboseli show important asymmetries in abilities to access and benefit from land and to influence land rights, but also how, through trying to impose new systems of value over land and wildlife, that practices of wildlife conservation have themselves ironically contributed to negative views of wildlife and collective land among Maasai people. A key insight from this work was that international conservation actors and Kenyan politicians who have embraced narratives of pastoralism as a land use practice in Amboseli that is compatible with wildlife conservation, but while seeming to favor pastoralism, have fostered new types of power relations that are ironically undercutting pastoral practice and Maasai social movements for land rights.

With wildlife conservation interventions continuing to expand in Kenya, and conservancies on community land now covering about 11% of Kenya’s landmass, many questions remain about the impacts of these interventions on pastoral livelihoods and access to land. A recent paper I published examined how pastoral practice has been restricted in Laikipia and Kajiado in relation to spatial and temporal variability in rainfall across landscapes. This analysis showed quantitatively, using GIS and remote-sensing analysis, how numerous types of state and non-state interventions, many of which had focused on creation of wildlife corridors and conservancies, had constrained the ability of people practicing pastoralism to respond to ecological variability. Practices of the colonial and post-colonial Kenyan governments settled people in the driest and most variable areas, introduced rangeland management practices that limited local decision-making in response to variability in climate and vegetation, and conservation practices had limited access to lands that were most important for sustaining livestock during dry seasons and drought.

My work with CONDJUST builds on this previous work; I am particularly interested in how spatial planning of wildlife conservation corridors, and the diversity of what corridors mean to different people, creates potential for both shared visions of landscapes, but also for injustice. In Amboseli, landscape connectivity analyses have focused on movement of wildlife species of concern, and despite a long history of rhetoric by the organization claiming their central concern with pastoralist livelihoods, models have not explicitly considered spatial patterns of livestock use. Projects expanding through Kenya also increasingly focus on soil carbon sequestration and disciplinary interventions in grazing management practices, leading to recent controversies because they overlook ecological variability as well as Samburu pastoralists’ historical management practices. With numerous recent agreements incentivizing expansion of wildlife conservation, restoration, and carbon sequestration in rangelands, there is a strong need to understand the assumptions and values that underpin prioritization of these interventions, but also to explore the potential of modelling to foster alternative visions of conservation that center dimensions of justice.