On the remote dirt road where armed poachers forced Josephine Ekiru to her knees to kill her at age 26, she chose as her life’s final words the declaration she had been making to northern Kenya’s grassland tribes. Their frequent warfare and poaching of wildlife amounted to a mutual suicide pact, Josephine argued. She confirmed the poachers’ accusation that she was campaigning to halt their business. But, she corrected the angry gang leader, she was working to improve the men’s livelihoods, not end them. The men lowered their rifles, and that former poacher is now Josephine’s ally in building peace and hope among millions of northern Kenyans.

Josephine Ekiru, USIP's 2021 Women Building Peace Award recipient.
Josephine Ekiru is USIP's 2021 Women Building Peace Award recipient.

In Kenya’s arid northern plains and rugged hills, more than 1 million semi-nomadic people struggle to survive their habitual way, roaming with cattle or goats to graze them. Yet a hotter climate and growing droughts are withering their grasslands, shrinking their herds and forcing many communities into poverty and malnutrition. Tribes fight over waterholes and pasture; immiserated families chop and burn the trees into charcoal for sale in towns. Gangs of poachers slaughter elephants, giraffes, zebras and other wildlife to hack away tusks, teeth or skins for sale in international markets. Josephine, now 35, works across ethnic and language divisions, helping the region’s 18 major tribes end violent conflicts. She has guided her own tribe and others in forming “community conservancies” that can preserve lands and wildlife, and reshape the economy to better meet people’s needs.

Josephine led her own people, the Turkana, in establishing one such conservancy, ending recurrent warfare with the neighboring Borana tribe. She is now the peace coordinator for the Northern Rangelands Trust, an association of 43 such local conservancies that promotes peace, development and environmental repair across an area larger than Switzerland. Josephine is one of rural northern Kenya’s most prominent women leaders, a role she has built since she was forced to abandon her formal education after primary school to be married at age 16.

Kenya’s community conservancies are an example of the growing field of environmental peacebuilding, which halts violent conflict by gathering rival groups to cooperate in solving the environmental problems they share. These Kenyan organizations “serve as a critical, safe space for dialogue between warring groups, because it is community members themselves who are serving as mediators, rather than outside organizations that may have limited insight into the issues that matter most to local communities,” said Tegan Blaine, a specialist on climate and conflict at USIP.

‘A Feeling Inside My Heart’

Josephine was born in a village of the Turkana, whose people traditionally have herded cows, goats and camels in the northern savannah. “When I was a young girl, the land was so alive with wildlife,” she said in a telephone interview. “We could hear the lions roaring.” One day, following a school lesson about wildlife, Josephine returned home to ask her grandfather, “What happened to the rhinos?” He replied, “‘We used to have many rhinos, but people killed them all … to get maize flour or tobacco or sugar by selling the rhino’s horn,’” she recalled.

Shocked at this discovery, “I developed a feeling inside my heart that something is very wrong,” Josephine said. Over time, “I saw that we are killing our wildlife, and cutting our trees to burn them for charcoal, and fighting among our communities, just to have food. . . . “People were not talking about how to address the long-term challenges, like poverty or education or our future. So while I was still a girl I was feeling that, if one day I will get a chance, I will become a chief and I will tell my people, ‘This is wrong.’”

But the rules of patriarchy would demand its right, instead of hers, to shape her life. “Girls at that time were not supposed to pursue education. I had just finished my primary schooling when I was married off,” Josephine said. “I told myself that my dream is now dead. I will never get a chance to tell my people the truth.”

Still, as a young wife and mother, she said, “my spirit would not rest.” In 2002, warfare erupted between the Turkana and the neighboring Borana people. Turkana men left to fight, “and when their bodies were brought back,” women and children suffered the loss. Josephine persuaded a male relative to take her to listen at the men-only meetings that decided her community’s actions. “No one was talking how to develop our community and help our people, but only how to retaliate against the enemy,” she said. At her second meeting, she tested the men’s willingness to hear a woman speak by standing up “just to greet them.” At the third, “I just burst my heart and I told them, “Please, we need to think about peace and not war, because we have bigger problems of poverty, development, education and our children.”

Building Peace, Protecting Land

As Josephine urged an end to the war, she discovered Kenya’s still-young community conservancies, in which other rural areas had begun managing their natural resources instead of fighting over them. “I saw that this is our opportunity,” she said. “In the war, no one can use the grass or the water sources for their benefit. And other people were taking advantage of our conflict by coming to poach elephants and other wildlife.”

So Josephine began a two-year campaign, visiting villages and local leaders to knit relationships and urge that the Turkana and Borana make peace by establishing a joint conservancy in their lands. “I told them that we all are getting no benefit from our conflict and we should find a way to share the resources peacefully.” Eventually, members and elders of the two communities agreed.

As the person best known to the different localities in the new conservancy, Josephine was elected its leader. “I remembered my dream as a child, and I felt I had a chance to prove the value of women in leadership,” she said. “My first task was to hire 14 staff from the two communities”—Turkana and Borana. “I divided those jobs, and every benefit from the conservancy, 50-50 between them. And I do it very openly and transparently. That is how I started building the relationship and the trust” between two groups so recently at war.

The Nakuprat-Gotu Conservancy operates a grazing committee to rehabilitate and share out the use of the area’s grasslands, and committees to control the cutting of trees for charcoal or construction. It works to improve schools, sanitation and health care in villages, which remain poor, and to encourage new businesses that can provide fodder for animals and wildlife tourism. The project’s greatest achievement, Josephine says, is that “We are solving our problems together and now we are celebrating 11 years of peace” between the former enemy tribes.

The Risks of the Front Line

Building peace on the front lines of war is dangerous work. Josephine recounted being menaced by men with guns, death threats delivered to her home, and gunshots fired into her car. After she founded her community’s conservancy, she campaigned for an end to the wildlife poaching that had escalated during the 10-year Turkana-Borana conflict. She identified poaching gangs and reached out to them, finally receiving the invitation to a remote meeting in the bush that turned out to be a trap. Pleading with the gunmen from her knees on the dirt road, she said, “I told them, I am doing this for our future. Our grandparents killed all the rhinos, but they received no benefit and we all remained poor, without schools or futures for our children. Now you will kill the elephants, but as before it will be others who will benefit—not you and not our people.”

“The commander of those poachers replied to me that ‘Nobody before has told us the truth like this,’” and told her to return home, Josephine recounted. She remained in touch with him, eventually persuading 19 men so far to give up poaching. “I had to plead with the government authorities not to arrest these men,” but instead to let them support wildlife protection, some as rangers for the conservancy. The man who led the gang that nearly killed her “became one of my closest friends and supporters," she said.

Josephine’s own tribe and neighbors turned against her, she said, when the Turkana fell into a bitter battle in 2015 with the nearby Samburu tribe. “The killing was very intensive,” she said. “But because I am a peace practitioner, I had to remain neutral. I was trying to talk with both sides and I was saying we should not retaliate. So my own community, even my own mother, felt that I was not sharing their pain and was being a friend to the enemies. I became an outcast in my village. Even my two children were harassed, so I moved out of my village to live in Isiolo town,” the county’s administrative seat. This time, the armed men who threatened her life were from her own community. “This was my worst moment, and I never want to relive it,” she said.

Climate Crisis: Here, Now

Since 2014, Josephine has widened her peacebuilding through the Northern Rangelands Trust, where “we work to facilitate dialogues among the warring communities across northern Kenya,” she said. She has trained hundreds of local people, notably women, as “peace ambassadors” who prevent or mediate conflicts in the conservancies, help avert the raiding of livestock, and help police authorities build peace and security through nonviolent means.

The changing climate is only increasing the needs of her region, Josephine said. Droughts, once rare, are now routine. They desiccate the land, forcing men to drive their herds farther to find shrunken sources of pasture and water. This separates families, weakens animals and people, and increases disease. As climate change forces communities to compete for scarcer resources, it heightens the risks of bloodshed.

Then there is the matter of scale. For Kenyans, as for everyone, climate change looms as a threat far larger than any that Josephine’s people have confronted before. “It is the younger generation that will suffer the most,” Josephine said. “We must act on climate change today or it will only make people’s desperation and the conflicts worse for the next generation.”

Climate change means that, for Josephine and her colleagues, the frustrations and burdens of peacebuilding will not ease. “When I meet with these difficulties, I never cry in the open, where other people may see me,” she said. “I don’t want people to imagine that I am weak. So instead, I come home and I cry at home. And then I meditate and afterward I say, ‘Okay, I am strong enough for today, to do what I must.’”