Triangulating Ecological Variability, Pastoralist Livelihoods, and Knowledge Systems in Kenya
A wide range of social science research has shown how the expertise of pastoralists enables them to thrive in highly variable rangeland environments, often modifying their livelihood practices in complex ways in response to new social, political, economic, and biophysical uncertainties. However, due to numerous disciplinary and conceptual divides, these understandings remain largely absent from analyses of landscape ecology in rangelands. In this talk, Dr. Ryan Unks briefly outlines a conceptual framework for integrating research on pastoralist livelihoods into landscape ecology through a focus on differentiated access to ecologically variable resources, processes of control of resource access, and asymmetries in power relations that shape dominant rangeland research paradigms. He then distills findings from ethnographic analysis of livelihood change and access to resources in two contexts in Kenya. He compares the changes in land use to patterns of variability in rainfall and vegetation productivity using remotely sensed data. He then summarizes the most salient political, economic, and social relations that have influenced changes in relations with land and how this has restructured landscape processes in recent decades. A legacy of interventions by the colonial authority, the post-independence ‘state,’ as well as ‘non-state’ actors have created spatial controls on mobility that have partitioned landscapes and tended to concentrate pastoralist access within the most arid, variable, and least productive areas. Access to resources has also been strongly determined by factors such as market interactions, new economic and political relationships, and changing norms of mutual assistance. These processes have created gradients of land use that today are intertwined with multiple changes in landscape ecological process. Pastoralist elder experts, whose views are often marginalized in land-use decision making, regularly emphasize dimensions of variability and heterogeneity that highlight the lack of adequate considerations of scale in dominant rangeland knowledge production. Ryan argues that landscape ecologists should increasingly draw from a wider range of social science concepts and methods to understand the complex political, social, and economic processes that shape livelihood systems and landscape processes. He argues that this will lead to both improved selection of observational scales and a more reflexive consideration of knowledge production processes.
Dr. Ryan Unks is an interdisciplinary scientist with training in landscape ecology, plant ecology, and anthropology. As a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC, he studies landscape ecological change and rural livelihoods in central and southern Kenya with a focus on understanding the drivers and implications of vegetation change. His research critically engages with different conceptualizations of socio-ecological relations and has a primary objective of understanding how governance processes have shaped land-use patterns and landscape ecological processes at different scales. He uses a range of...
Dr. Ryan Unks is an interdisciplinary scientist with training in landscape ecology, plant ecology, and anthropology. As a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC, he studies landscape ecological change and rural livelihoods in central and southern Kenya with a focus on understanding the drivers and implications of vegetation change. His research critically engages with different conceptualizations of socio-ecological relations and has a primary objective of understanding how governance processes have shaped land-use patterns and landscape ecological processes at different scales. He uses a range of methods, including remote sensing, plant community analysis, and qualitative analysis. He works in collaboration with the Wilson Lab in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Geography and the Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins (PASTRES) program at the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre at the Institute of Development Studies. Ryan was previously a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lyon, where he used a qualitative approach to study social and ecological dimensions of livelihoods and the subdivision of collectively titled Ilkisongo Maasai land in Kajiado County, Kenya. He also used remote sensing—Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Climate Hazards Group Infrared Precipitation with Stations (CHIRPS)—to understand changing vegetation dynamics in relation to rainfall across the same group ranches. He holds a PhD in Integrative Conservation in Forestry and Natural Resources from the University of Georgia. His PhD research used mixed qualitative and quantitative methods, field-based plant ecology methods, and remote sensing (Landsat) to analyze the relationship between changing access to forage resources and differentiated livelihoods in collectively titled Maa-speaking pastoralist lands in Laikipia, Kenya.