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NAIROBI, June 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya's opposition leader has raised tensions weeks ahead of elections by criticising the Maasai community's sale of ancestral land to other ethnic groups in an area hit by political violence in the 1990s, land rights experts said.
Many cash-strapped Maasai have become landless after subdividing and selling swathes of land to the south of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, where they used to roam with their cattle.
"Years of neglect and abuse is forcing them to trade in their birthright for survival," opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga told a news conference on Monday.
"Jubilee has refused to enact proper laws to protect these community lands," he said, referring to the ruling party of President Uhuru Kenyatta who hopes to retain power in elections on Aug. 8.
Last week, he called on non-Maasai communities to "remain" on their own land rather than buying up Maasai ancestral land around Kajiado, 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital, Nairobi.
Land has been one of the main drivers of conflict in Kenya since independence in 1963, with politicians whipping up historic grievances over land loss to incite their supporters to move away voters opposed to them, experts say.
Dozens have been killed and injured in Kenya's Laikipia region over the last year as armed herders searching for pasture have driven tens of thousands of cattle onto private farms and ranches from overgrazed communal land.
"We urge the politicians to stop making disturbing comments on land," Stephen Ambani, chairman of the Institution of Surveyors of Kenya, told a news conference on Tuesday.
"Our history has shown us how dangerous it can be in rekindling anxiety, hatred, hostility and conflict among communities."
Much of Maasai-dominated Narok and Kajiado counties was made into group ranches, with shared title deeds, in the 1960s in an effort to better manage nomads' grazing lands.
But mismanagement by elected committees, who often proved corrupt, led to the subdivision of land into individual title deeds, which have then been sold on, often to other ethnic groups.
"The overemphasis on privatisation of land, in the long term, it's going to be very bad," said Hillary Ogina of the Kenya Land Alliance advocacy network.
"Pastoralism, as a way of livelihood, is also valid," he said, adding that herders require large, communally owned land to give the animals enough grazing.
With increasingly frequent droughts and population growth, it is becoming harder for nomads to continue their traditional way of life.
Many young, educated Maasai are keen to sell their land and invest in businesses like hotels, Johnson Mali ole Kaunga, a Maasai activist told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"They end up buying vehicles, investing in things which don't last," he said in a phone interview.
"The best thing would actually be to maintain land as communal but if the community themselves are pushing for subdivision into private (titles), then it becomes a challenge."
Leaders should help the Maasai find alternatives to livestock as a source of income, he said.
Odinga criticised the government for delays in implementing the 2016 Community Lands Act which lays out the steps for communities to acquire titles to their ancestral land.
Around two-thirds of Kenya's land is customarily owned without formal title deeds, making it easy for some individuals to sell it without other community members' knowledge.
The government finalised the regulations to roll out the law last week and they should be approved by parliament in a couple of months, Peter Kahuho, secretary of the lands ministry, told a news conference on Monday. (Reporting by Katy Migiro @katymigiro; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)