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The trouble with buffel grass

Cenchrus ciliaris (buffel grass) is a valued forage and fodder species both in Africa and the regions of Asia where it is native, and in the other parts of the sub-humid and semi-arid tropics and subtropics where it has become naturalized or is cultivated.

“The buffel grass has been there from the days of my father, grandparents to my great grandparents,” says [Geoffrey] Letakaan [of Baringo County, Kenya]. “This grass has a lot of value. If fed to cows, they fatten within three months. There is also hay for baling, and it is also used for thatching. In the past, the elders used to say ‘nangrongong’, meaning ‘it (the buffel grass) is on the hills’ such as Arabal and Mukutani hills… People should plant this grass – everyone.”

There are almost 4000 accessions in genebanks around the world, which are being genotyped, phenotyped and improved.

And yet, not all is well, as a tweet from GRAIN recently alerted me.

In Australia, where the grass is introduced, it is becoming a serious threat to native wildlife and habitats, with calls for its extirpation in some areas.

It’s … important to note controlling buffel doesn’t require its eradication from pastoral regions where it’s valued. It does, however, require a national commitment and dedicated research, with strategic, coordinated and committed action.

And even back in its native African range, specifically in the Baringo region of Kenya, there are problems. According to GRAIN:

Over the past few decades, a man named Murray Roberts, known to locals as “Omari” has led an effort to try and transform the local management of buffel grass – from a system based on communal land ownership and pastoralism to one based on private landholdings and intensive farming.

The issue is Roberts’ application for plant breeders’ rights over a number of buffel grass varieties, starting about 10 years back.

For many local pastoralists, Roberts is trying to claim ownership over their biodiversity. Eresia Erige, a Baringo community member, says that as soon as the community became aware of Roberts’ application for a breeders’ right, local elders went up the hills and collected samples to compare with the varieties grown by RAE. They found that it was the same grass. For Erige, “The grass belongs to the hills and therefore, its seeds and farming in general should be for all and not be privatised.”

The tug-of-war between Roberts and the Baringo pastoralists continues.

In both Australia and Kenya, buffel grass is affecting the welfare of Indigenous communities, in one case by threatening cultural sites, in the other by what is seen as an attempt to control access to its diversity. In neither case have the local communities had much of a say.

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