Separated by a stream of water in the middle of a swamp, Buyengo Parish in Uganda and Mayenje in Kenya are two communities living at the extreme end of the border in Busia district. They have been living in peace for a long time as they have the same ancestral origin, with the Balanda clan members residing on both sides of the border, and they share the same activities of pastoralism, agriculture and trade. Things started to change in 2017.
Due to the increasing population pressure on the available land, the two communities expanded agricultural activities into the swamp that lies along the border. Such wetlands have, over the years, become a prized commodity because of their fertility and availability of water for agricultural use and grass for animals throughout the year. These wetlands also provide an opportunity for the community to produce crops like yams, sugarcane and rice, which rarely grow in upland areas. In this swamp, the farming community is able to grow maise and vegetables during the dry spell as well, thus fetching them extra income.
As a result of the expanded agricultural activities, the ecosystem was tampered with, causing diversions in the flow of the stream, which separates the two communities and making the previously established boundary demarcation unclear. Also, there were deliberate efforts by some residents to change the original boundary, especially during the dry spell. In 2017, tensions arose between the two sides as a result of disagreement over the actual boundary. A conflict ensued in which crops were destroyed, and many people were injured, necessitating the intervention of authorities from both sides. The Kenyan team was led by the then Deputy Governor and Assistant County Commissioner, while the Ugandan team was led by the Resident District Commissioner (RDC), who all called for calm and pledged to find a permanent solution in the shortest possible time. However, it has now been over four years since that event and no progress has been made thus far. This lingering dispute is raising anxiety among those who feel aggrieved that their pieces of land were taken away, and now they cannot cultivate them.
According to the chairperson of Malomba village- Uganda, Sanya David, five community members have filed complaints in his office claiming that villagers on the Kenyan side have diverted the stream and encroached on their land. He has tried to follow up on the matter with the office of the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) in Uganda but has not got any positive response. He is worried that the conflict is simmering and might explode one day and destroy the good relations between the two cross-border communities.
One of the affected community members, Nagwala Alfred, says that the width of the disputed piece of land between the current borderline and the original borderline is 25 metres and covers a stretch of 3km. He also says that the victims of this dispute are mostly people who had abandoned their pieces of land a long time ago, and widows who have no strength to fight back against the encroachers.
As noted above, the population pressure is forcing these border communities to utilise such wetlands for agriculture and given the ‘artificial’ or moveable nature of the boundary demarcation in this area, it can easily be altered. For sustainable and peaceful management of such transboundary natural resources, it is incumbent upon the governments to ensure that the boundaries are clearly marked with permanent features and disputes such as this one could be resolved swiftly and amicably, not allowing them to linger for years. Clear and fair demarcation of boundaries—especially when they are altered by natural causes—is essential to prevent conflicts and ensure good neighbourly relations between crossborder communities.