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Climate Change Exacerbates Conflicts in “The Battle for Laikipia”

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: (L–R) Sam Soko, Toni Kamau, Peter Murimi, and Daphne Matziaraki  attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “The Battle for Laikipia” premiere at the Egyptian Theatre on January 21, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Lucy Spicer

Moments before the January 21 premiere of The Battle for Laikipia at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah, executive producer and Sundance alum Roger Ross Williams takes the stage. “You are watching a powerhouse of Kenyan filmmakers who are just changing the world,” he says to the audience.

The directors behind the film, which screens as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, are Kenyan filmmaker Peter Murimi (director of the Sundance Institute–supported documentary I Am Samuel) and Daphne Matziaraki, who lived in Kenya for years before returning to Greece. And it’s a good thing they’re changing the world, because their documentary shows a world that desperately needs changing. 

The film follows three groups of people living in the Laikipia region in Kenya: Indigenous nomadic pastoralists and white ranch owners and conservationists. Climate change has led to prolonged droughts that have dried up the grass, and the pastoralists are desperate to find places for their herds to graze. Some are taking the risk of leading their livestock to private land that used to be part of their traditional migration routes before colonialism swept through. Tensions between the three camps rise to dangerous levels, and the lives of cattle and humans alike are lost in the crossfire as many — including the government — conclude that violence is the only answer.

Matziaraki first familiarized herself with the growing effects of climate change when she worked for the United Nations Environment Programme in Kenya. The issue weighed on her mind even after she returned to Greece. “At some point in 2017, this was always in my head. In the news and through friends, I heard that this conflict had begun and the drought was really, really bad,” says Matziaraki at the film’s post-premiere Q&A. “I spoke to Roger about it and he said to me, ‘You need to meet [producer Toni Kamau], and you need to meet Pete.’ And we started filming immediately.”

The pair filmed a wide array of people, says Murimi. The narrative arc revealed itself in the editing room, and thus, The Battle for Laikipia was born. “Laikipia is like a mosaic. A landscape that all these people share,” says Matziaraki. The documentary reflects this mosaic and captures the struggles of all involved with an empathetic camera. “For all these people, it’s a matter of life and death, really. Because, as you saw, everyone is heavily armed.”

An audience member at the Q&A asks why the government hasn’t interfered in such a way that defuses the situation and attempts to find a solution. “When colonialism ended, a lot of things should have happened in terms of the switch over, and some things missed through the cracks, frankly because the priorities were too many,” responds Murimi. “So we are hoping this film can start a conversation about pastoralism rights and nomadic rights.”

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.