Community conservation and restoration projects in Kenya – Part 2

22/01/2019 Northern Rangelands Trust HQ, Lewa

It’s just not possible in a 3 day visit to get to grips with the scale of the Northern Rangelands Trust, which comprises 35 member conservancies covering 42,000 square kilometres, let alone in a short blog post. The team here at NRT HQ in Lewa Wildilife Conservancy have been incredibly generous hosts though, and have made sure that our short time has been filled with as much as we can possibly take in.

Having read a bit about NRT’s extraordinary successes and inspiring history, I confess to feeling a little intimidated on our arrival. Flying north around the spectacular stratovolcano of Mt Kenya, over farms built on convoluted ridges of volcanic soil, I wondered what we could bring that NRT didn’t have already. The usual ‘imposter syndrome’ coupled with a sense that these guys really, really know their stuff.

Such feelings were quickly dispelled though, as we sat down with NRT’s executive group to explain why we are here, and to hear their thoughts on what a potential relationship with GSI could do for the community conservancies they support. One thing was immediately clear. There is an enormous appetite here to tell the stories of the interconnected impacts that community conservancies are having; securing peace in a previously volatile region, diversifying and increasing livelihoods in an extremely poor population, restoring degraded landscapes and building resilience against drought and overgrazing.

Managed grazing area in Kalama Conservancy

If we can contribute to understanding and quantifying those impacts better, NRT will be able to use that information in several ways. It can help to build trust with communities and show them that being involved really pays off. It can show funders that their support has had deep and long-lasting impacts. It can show governments that supporting communities to take ownership of the health of their landscapes can provide a sustainable pathway to materially improving people’s lives while promoting biodiversity. And it can help other people in other places to take a similar approach.

What is that approach? In a nutshell, rather than leave conservation to the national government, NGOs and wealthy private landowners, poor communities of traditional livestock herders are setting up conservancies of their own. The conservancies are run by a team of managers and rangers, all community members themselves, who answer to an elected board of decision makers representing a cross section of the communities within the conservancy area. This provides a mechanism for collectively managing grazing, monitoring wildlife and vegetation, deterring poaching and livestock theft, and developing wildlife tourism that brings income directly to the communities. NRT is the umbrella body that provides training, monitoring tools and financial support, and coordinates a rapid response team of rangers who can deploy in case of poaching threats and other conflicts. The management of NRT itself is answerable to a Board of Elders comprising members of each member conservancy.

At the root of the astonishing impact that this network has had is the community-led governance structure, which above all else has provided a mechanism for diffusing conflict between people of the 16 different ethnicities who live in the region. Traditionally, inter-tribal cattle theft and grazing incursions are common and with easily available illegal firearms violent conflict in the area has been a real problem. If you provide the conditions for peace, all sorts of other opportunities open up.

We’ve had a packed 3 days meeting communities, seeing an NRT training session, getting to grips with the monitoring programs and seeing first hand the regenerative power of good grazing management. The one thing I was utterly unprepared for, having read lots about badly degraded grazing land, was the incredible beauty and richness of the Lewa Conservacy where NRT have their headquarters. In two short drives after work we have seen more wildlife than I ever expected to see in my life, including the black rhino that Lewa was originally established to protect. I feel immensely privileged to be here. Lewa is where the whole thing started, and just goes to show what an enormous difference can be made by being open to new ideas and pursuing a vision.

 

Community conservation and restoration projects in Kenya – Tom Powell

Everyone should see the world from a plane window from time to time. Seeing the world from a fresh angle is like stepping back from a painting, tilting your head to the side and shutting one eye; it opens the mind to seeing new patterns and making connections that might have been missed. Images of Earth from space taken by the Apollo crews half a century ago fundamentally altered our perceptions of ourselves and the dynamic, beautiful, ostensibly fragile but surprisingly robust living planet we inhabit. Seeing the surface of the Earth from 40,000 feet remains a spectacular reminder that our home planet is a pretty special place.

Watching the sun set over the Nile as we flew across the Nubian desert yesterday evening, the ribbon of water reflecting the light seemed to physically tie the landscape together. In the absence of national boundaries drawn on a map, the river is the defining feature of Northern East Africa and seeing it like this you can almost feel the fundamental role it plays in sustaining, connecting and provoking conflict throughout the region. A patch of huge circular irrigated fields surrounded by the barren desert was a vivid reminder of the vulnerability of the whole system.

It felt fitting to be flying over one of the earliest cradles of human civilisation, of which the foundation of the entire culture was the seasonal rise and fall of the river waters, on our way to talk to people who are finding new ways to build sustainable relationships with their landscapes and ecosystems in a world in which humans have become a global force.

With my colleague Becky Stedham of The Landscapes and Livelihoods Group, I’m in Kenya to learn about two organisations who have developed models for communities to take ownership of the conservation and restoration of the ecological health of their landscapes. In doing this they are increasing and diversifying their livelihoods and becoming more resilient to climate change and other dangers.

A peaceful Sunday morning in Nairobi before heading North

First, we are travelling North from Nairobi around the flanks of Mt Kenya to visit the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT); a group of community conservancies who together cover a vast area of Kenya. Following that we will be spending time with The International Small Group Tree Planting Program (TIST), visiting members who farm smallholdings in the volcanic soils surrounding Mt Kenya and Meru. Partnerships with organisations like these are really exciting opportunities for us to work with groups having truly significant impacts in their communities and landscapes. Our goal is to get to know them better and begin to understand how they work so that we can start to explore how as a research community we can support them in monitoring, understanding and extending their impacts.

Building relationships with people experiencing the day to day and year on year challenges of environmental and social change is at the core of what we want to do at the GSI. In doing so, our intention is that we can use our research capacity to support them in understanding the changes taking place and developing useful responses. The funding for this trip, from the UK Government’s  Global Challenges Research Fund, is intended to support the development of these relationships and it’s fantastic that such opportunities exist. We also want to learn as much as we can about groups that seem to be doing really well at connecting the wellbeing, opportunities and resilience of people with the ecological health of the landscapes they inhabit. If we can understand something about why these projects are so succesful, then we may be able to help others build these kind of win-win approaches elsewhere.

So for now, we’re really excited to be heading north early tomorrow morning, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about the NRT in a few days time!