Friday, November 13, 2009

Environment and Poverty in Kenya

The rain started three days ago and it was welcome. For more than three long years Kenya had been suffering from a drought. It still wasn’t much and certainly didn’t reach every part of the country but it did wonders on the Central Highlands. The savannah no longer looked parched and greenery was returning to the landscape. Due to the elevation, the weather was cool although we were on the equator.

Life in the country had seemingly returned to normal since the political violence that followed the flawed presidential elections in December 2007. Now the pressures caused by the lack of rain had been raising tensions. Water was rationed in Nairobi, the modern capital city with a population of more than three million. Large herds of cattle could be seen grazing in empty lots and inside traffic roundabouts close to the centre of the city. I heard rumours about the Maasai, the legendary pastoralists, abandoning their traditional lifestyle and selling large tracts of land in Kajiado south of the capital, as they no longer could survive on the land. According to reports, they had lost most of their cattle which they depend on to the drought. They blamed the agriculturalists who lived upstream for cutting down the forest and polluting the water.

The talk of the town was what was happening in Mau Forest. The mountainous area that was the main source of headwaters in Kenya was being rapidly degraded. Over the past decade and a half, some 20,000 families had encroached upon the slopes and settled into the previously pristine forest. They were cutting down the trees to clear land for agriculture and to burn charcoal that they could sell on the booming market. Some 100,000 hectares or about a fourth of the watershed had been cleared this way. As a result, the forested mountain range that was widely considered the water tower of Kenya could no longer supply water to the rivers that flowed down to irrigate the plains. Apart from the water shortage inconveniencing the city dwellers, the entire Kenyan economy was threatened. There was not enough water in the hydroelectric dams that were being clogged up with all the silt flowing into them due to erosion in the hills. Consequently, the power supply was unreliable and the country had to import increasing amounts of oil in order to compensate for the failing hydropower. At the foot of the mountains, lived the Maasai who were getting increasingly agitated by the farmers and squatters whose activities they believed were robbing them of their cattle and livelihoods. Conflict between the two groups was looming.

In a country whose economy is largely dependent on tourism, this was all bad news. The numbers of visitors to Kenya had already fallen dramatically due to the political violence and insecurity last year. Now the rivers that fed the renowned Masai Mara National Park were drying up. Animals were dying in hordes. The annual migration of the wildebeest over a roaring river that every friend of wildlife everywhere in the world recognized had turned into a much less spectacular hop across a trickling stream by the still large herd of animals. Should things continue downhill, Kenya could kiss goodbye to the safari tourism that was its lifeline.

Quite appropriately, my purpose this time in Kenya was to launch a large worldwide evaluation study of just such linkages between environment and economics, and how the United Nations was able to support governments in the developing countries in the area. We called it the Poverty-Environment Nexus. It truly amazes me that there still are people—in government, private sector, the UN, and ordinary citizens—who fail to see the intrinsic links between economic development and environment. Indeed, some people continue to see them as contradictory, as if environmental preservation and regulation were constraints to development. Yet, it should be clear that sustainable management of the environment and natural resources is absolutely essential for sustained economic development and human wellbeing. Recent UN studies show that especially in many lower income countries the economy is heavily dependent on the environment. The estimated contribution of just a subset of environmental assets—subsoil assets, timber, non-timber forest resources, cropland, pastureland and protected areas—to the country’s total wealth in Kenya is 21 percent.

“We environmentalists have done a really bad job,” said Yolanda. I was travelling with Yolanda Kakabadse, the past president of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the former minister of environment of Ecuador. Her point was that the environmentalists have failed to make the economic case, often actually advocating against it. Instead of engaging with the private sector, the environmentalists have mostly seen the private sector as the enemy: the evil empire that’s in it only for the money, destroying the environment, screwing the indigenous people, exploiting the poor countries for a profit. Instead, we should have long ago made the case that what is good for the environment is—at least in the longer term—good for business and the economy. Principles of sound business management dictate that one counts in all the productive assets, factors in capital costs and depreciation. A transport business owner discounts the value of his lorry as it gets older because he knows he will sooner or later have to purchase a new one. Unfortunately, environmental costs are considered mere externalities by economists and, therefore, the depreciation of natural resources does not factor in the calculations. Yet, there is no new Earth that can be bought when this old one we have is worn out.

Of course, there are cases where there are trade-offs. But more often than not these are based on differences between short- and long-term needs. Like in the case of the Mau Forest where the conflict was between making a fast shilling now on charcoal and agriculture versus maintaining a healthy environment for continued economic development in the future. Naturally, people must make a living and poverty forces them to utilize every bit of land where they are able to eke out a living. It doesn’t help that Kenya—like many other African countries—has a very young population that is still growing at a hearty rate. The stagnating economy that is hampered by notorious red tape and rampant corruption is not able to provide jobs for the large numbers of school leavers every year. They thus don’t have a choice and must rely on the land that has been rendered increasingly fragile by the intensified use during the drying climate. Poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably linked through a two-way street where poverty forces people to destroy their environment for immediate survival, while reducing the essential support that a healthy environment brings for longer term development.

Geographically, the central areas dominate Kenya both economically and politically. “While 80 percent of Kenya falls within the arid and semiarid lands category, the government policy reads as if everything was like here in the agricultural highlands,” said Philip Dobie, a long-time Africa hand and an expert who heads the UN Drylands Development Centre and Poverty-Environment Facility based in Nairobi. “The government sees the ASAL, as they are called, only as a drain on resources,” Phil continued, “but with proper management they could be a highly productive part of the country.” Indeed, the dry north towards Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia is widely neglected by the Kenyan government and left to the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes herding goats. During the worst periods of drought, they receive support from the centre, but developmentally they lack behind. The country is thus not living up to its full potential.

That night there was a short but heavy downpour after which the air was particularly fresh. Through the open window I could hear the crickets and the sounds of night birds singing in the trees outside of my guesthouse. As I fell asleep, I thought about how the nature would be blooming in the morning when I’d wake up. I also hoped that the sudden powerful rain would not wash out the dry earth causing further erosion that was a constant worry even here in the wetter central part of the country.

On Kenyatta Day—a national holiday to celebrate the founding president of independent Kenya, Mzee (Old Man) Jomo Kenyatta—we headed out of Nairobi, northwest towards Lake Nakuru. My companions were Yolanda and Jed Shilling, a former World Banker turned environmentalist who now chairs the Millennium Institute. We constituted the core group studying the UN’s work on the poverty-environment nexus. On this free day of ours, we wanted to take it easy and see some of Kenya’s famous wildlife. Years ago, the easiest thing to do when you just had a day to spare was to drive to the Nairobi National Park just outside of the capital. I myself had seen cheetahs and other big animals—or ‘charismatic mega-fauna’ as it is known in conservation lingo—there in the past. But the days when the famous photographs of lions against the backdrop of the rising Nairobi skyline that decorated the face of many a postcard were gone. The city was expanding rapidly and squatters were settling in the park. If one now wanted to observe any big fauna it meant a three or four hour car ride to the Lake Nakuru National Park.

The morning didn’t look promising. As we departed the city at 7 am there was a thick fog and a drizzle dotted the windshield of our vehicle. As we continued out of town and the road climbed to the ridge alongside the East African Rift Valley we actually drove into the low-hanging clouds. It was impossible to see even a metre beyond the edge of the road and the great geological formation opening to our left was entirely obscured by the thick grey blanket of wet air. Our driver, Bob, was not optimistic about the weather clearing up anytime soon. This was going to be one expensive luncheon outing, I said to Yolanda only half jokingly. We had paid good money for the trip and Bob’s services for the entire day.

But the day did clear up. By the time the road was descending towards the rift, we could already see the shallow Lake Naivasha down in the valley. There was a flock of flamingos wading in it. Although there were still plenty of these pink birds, even their numbers have dwindled. I remembered when I first took this road in the early-1980s when as a student from the University of Helsinki geography department I was visiting the sister department at the University of Nairobi. As we then descended towards Lake Nakuru, the next in a row of the Rift Valley soda lakes, I and my fellow graduate students were stunned speechless at the astonishing sight in front of us: the entire lake appeared pink because of the huge flock of flamingos carpeting the surface.

Down at the bottom of the valley the weather was clear and a bright sun shone from a hazy blue sky. We stopped in Nakuru, the main city in the Rift Valley and the fourth largest in the country. Nakuru is a bustling trading post, quite different from the capital or the two cities at the opposite ends of the country: the heavily Muslim influenced Swahili port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast and the fishing industry centre of Kisumu on Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest lake. The dusty Nakuru town appears to be booming. Even on this national holiday the market was in full swing and the streets were crowded with people. Several modern buildings with steel and glass fronts had risen in the centre since my last visit (which admittedly was a couple of decades ago). We did not linger (after it became evident that there was no place where the internet was working) but continued towards the national park.

This, too, had changed. Years ago, there was open access to the lakeside but now the entrance to the Lake Nakuru National Park was tightly controlled and one had to pay a handsome fee to enter. Close to the gate, a group of park rangers—men and women—were milling about their sturdy green Land Rover. They themselves looked professionally efficient in their green military-style fatigues. The professionalism of the Kenya Wildlife Service had received a major boost under its former boss, Richard Leakey, the son of the legendary anthropologist Mary Leakey. Richard’s determination and uncompromising attitude in favour of the wildlife had ruffled feathers (no pun intended) in Kenya. He lost his legs in a small aeroplane crash while cruising over one of his beloved parks, but this did not slow him down. He later moved on as the anti-corruption tsar for the Kenyan government, a position in which his single-minded fervour gained him equally few friends.

We visitors and the rangers were not the only primates hanging around the gate. There were numerous baboons and monkeys in the trees and on the ground around us. A passenger vehicle was parked next to our van while the owners, a rather elegant young African couple, went to pay for the entrance fee. They had made the mistake of leaving the car window open and I soon saw a small monkey enter the car through it. It immediately found a bag on the backseat and started rummaging through the contents. The curious creature made a quick exit as the legitimate occupants were returning. The good people took it all in a stride, the pretty woman laughing heartily at the audacity of the hairy little fellow and their own thoughtlessness of encouraging it by not locking the windows.

The entry to the park passes through a small forest, which looked very dry. The river to the lake was but a trickle. As we exited from the shade of the canopy, a lone tree stood tall by the stream and on its crown perched a single marabou stork. A few ibises waded in the dwindling creek. We made a turn towards the plain, our robust vehicle shaking through the ruts where the mud had dried months ago. I wondered how the young couple who had been visited by the monkey would fare in their small Toyota.

The landscape in front of us was completely flat and treeless. We were driving on what had formerly been the lakebed. In the past decades, prolonged droughts had reduced the size of the shallow waterbody to a fraction of its original extent. Now the reduced flow from the Mau Escarpment had further affected the drying lake. Herds of zebras were grazing on the sparse grass that was now growing on it. We soon saw a pair of white rhinoceros ruminating at a distance undisturbed by the passing vehicles.

A pack of hyenas was basking in the sun as we drove by. They eyed us suspiciously and soon dispersed. Hyenas are amongst the most misunderstood species in the world. Many people revile them because of their scavenging lifestyle and less than beautiful looks, but hyenas are intelligent animals with an organized societal structure. And they perform a needed function in the ecosystem. This latter was made clear by the many carcasses of buffaloes and other beasts that were scattered around the former lake bottom. This most recent drought had taken a heavy toll on the wildlife and huge numbers of animals had perished. The hyenas survived on their misfortune and cleaned the land.

We caught up with a school bus that was packed with children like sardines. Dark faces sticking out of the windows with big round eyes all turned our direction. The kids seemed more interested in us muzungus than our wild relatives inhabiting the park. We all alighted at the same spot close to the lake shore so that we could get closer to observe the flamingos. The kids all wore bright red jumpers and were led by two teachers. I thought how good it was that the children at least had this chance to observe wildlife that used to be so abundant before. Even in Africa, kids growing up in urban areas have precious little contact with nature. Without that contact and firsthand experience, nature becomes an abstraction and people don’t feel it deep inside themselves. Consequently, its protection is not a priority.

As we approached the lake, the hard-baked soil became gradually wetter and our feet were pressing deeper into the soft mud. There was no wind and the surface of the lake was perfectly still. A few hundred—or probably a few thousand—flamingos stood idly by without moving their long skinny legs knee-deep in the water. They did not stir as we approached. The morning sun was climbing steadily towards zenith. High fluffy clouds were sailing languidly across the sky. Behind the lake and reflected in its mirror-like surface alongside the slow moving clouds stood a dark mountain ridge. The place was perfectly still and the only sound was that of the wind blowing across the open plain. Even the school children were quiet awed by this otherworldly, gorgeous landscape.

We continued inland from the lake, towards a rocky cliff sporting a sparse and dry forest. The top of the hill to which our vehicle climbed following a road of hard red clay was called the Baboon Cliff. From there the view down to the lake was breathtaking. Between the treeless plain and the shadowy ridge on the opposite side, the lake glimmered blue and white mirroring the clouds. The reflections made it difficult to distinguish the lake surface from the sky towards the distant horizon. The beauty of this barren place was startling. Yet, from this vantage point it was possible to see why it was necessary to keep the park fenced off. The growing city of Nakuru could be seen sprawling on the hillsides towards east.

Leaving the lakeside we traversed further through another small wooded area where buffalo, zebra and waterbuck were grazing in the meagre shade of the leafless trees. At a distance we could see a group of giraffes, one of them stretching his neck to see whether we were up to any good. We entered the open savannah where troops of baboons were spending a lazy afternoon grooming each other, cute little babies riding on their mothers’ backs. I couldn’t help but think how close to us these relatives of ours are. I also remembered the lovely and funny book by the Stanford biologist and neurologists, Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir, that describe so vividly his years of research and observation amongst the Kenyan baboons.

An impala buck with impressive horns was browsing leisurely, ignoring the half a dozen females belonging to his herd on the other side of the track. The idyll of the savannah was complete with various species living peacefully side by side. A pair of monkeys stood watch where a white rhino slept in the shade of a lone bush-like tree. Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles mixed company with the zebras while groups of bush pigs hurried along on some business of theirs. From one bush a pair of foxes watched us with alert eyes.

During the peak heat of the day when the equatorial sun hung directly above our heads we lunched at the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, a comfortable establishment overlooking the lake from its south side. At lunch hour there were lots of people. What struck me as interesting was that so many of the people were South Asians. In fact so many, that the buffet had a specific table for vegetarian Indian fare. After the dusty road it was indeed a pleasure to be guided to a table on the terrace by the lovely maĆ®tre d’ Betty and order an ice cold—Baridi sana!—Pilsner, to me the crown of the noble line of products by Kenya Breweries.

To many, ecotourism represents the best alternative to providing sustainable livelihoods to people and communities who otherwise would be destroying the environment. Instead of cutting down the trees and killing the animals, you protect them so that the rich urbanites from home and abroad can come and gawk at them. It is called stewardship. Ecotourism certainly is important and has plenty of potential. The definition is broad enough to encompass ‘ecotourism light’ like what we were engaged in on this trip to the Lake Nakuru National Park—observing animals from the safety of our vehicle and lunching in relative luxury at a comfortable lodge—to hard core roughing it in the bush. The lowest common denominator should be the do-no-harm principle and that the benefits accrue to the local communities. Regretfully, it is not easy to see ecotourism as a panacea: to be successful, it requires adequate infrastructure (the ecotourists have to be able to get there and around!) as well as adequate skills. Furthermore, given the finite number of potential ecotourists, it resembles a zero sum game whereby newly established ecotourism sites would necessarily compete with the older ones.

Sadly, not many other alternatives have been invented. The problem is not that different from finding financially viable alternatives for opium and coca growers to switch to (in Afghanistan, cut flowers appeared to be a great opportunity but, alas, the liberally minded Dutch blocked their import to the European Union, thus killing the initiative; in Kenya, the successful cut flower business is controlled by the Dutch).

We returned to Nairobi through the Rift Valley taking the low road across the valley bottom. We stopped at the Lake Naivasha Country Club, just 80 kilometres south of the equator and at an elevation of 1,890 metres above sea level, for late afternoon tea. The club was rather crowded on this holiday afternoon and we were lucky to find a shady table on the extensive lawn. The clientele was mixed. There was a Kenyan couple at the closest table biding the afternoon drinking ample quantities of beer. At the next table sat an American woman with a friend. She had spent six years in Zimbabwe and just recently moved to Kenya. She said that she still preferred Zimbabwe, but her reasoning pertained mostly to the climate. Apparently the brutal disregard for human rights and the near total collapse of the economy under the octogenarian dictator, Robert Mugabe, had not penetrated her sphere of life.

En route to Nairobi we passed camps of internally displaced persons (IDPs) whose privileges could not be compared with those we had just partaken in Naivasha. I asked Bob who these people in the camps were and what ethnic group they belonged to. Bob told they were mainly Kikuyu, the dominant tribe in the Central Highlands, who had been displaced during the post-electoral violence less than two years ago. Tribalism is alive and well in Kenya, and exploited to the hilt by the politicians. It is easy to generate hatred against other tribes—and thus draw attention from one’s own problems and corruption—with incendiary rhetoric; a favourite tool of politicians everywhere in the world where a large segment of the voters is poorly educated and thus easily moved (witness the ‘tea parties’ organized by the Republican Party in America against President Obama’s proposed reforms in late-summer of 2009). The IDP camps lay in the shadow of Mt. Longonok as the sun was setting behind the rift. Mt. Longonok is a huge caldera of an ancient volcano that exploded long ago. Its existence is a reminder of how the entire great East African Rift Valley is a product of intensive seismic activity associated with volcanism.

The low road started its climb back to the top of the ridge. The traffic was moderate with plenty of trucks going both ways. In places the climb was steep and we left the valley rapidly behind us. We passed a small Catholic church that had been constructed on the hillside by the Italian prisoners of war who had been forced to build this road during World War II. East Africa had been one of the, now largely forgotten, fronts of the war. The sun was setting behind the opposite edge of the rift. Its rays were filtered through low-hanging clouds. It was easy to understand why someone would see god’s light shining through the clouds. Continued rain would indeed be a gift from the gods.

Whether or not the prolonged drought that has punished Kenya and many other parts of Africa in the past years is the result of human induced global climate change is a moot point for the people having to live through it. For them, it is a matter of survival: a struggle between what needs to be done now and the longer-term perspective of sustainable development. If manmade climate change is indeed threatening the world as we know it, Africans are the last people who could and should be blamed for it. They certainly have the fewest polluting factories, the smallest number of cars, and by far the lowest amount of energy consumption per capita as compared with any other part of the world. Europeans on the average emit 50-100 times—and Americans 100-200 times—more greenhouse gases per capita than Africans! Yet the Africans are the ones most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and variability because of their reliance on natural resources—and they are also the least able to cope with such impacts.

Today, many people see mitigating climate change as an environmental issue, while adaptation to the impacts of climate change is understood as a development issue. Yet the two are closely linked. When you start from a very low level as Africa does, it is very hard to institute large cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But instituting early on an energy transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable sources could pre-empt future growth in emissions. And, like Angela Cropper, the deputy executive director of the UN Environment Programme reminded us, adapting to the climate change is not only a development, but importantly an environmental issue. It is true that people and societies must adapt to the impacts of climate change and that requires action on all fronts, from developing better infrastructure to changing to more appropriate agricultural products. At the same time, adaptation will be needed by the non-human parts of the world as well. Climate change will potentially wreak havoc on biological diversity and ecosystems, making life hard for our non-human co-habitants of the planet. In places like Kenya, it is obvious that there is a direct linkage between the two sides.

What then should be done with the people who invaded Mau Forest and are destroying its watershed? Back in Nairobi, I talked with Winston Mathu, a senior Kenyan expert who had thought about these things for a long time. “People used to live in the forest without destroying it,” he said. “We should let them stay, but control their activities so that they are manageable.” He had told that much to the powers that be in the country but, alas, the government had decided instead to remove the people—by force, if necessary. This appeared to have popular support amongst the environmental movement, as well as donors such as the World Bank and the good Scandinavians. What alternatives the removed people, some of whom had stayed on the hills for years and raised their families there, would have afterwards was not clear.

Any solution currently on the table doesn’t seem to be fully addressing the long-term challenges. The majestic concept of sustainable development (which by its nature may well be a contradiction in terms) cannot ignore either side of the coin: the sustainability of people’s livelihoods and that of the environment that provides the entire—and only—basis for our existence.

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