The Great Ivory Burn – Alternatives Needed

On April 30th, 2016, Kenya burned 105 tonnes of ivory and a further 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn. It was a defiant signal to the world that we don’t tolerate poaching – and importantly that we don’t care about the economic value you place on it. The message is clear, and one that has been reiterated three times since Richard Leakey promulgated the first big burn in 1989 with a subsequent burn in 2013. It is undoubtedly a spectacle that will leave an indelible impression on the minds of those who witness it: tonnes of ivory, burning, the teeth of thousands of pachyderms going up in smoke. In an age of social media, where images are spread far and fast, it is even more thought-provoking, and to a wider than ever audience.

A lot has changed between 1989 and now.

The question is, what is the goal here? Is the goal to stop poaching? To save the elephants? Where will all these saved elephants live? Conservation suffers from many things, not least is a culture of back-stabbing and a lack of coordination. It is important to point out at the beginning that this piece is not intended to attack the efforts of the very dedicated people that coordinated and implemented this exercise. I have many friends who work in this sector and this is not a personal attack. Their dedication and commitment to saving Africa’s elephants and rhinos is extremely admirable and worthy of the highest merit. Instead, I want focus outside of ivory and horn on the wider issues that set the landscape for conservation in Kenya.

Fundamentally, an ivory burn is about a public relations campaign. “Only elephants should wear ivory” we often hear. More recently, the campaign has been more pointed “Hands off OUR elephants”[1] aimed at the mostly eastern demand for ivory.

It is widely quoted that the 1989 burn did more to bring in funding and other assistance to the fledgling KWS than any number of donor relations campaigns ever could. The brilliant move by Dr. Richard Leakey to highlight the issue, brought much needed attention to the front lines of the ivory war, where poorly equipped ranger-forces were often overrun by bandits and poachers. Sometimes, they were even overrun by their own lack of logistical support. The ivory burn of 1989 brought in massive resources and media attention to the problem – and the elephant slaughter, in Kenya at least, was largely squelched for a decade. The removal of ivory from the market is above all, a key part of the equation and an overtly honourable goal.

However, a more insidious problem prevailed, one that continued to erode the fabric of Kenya’s habitats and one that now, is a much more pervasive threat to Kenya’s elephant population than whole armies of poachers. The problem is natural resource governance, or the lack of it. This problem continues to challenge the efficacy of subsequent ivory burning campaigns, making them into little more than PR stunts, as Gathara recently wrote.

Billions of dollars in multilateral and bilateral aid have been pumped into African countries in the period since 1989, not to mention the ‘domestic’ or ‘in house’ economic development touted as “Africa-rising”. Much of this has successfully developed key sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure, and energy. In many places, especially in Kenya, entire areas of “useless bush” have been transformed into cities, thriving and throbbing with life. GDP has risen steadily as has per capita income (that gloriously course indicator) showing that real development of the continent’s resources is both possible and inevitable. Direct foreign investment has risen to unimaginable heights, particularly among Chinese companies, with which government’s like Kenya’s have become very cozy. All of this sounds wonderful. But.

Economic development is founded on the valuation of goods and services. Goods and services drive the economy. Ecosystem goods and services are the bedrock of economic goods and services and thus, human development. Without the former, the latter simply can’t exist. In the seminal work by Robert Costanza (1997), he and his co-authors conservatively valued the earth’s ecosystem goods and services at 33 trillion US dollars per year. Subsequent valuations have been much higher and it is likely the actual worth of ecosystem goods and services tops 50 trillion USD. The valuation of ecosystem goods and services is important as it links economic value on the things that the earth does for us for free and for which we would have to pay for dearly if the earth lost its ability to provide these things. This can create very persuasive arguments for its conservation and management. However, modern conservation in Kenya rarely focuses on this. We have focused not on habitat expansion, management and conservation, but on enforcement of species-protection regimes, which for the most part do not take ecosystem goods and services sufficiently into play.

Elephants are a keystone species, an invaluable part of many African ecosystems – those same ecosystems on which humans depend on for our development. While the ivory was burning, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question If we are trying to conserve elephants, are we not tackling the wrong end of the value chain here? Should we not be ensuring that there are places where elephants can actually live in the long run?
The loss of habitat in Kenya, lost to unchecked, unmanaged, unplanned or corrupt development practices, is by far the most insidious threat to African elephants today. The lack of governance in the development of natural resources in Kenya is the most pervasive threat to wildlife and wild places. In Kenya, elephant populations are threatened by loss of habitat, not by poaching.

Poaching is often a result of an economic reality that makes poaching an elephant look attractive (Knapp, 2012). A lack of tolerance of wildlife, fostered by an economic reality that elephants (and other charismatic mega-herbivores) are actually a threat to your kids, to your ability to raise crops, to your ability to increase your per capita income. Most people will not argue that at the basic level, that is why the majority of poaching happens.

Addressing that reality of a lack of tolerance is far more complex and is wrapped up in a discourse around natural resources management that extends far beyond elephants, and that is how to balance conservation and development. This discourse is underpinned by the need for humans to have development, but at the same time to have ecosystem goods and services from healthy habitats. As a country we have largely failed to address the role of habitat in this discourse, on two major fronts: 1) We have focused on species-specific conservation campaigns and 2) we haven’t focused enough on justice reforms and ‘bigger fish’.

Only by addressing these two major fronts, can we conserve elephants and their habitats, while realizing development goals, a reality rarely realized by our front-line enforcement, and species-oriented conservation culture.

The Valuation of our Ecosystems

In many southern African nations, large mammal species are on the rise after centuries of decline. This is due to several complex and interconnected reasons. But amongst those reasons are low population pressure and the ability of southern African nations to set aside large areas of habitat for conservation management. In southern Africa, countries are increasing elephant habitat, not shrinking it as we are in Kenya. Furthermore, the ownership of wildlife as an asset on those pieces of land creates an economic incentive for its conservation. I will not get into the endless hunting debate here as I fear it is a distraction from the facts. Suffice to say, wildlife numbers are rising due in part to habitat increases and management, not falling.

Now, human population dynamics in Namibia and in Kenya are vastly different. In fact, the very reality that Kenya has ANY elephants is a great testament to the success and dedication of many people in this country. Setting habitat aside for elephants is a difficult argument to make in modern Kenya. It is happening in some places, which is admirable. In areas of Kenya where elephants habitat is being conserved are we seeing increases or at least stabilization. The Northern Rangelands Trust supports community conservancies. These are a case in point, where elephant poaching numbers have been falling for several years, and importantly, elephant habitat has been expanding to the benefit of people living with them. However, the NRT would likely be loathe to say they are advocating for more elephant habitat – they are advocating for better land management, increased value for wildlife and wild lands, and overall better management of ecosystem goods and services such as grazing, water resources etc. Elephants and people are both benefiting from this.

Another example is the city of Nairobi. Nairobi’s economy depends on water from the Aberdares. In fact, the health of Aberdares ecosystem is critical to millions of people from farmers to factory workers in everything from hydrological cycling to carbon sequestration (UNEP, 2011). The Aberdares ecosystem is also critical elephant habitat, and likewise, elephants are critical to the maintenance of that habitat, in everything from trail maintenance to seed dispersal. The connection between healthy ecosystems, and healthy economies is explicit and an economic valuation of the Aberdares conducted by RhinoArk and UNEP, has helped in part to stem the encroachment and destruction of that habitat. Placing an economic value on the Aberdares has helped ensure the survival of the ecosystem, including its constituent parts such as elephants. We haven’t done enough of this elsewhere in the country.

Justice Reforms

Secondly, the justice system in Kenya has failed Kenyans on many fronts[2]. The unenforced legal frameworks around development, environmental safeguards and zoning are often ignored, destroying more habitat for both elephants and humans. Even if poaching were to stop today, we wouldn’t have enough habitat to support growth of many wildlife populations because we are simply developing it in a way that places greed over the rule of law.

Nick Brandt’s iconic works hauntingly depict the loss of habitat in East Africa. In the time since I was a child, many areas that provided both elephant habitat, and more importantly ecosystem goods and services such as water and carbon sequestration, have been converted to housing estates, unplanned developments and mosaic agricultural patchworks. This is a somewhat inevitable cost of development, but the template need not be overrun by bad zoning, corruption and overt greed. Kenya’s current environmental protection laws are some of the strongest in the world. We don’t have a law problem – we have a governance problem. Only by enforcing these legal safeguards, and tackling issues in the justice system that allow those with influence to subvert national laws can real habitat protection for both humans and elephants occur.

In conclusion, I am not critical of the decision to burn the ivory stockpile. I think this is an important signal to markets abroad that Kenya is interested in living elephants, not cheap trinkets. But as an equally powerful signal, the Government of Kenya, the conservation community and Kenyans as a whole must address the other end of the value chain, with equal vigor. The burning of ivory is not, in itself, enough to save elephants and the roles they play in our ecosystems, especially in light of the problems presented by habitat loss, fragmentation and poor natural resource governance in general.

We must find ways to increase tolerance of wildlife through increasing the value of wildlife habitat, through the lens of payments for ecosystem goods and services and other valuation tools. Equally, we must tackle the disease that is corruption in our justice system, holding leaders, developers, institutions and middlemen to account across all spectra of society.

It is important to note that Kenya’s actions may in fact save some elephants, but elephants, as a singular species, will not save this country from the degradation of habitats. We need a new, innovative and fundamentally different approach.


[1] The irony at the sense of ownership here is not lost.

[2] As Gathara points out, there is a sense of grotesque hypocrisy that some of the people lighting the pyres at the ivory burns have explicit connections to known ivory middlemen.


Posted by on May 2, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Conversations with Mwenye Miti.

Mwenye Miti is the pseudonym of a former senior Kenya government ministry employee. Disgusted by the corruption and what he saw as “the inevitable slide toward chaos”, he retired from government service several years ago and has taken up farming and consulting work. He is a special advisor to several international organizations, and foreign diplomatic missions in Kenya and abroad. He is also an avid forester, and his chosen pseudonym reflects that passion. I have had the privilege of knowing him for several years and recently spent hours interviewing him about Kenya; the past and the future. Parts of those conversations will appear here.

BA: How do you see Kenya’s current development trajectory?

MM: Well, to be fair, we have come a very long way. Most of the people that critique Kenya in the international media and even on social media here in Kenya, have forgotten what it was like for the ordinary Mwananchi in the time of Mzee Kenyatta or Moi. We had serious economic stagnation, and we had insecurity then too, for many Kenyans. Do you remember the Shifta War? Or the WaGalla massacre? Most Kenyans have forgotten, and most external critics had no experience of just how hard life was then for ordinary Kenyans. I would have been in trouble just for having this interview with you.

Now things have changed for many Kenyans and this is not really attributable to good governance necessarily, although that has had some improvements, but rather, because of relative stability and private sector investment. We have a growing economy, we have a growing middle class. But we have some growing problems too. In short, we have a long way to go to achieving the goals that are laid out in Vision2030 – not just through flashy infrastructure projects, but through societal changes, through the transformation of our mindsets. We also need to deal with the fact that while the rich can afford security, the poor and middle class live in a very insecure environment, especially many of those in Eastern Kenya. We have had some success but you can’t build further success for the country, when insecurity is allowed to prevail.

BA: What do you think about this “threat” that if the West doesn’t support Kenya, it will turn to the “East”?

MM: I think it is distractionary politics, a bit of an empty threat. The “West” vs the “East” is a bit of silly argument. It is a narrative that is used to fan people to support Rais’s [the President’s] policies by inventing a threat from neo-Colonialist ideas. In fact, you wouldn’t say that because we use Algebra we are being colonized by the Arabs again? If we use good governance ideals that were brought to us by western countries, than it should be because of the merit of those ideas, not because of where they come from. As Kenyans we have become a bit lazy about improving on those ideas, something we need to realize opens us up to be “re-colonized” economically, socially etc.

BA: What do you think of the current political riff between CORD and Jubilee?

They have deceived us severally*. Really, this is a pattern, They have always tried to deceive the average Kenyan. They are all friends in reality. But whenever it suits them they fan the flames of hatred based on tribe, religion, football team etc. There are always the beneficiaries of chaos.

BA: What are your thoughts on devolution?

Time will tell on this but so far it has really only delivered an increased bureaucracy not mirrored by a decrease in central government. Have you seen the latest numbers for the wage bill?
But as I said time will tell.
One of the problems I do see with it is that it, essentially, the focus on representation has reinforced tribe, gender and religion as things that signify importance and merit position in a county government, because they have quotas, you know? Work ethic and performance – these are not really taken into account. Take, for example, the requirements that a county government must have the representation of each of the tribal groups in the county within the government. What happens if they are all incompetent?

BA: Are you optimistic about Kenya’s aspirations to be a future regional, and perhaps even global leader? If so, what are greatest hurdles we will face?

MM: I am obviously an optimist – I plant trees! You have to be an optimist if you plant trees.

I think the greatest hurdle we will now face is dealing with this culture of apathy. I think you called it the inatosha attitude. I think that that attitude, that “its good enough” will really hinder our ability to compete regionally and internationally. Others will surpass us because we thought our performance was good enough but it wasn’t – we were just apathetic. You see it in how our roads are constructed, how our infrastructure is, and when people complain, people tell them to stop complaining because we have a road now – a Supa highway! But really, unless we keep trying to make things better, more exact, more precise, we will lag behind. You see it because people think, as long as it gets done, it doesn’t matter whether it is high-quality. That attitude is something we need to address throughout our institutions, throughout our society really. Why can a politician be let off the hook for delivering satisfactory services to his constituents, while pocketing half the budget, when he should have delivered excellent services. The apathy in our performance, in our delivery, is something we must tackle. No matter how many times we re-invent MPESA, if we don’t address apathy, it won’t make us into a middle-income country. We can do better than just mediocrity.

BA: What role do Kenya’s youth play in this country?

MM: The youths represent my hope for Kenya, but need to do away with this sense of arrival and realize that AFTER they have completed school, that is when the actual hard work begins. That is when they have to become engaged, work hard and excel.

They also need to guard themselves and not let themselves be deceived by politicians. We Kenyans, love good vumi vumi [rumours] and we perpetuate them, without trying to find out the truth. The politicians love that. And they can buy votes cheaply based on those same rumors.

Our youth also need mentoring from more than just the musicians. They need good mentoring from Church leaders, from Imams, and from employers. Right now, who do Kenyan youth have to aspire to? They can’t all be pop stars.

* ‘severally’ is a Kenyan-ism for ‘several times’


Posted by on December 6, 2014 in Uncategorized


Challenges in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation

Here is a piece I recently wrote for another publication:
The Challenges of REDD+ in the private sector: Perspectives from a field practitioner

As I work for a company that is working hard to promote REDD+ projects worldwide, as well as the active development of REDD+ jurisdictional programmes, and national policies, it may seem slightly strange that I am saying that REDD+ has some challenges. However, practically speaking, I think we have a real opportunity with REDD+ to create transformational impact on the ground. If we are going to do that, we need to address some key aspects of how REDD+ is implemented, that are currently creating challenges. With a combination of innovative approaches, dialogue, pragmatism and cooperation, I believe that these challenges can be overcome.

Creating an enabling environment to attract the private sector

There is a lot of talk about getting the private sector involved in REDD+ activities, an element that I believe is essential to the entire sector’s future. I think the private sector’s engagement is not limited simply to the carbon side of the REDD+, but in landscape management, supply chain sustainability practices, agricultural practices and reforms, and premium financing options. These are all avenues where the private sector can be potentially transformational for REDD+ on a grand scale. One avenue, which I will focus on here, is that the private sector stands to be very effective in both the supply side of carbon emissions reductions (creating meaningful carbon offset projects, and innovation from early REDD+ activities) and the demand side (driving market demand for those offsets because of their positive benefits). However, there are some intrinsic challenges that we all must resolve if there is going to be full-scale engagement.

There are several reasons for this limited engagement. Currently, one of the major avenues for private sector involvement revolves around creating emissions reductions at the project level, and selling them on a voluntary market, where a willing buyer and willing seller exchange for the “credits”. The voluntary market is a fairly limited landscape at this point in time, and may, on its own, not be enough to make REDD+ succeed on the scale which we need it to. The solution is obviously to create scalable, national level interventions, but those national level processes take time. I think a very real, and very achievable solution can exist when the private sector, with its flexibility, speed of implementation and desire for tangible results, can team up directly with both governments and other donors institutions which provide policy support, tenure clarity, and financial stability. For example, I believe that this opportunity exists in the form of the larger, multilateral funds such as the FCPF, GIZ’s REDD+ Early Movers, and funds from the Government of Norway. The idea of many of these funds is to create a pool of investment for emissions reduction programmes in the global South, and also to provide a market for the emission reductions that are generated from the global South. Currently, there is progress towards making this linkage, although we still have some way to go as some of these funds are being under-utilized and under-accessed. I think the private sector, donor institutions and governments, want to see these funds utilized but there is room for improvement in the efficacy of their utilization in order to make that happen.

An example of a possible area for improving utilization of the funds will be to create a more streamlined approach to linking REDD+ activities in a given landscape to stabilizing funding sources. Currently, many finance streams either require or strongly prefer that REDD+ activities to be conducted through a central government programme in order to be eligible to be financed. As I said, this is not always a requirement necessarily but often a preferred route. This approach also has some inherent benefits, particularly where governments can assist with policy support, lending confidence to investors etc., but the approach also some drawbacks.. Many of these national programmes are still in their formative stages and require substantive, important national dialogues in order to achieve the elements required for a national emission reduction programme to be successful. Although this is an incredibly important step for REDD+ at a national level, the national process has sometimes had very little linkage to REDD+ activities that are already being implemented successfully on that on the ground, despite the scale and efficacy of many of those activities. If financing of REDD+ interventions is tied to national processes, the obvious drawback for the private sector is that often developers, financiers and shareholders cannot afford a long delay at the national level. Often projects at the ground level have a fairly limited lifespan in which they need to break even, if they are going to continue to deliver on the inherent benefits of REDD+.
There are some encouraging efforts to address this challenge and we are seeing that progress with the FCPF, through its partnerships with program partners. Similarly, some donor institutions such as USAID, are using vehicles like the Althelia Climate Fund to address those drawbacks and expedite financing to scalable projects level activities which are having verifiable positive impacts. However, I think that much more can be done and it is likely to take movement on both sides to make this happen. This is certainly a challenge that we can collectively overcome, especially if we are continually cognizant of the impacts of not addressing it, namely, losing the support of, and appeal to, the private sector actors.

The Market

A second major area of challenge, which overlaps substantially with the first, is the market for emissions reductions itself. The market is being created, almost from scratch and was always going to face challenges. However, the fact that the challenges are coming from within are remarkable. I remember when I was a child, growing up in rural Kenya. There used to be a vibrant textile industry in Kenya with plenty of locally generated textiles, and thus a value chain. I am not about to criticize free markets, as Kenya’s was not under the Moi-regime, but one of the consequences of the opening of free markets, was the near -complete collapse of the Kenyan textile market, replaced by cheaper, used clothing markets, commonly known as mitumba. With REDD+ we are currently experiencing something similar.

As I mentioned earlier, a chief challenge to the expansion of private sector REDD+ is the limited market/access to purchasers of ERs. This problem is compounded by the surge in ER projects coming to market as well, which creates large volumes of credits, and collectively drives the price point downwards. This again creates a disincentive to private sector suppliers as many of these competing projects have access to donor funds. These project developers are largely well-meaning large NGOs, and other large-scale credit producers. However, the results of using donor money to develop projects that deliver emission reductions means that they will gladly accept any price they are offered, as they do not have capital repayment obligations.

In order to address this challenge, currently financiers of new projects are working to provide up front finance combined with an ‘offtake’ agreements after the project begins producing ERs, attempting to guarantee an onward sale of ERs. This is a good step in the right direction and one being considered by larger funds as well.
I think that there are two other key things that need to happen. Cognizant of the fact that many donors do not want to be in a situation where they provide both the upfront finance for the project, whilst also being sought to provide a guaranteed market for the ERs, I believe that there is a very real role for governments to play, offering tax incentives to developers for a time, in order to help stimulate a market. This applies both to the supply and demand of ERs and companies interested in offsetting could also benefit from a tax relief, or other incentive structure.

Secondly, I think there is a very real need to set up a universal definition of “REDD+ credits” delineating ERs based on the performance criteria of the project from which they are being issued. The market may be at risk of having a glut of ERs, which sold in huge volumes, could collectively drive prices down. Some projects may benefit from being able to deliver better, higher-quality credits. Although the current standards attempt to address this, a more comprehensive and widely accepted definition could be helpful. One criterion that could be emphasized is a performance rating for long-term financial sustainability (as opposed to donor dependence) – a criterion which may help self-funded projects sell ERs at a higher premium. Again, if this same incentive is given to purchasers of ERs, through a government supported tax incentive program, it could have real tangible results for stabilizing the market prices.

The Standards

Standards for REDD+ projects, and jurisdictional programmes etc. are critically important. As we are seeing now one of the key aspects of creating a new Green Bonds will be to draft reputable, verifiable standards for the industry. For REDD+ we have had several standards for some time. These standards offer investors confidence, they offer purchasers peace of mind, they offer developers the chance to set their product apart from lesser products. They are incredibly important.

However, in many cases, practical experience shows that certain standards such as the VCS, which have become the default in the industry, have become so prescriptive that meeting their ever-changing rigor creates disincentives to private sector involvement. Not only is the rigor more stringent than most other natural resource sectors, but rather, that constantly changing benchmarks creating volatility and unnecessary risk. The emphasis on rigor, while important, has overshadowed the emphasis on changing behavior in regards to deforestation, a key point in the creation of REDD+. Constantly tightening rules around MRV, carbon stock calculation and deforestation rates, are overshadowing the generation of co-benefits. With each of these changes, undoubtedly methodological revisions must be made. This places an incredible financial burden on the developer, and, combined with the other challenges identified above, may be conversely contributing to a lack of confidence in the sector. These challenges can and have been overcome by a few developers, but I find that because the standards are constantly being revised, and that cost is passed on to the project developer, the process becomes incredibly complex and expensive. In some cases it is actually retarding market growth.

Furthermore, market surveys among those purchasing credits have consistently shown that purchasers of ERs are more concerned with the co-benefits to the emissions reductions projects, than the ERs themselves. This is not saying that the emissions reductions are non-important, but rather, as with many products, consumers are equally concerned that the product is creating a net positive impact. The suggestion here is not that standards such as the VCS be relaxed, but that standards that are focused on the co-benefit generation should be emphasized and made more prominent, and perhaps reflected by premium definitions, pricing and incentives as mentioned above. The idea is obviously that to bring more accountability to the social and biodiversity indicators of project success, which if heeded, can have de facto positive impacts on emissions reductions. This idea has been promoted elsewhere. If REDD+ is a pay-for performance system, the emphasis should be readily placed on the performance of the developers in relation to the agents of deforestation, and the interaction with them, rather than the emissions reductions themselves. This may mean focusing on bundling carbon cycling services with other environmental and social services in REDD+.

In conclusion, the purpose of this essay is to draw attention to three interconnected areas that must be addressed fro REDD+ implementation to flourish. These interconnected areas are the role of the private sector, the market for emissions reductions, and the application of standards. I have attempted to handle these three issues in way that not only shows how they are connected, but also how they are challenges that can be overcome. I have also tried to emphasize some areas which can create discourse, with a view towards creating a more enabling environment for REDD+.

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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


Bridging the Gap and Finding Kenya’s Common Ground

As Kenya’s economy continues to grow, and Kenyans aspire towards becoming a middle-income country, there is much fanfare about the progress we have made in the last 15 years. It is actually tremendously impressive in many ways and in many sectors. However, a recent article in the Economist highlighted the uneven nature of that development and how Kenya continues to muddle on, despite our huge infrastructural, societal, and security challenges. Underlying this, as I have written before, is a pressing need for best practice in natural resource management, and for that management to be driving the narrowing of the gaps in this uneven development. However, a disturbing trend is the polarization of pro-development and pro-conservation camps in the country.

Conflict over natural resources is not something new, but rather, it has marked human interaction since time immemorial. When it comes to “management”, that ambiguous application of strategies and tools, there is a massive array of ways to apply that to natural resources. There have almost certainly always existed, those that advocate for varying levels of conservation and others that have advocated for “usage” and “maximization of economic output”. But in Kenya, a notable, and growing divide seems to be prevalent among those advocating for development to meet human aspirations and those advocating for conservation of natural resources; the “Conservers”[1] and the “Developers” so to speak. I believe that this polarization leaves us all of eventual losers. I want to suggest another tack, one where management is central.

In Kenya, the need to manage our natural resources holistically is of paramount importance in achieving the country’s development agenda. Without a firm foundation, we are, frankly, doomed. Like many before us, the growth of GDP has been the almighty indicator for our growth. It is true that, in many respects in Kenya, we have made tremendous strides in attaining our development goals. Comparatively Kenya depends much less on donor-funded programmes than other nations in the region, our middle class is growing, GDP is rising at a rate enviable in many other parts of the developed world. However, economic growth and the rather unbridled pursuit of profit margins and job creation, has often had a negative impact on the environment that forms the foundation of such growth. Unplanned development, and “short-cut development”, Unplanned development’s corrupt cousin, have had devastating impacts on everything from our forests, and our water tables, to our soils.

With a growing population (2.7% per annum), increasing climactic variability, Kenya has a lot to lose if we ignore this foundational truth. The pressure on natural resources, particularly land, fuel wood, and water, has never been greater and with this success, the “Developers” have come into conflict with the “Conservers”. As a trade off of “development” we have seen shrinking forests, polluted rivers, increasing rates of cancer, and strangely, growing levels of poverty and income inequality. Strangely, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, there are still many among us that believe that the environment should be directly leveraged, at all costs, to satiate the demands for the official signs and wonders of development: namely educated workers, fancy vehicles, modern communications and infrastructure, high levels of consumer spending, industry, housing estates and shopping malls.

At the other end of the debate over how to manage our natural resources are the conservationists. Now, it is important to realize that conservationists come in all shapes, sizes, colours, creeds and tribes. Conservation has become a political statement, with varying degrees of adherence to the dogma. I am a conservationist, but not a Conservationist, meaning that I believe that there needs to be a balanced, nuanced approach to conservation and conservative policy towards natural resource. But I don’t believe that that can be achieved by screaming about every dead cat, or road-kill donkey.

When I say Conservationist, I am referring to the latter. The main tenet of the conservation argument is that the natural resources, the parks, the wild lands, and the biodiversity that goes with them is indispensable and should be protected at all costs. This protection inherently means that people should be excluded in a variety of ways and to a variety of degrees from consumptive utilization of any aspect of the resource. Some members of this fraternity take this argument further than others in suggesting that the developmental priorities of nations should be subservient in order to conserve in all that we have, in situ, in perpetuity. Unfortunately, this hardline position, creates tension, conflict and is, ultimately, untenable. While many, including myself, would love for this to be a real option (ie that we could leave some parts of the planet alone), the reality is that people’s needs will always trump biodiversity’s. This translates to a reality that Conservation without flexibility, is dead in the water. Conservation without the ability to mitigate disputes is not useful and Conservation that rejects the notion that people are part of the landscape will only result in failure. This is a reality and it takes a pragmatic approach and a systems approach to find the common ground. But lest you think I am advocating for buying tickets to the Titanic, let me reiterate, there is a common ground and this is not a sinking ship.

Kenya doesn’t need polarization. God knows we have enough of that based on tribe, religion and creed. We cannot afford to continue to generalize along those lines – as the results are inevitably marginalization and conflict. We don’t need development that comes with complete disregard for our landscapes and ecosystem services, with a view towards maximization of profit margins at the expense of the ordinary citizen. Equally we don’t need rabid Conservation-oriented hardliners refusing to meet in the middle. What Kenya needs is Natural Resource managers that can bring pragmatic problem-solving skills, management planning and implementation, holistic viewpoints and systems thinking to whatever resources they are required to manage. If we managed to screw it up, we can manage to mitigate further problems, and rectify those we have created. Natural resources are management challenges. In that sense management is unique; it can be created, taught, practiced, unlike our natural resources which are finite and precious.

One of the first steps is acknowledging how much of our development agenda is linked to our environment behaving in a predictable, foundational role to our country. Kenya’s growth aspirations, as articulated in Vision2030 are inextricably linked to good natural resource management. The outcomes in Vision2030 such as development of the tourism and agriculture sectors are directly linked to the good management of rangelands that support wildlife, and forests that generate water.

One approach to strengthening this link is through the valuation of ecosystem goods and services. This approach was first put forth by Robert Costanza and his team in his classic paper The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital (Costanza, et al, 1997). While many may find this approach reprehensive, this approach represents the common ground I was speaking about above. By placing economic valuation on our resources, we speak both the language of commerce, and the language of conservation.

A classic example of the benefit to valuation of ecosystem goods and services in the guidance of our national development priorities is the UNEP Report on the economic value of the Aberdares watershed. This 2011 report demonstrated that Nairobi’s dependence on the watershed in the Aberdares, provided economic benefits to the city in the realm of 537 billion Ksh ($6.3 billion). The services provided by the Aberdares mountains are critical for maintaining a workforce, industry, soil stability for food production etc. The loss of the Aberdares from rampant conversion of forest to non-forest would be very costly indeed. Conserving that forest is makes economic sense.

Another example of landscapes whose economic value, when left intact, has been demonstrated in Kenya has been the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project. Through simple conservation easements and a commitment by landowners to protect both the environment and the biodiversity within it, the people in the Kasigau area are generating economic benefits for themselves without leveraging the landscape in a consumptive, irreversible way. Millions of dollars in benefits from employment, direct payments and community ‘common good’ projects have accrued to the communities that once presented the greatest threat to the landscape. Conservation works when economic benefits are associated with it. This is a key deliverable of management.

Although many of Kenya’s landscapes are still relatively un-quantified in terms of their economic contribution, it does not take a rocket-scientist to suggest that the inherent protection of water-sheds and other equally important landscapes is a win-win for both the conservation fraternity and meeting the development goals of the majority of Kenyans. For example, the protection of the Kijabe Forest Strip, near to Nairobi, directly impacts the water availability and healthcare costs for patients at the internationally renowned Kijabe Mission Hospital. If you cut down the forest, the water for the hospital disappears and so does the opportunity to serve 600,000 patients annually, let alone the incredible learning opportunities afforded to Kenya’s physicians and nursing staff. Natural resource management of that forest strip is therefore absolutely key in supporting not only human aspirations, but the stability of the forest and its ecosystems.

In conclusion, what we need in Kenya is to find the middle ground between a development agenda that is severely prone to place short-term economic growth above long term economic and environment stability and a conservation fraternity that is increasingly focused on fighting to save one or two species whilst the landscape, and those Kenyans that depend on it, suffers irreparable damage. We need natural resource managers that can take a holistic view of the complex systems that make up our environment, and work to manage our interactions with those systems in a responsible way. Middle ground is possible. It takes the form of Kenyans themselves, our greatest asset. It takes the form of knowledgeable, well-educated, pragmatic landscape managers. It takes the integration of these Natural Resource Managers into our institutions and the decision-making paradigm. It takes negotiation skills, people skills and integrity. This is the only way to meet our long-term development goals, without forfeiting the environment which forms the foundation for everything we do. I fully believe, that this can be accomplished by investing in Natural Resource Managers in Kenya.

Kenyan author and political theorist Wale Akinyemi wrote in the Daily Nation recently that “Natural resources are nothing without the mental resources to tap them. This is why a land of abundant natural resources can still depend on foreign aid and be bullied by sanctions and threats of sanctions.” We have those mental resources in this country. Unlike our natural resources, they can be created, fostered and integrated. It is time we start highlighting this agenda throughout our institutions. That is the only way we can create a stable, long-term economic and environmentally conscious society.


[1] By Conservers, with a capital C, I am not referring to those that believe we need accountability and proper management, as are the tenets of conservations, but rather the more radical, hardliners of the conservation fraternity.


Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


Why The Westgate Tragedy Should be a Turning Point in our Natural Resource Nightmare

**On a personal note, I was extremely hesitant to post this. This has been not only a national tragedy with global ramifications, but it has been a personal one for so many families including many that I know. Through conversations with friends, with all of us trying to make sense of this madness, I have been asked repeatedly to write down my thoughts. Whilst, I am keenly aware that the timing of this post may seem controversial, my hope is that it will spur a conversation that leads to healing and importantly, proactive solutions to the underlying enablers of this tragedy. I will apologize in advance if the timing or conclusions are offensive. They are my opinions and I take sole responsibility for them.

Tsavo, Kenya

Sitting at the waterhole, I am watching the big bull elephants come quietly for a drink. They approach cautiously, emerging from the scrub of the surrounding woodland. Their skin is deeply furrowed by age and the tough tree branches, under which they have been hiding during the heat of the day, scrape along their sides with a leathery rasping sound. They are majestic and their ivory glints in the sun. However, the signs of war are never far. One old bull shows evidence of abscesses caused by bullets and arrowheads that have festered under his tough skin for several days, possibly weeks.  These bulls are wounded warriors, making their last stand here in Kenya. Kenya’s wild lands are a warzone right now, and on Saturday, the war was brought to our city in an excruciatingly painful way.

One hundred years ago, this same waterhole where I am standing was part of a warzone as well.  The British troops, with their puttees and pith helmets, fought the wily Germans in what must have been the most bizarre campaigns of the First World War. Both armies claimed vast swathes of land for themselves, and the suffering that the floundering new countries endured during that time is something we are beginning to feel today. What the hell were they fighting over in this part of the country?  Then as now, it was natural resources. One hundred years ago, it was land, and the power and influence that comes with control of natural resources. Now it is much the same.

Working on the “front lines” of this current war have been our wildlife, and forest agencies. They have been gallant, brave and received very few accolades for the incredible sacrifices they have made, including an astounding number of casualties. Sadly, we are collectively failing on many fronts. Overstretched and under-resourced, we have been fighting an unseen war for years. Moreover, we spend as much of our time fighting our own impotent systems and entrenched corruption, as fighting the enemy. We are failing to control vast parts of our country. You may be saying to yourself, “what the hell does this have to do with the Westgate tragedy”? Well, the simple truth is, everything.

Al Shabaab, the group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Westgate, have been operating well inside Kenya’s borders for some time now, but more often than not, in the ways we would not expect.  Yes, there have been repeated grenade attacks in Garissa and Nairobi, and abductions in Wajir. But the bulk of their impact has been unseen, until now.

One thing that we have overlooked in the general discourse about religious extremism, is that no matter how hard you pray, it is unlikely that God is going to send you MPESA payments that you can pay for bullets and grenades with. Extremists (of all religions and creeds) need revenue and to do so, at least in part, they look to the land where they are operating. They are often heavily involved in cartels, massive taxation drives, and organized crime, and Al-Shabab is no different. Worse still, in a very real sense, we Kenyans, have enabled them to operate with impunity for the most part.

 Just as the Taliban have used the poppy fields of Afghanistan, Al Shabaab are using our elephants and our trees, in the form of ivory and charcoal to underwrite their activities. They do this through a variety of indirect and some direct routes, including massive taxation and even direct trade.  The bullets that are used in attacks are purchased with that money, and yet resources such as charcoal are still under-regulated by our current systems. Suspects caught with ivory are given paltry fines and the payoff is worth the risk. In effect, they are using our own natural resources to kill us. And yet, most of us Kenyans have failed to see the linkages. We like cheap, unregulated charcoal for example. Why would we want it to be more regulated?

The thing about extremism is that without assets, it is hot air and a bit of hate speech, both bad enough in their own right, but not bloody sieges.  But when given access to a resource base that can be traded for influence, money and resources, extremism is incredibly dangerous. It is common knowledge that much of the revenue from the sale of poached ivory is finding its way back to Somalia, and into the hands of Al Shabaab.  This may be through familial links to crime syndicates or zakat taxataion. Even more directly, charcoal is acting as an equally and even more pervasive revenue stream. When the Kenya Defence Forces took Kismayo from Al Shabaab in 2012, they found as much as 4 million bags of charcoal waiting to be exported, estimated to be worth a staggering 25 million USD, a healthy chunk of change to anyone in the world, let alone a terrorist group, bent on annihilating us.

Worse still is that our leaders have been slow to see the link.  Thankfully, they are coming around but in some cases, some our leaders are still bent on their own personal interests, and are actually fighting against the regulation.  They cite non-existent rights to continue herding their cattle into our national parks, and by posing as herders, this gives room for unprecedented access to slaughter elephants as they are doing here in Tsavo.

Even after our wildlife agencies catch a suspect, our regulations for dealing with ivory traffickers are effete and impotent, and our charcoal regulations are even more so. In short, an overall lack of management of our core natural resources is creating a governance vacuum in areas that are well off the beaten track, leaving natural resources to be exploited by the worst possible people.

An encouraging trend is the recent action to strengthen the penal actions accorded to our courts’, strengthening their ability to imprison those involved in ivory trading. This is a positive trend and gives me hope that the links between the terrible events such as those at Westgate will be seen through the lens of what they are: a natural resource management problem coupled with the ferocity of extremist ideology.

I have no doubt that we as Kenyans will persevere, we will overcome and we will achieve the type of Kenya we all want. However, settling for the status quo again, as opposed to ensuring we don’t repeat this type of episode in our future, are two very different roads. We have a choice to make here. We must see that a critical part of that foundation is to find a way to bring governance to our natural resources, because if we don’t someone else will and the likelihood that they will use it against us, instead of for our collective benefit, is very high indeed. 

As we process through the mental and physical anguish that follows the Westgate tragedy, we will undoubtedly face the full array of human grieving and we must come out of that, prepared for positive actions. We must transform our collective pain, our collective anguish and bereavement into something that will crush the extremists. But it has to start with reforming our foundations. And by our foundations, I mean how we govern our collective natural resources, on which this country depends. If we are to grow as a nation it is important for us to look at ways which we can better govern ourselves and prevent the empowerment of extremists.  If we want to achieve goals like Vision 2030, let us realize that we need a foundation that treats natural resource management as paramount to overcoming this war. If not, all the oil in Turkana, all the gas off of our coast, every elephant and rhino in our parks and reserves, and every drop of water we have will not insulate us from this type of terror. Rather, it will attract it. I don’t say these things to take away from our anguish, but to inspire us to change the way we govern.


Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


Kenya at the polls: A precautionary tale

With the upcoming elections in Kenya, now less than a week away, many people in the region and indeed the world are watching, waiting with bated breath. Many pundits are predicting violence akin to that of the fiasco of the 2007-2008 Post-election Violence (PEV).  The purpose of this short post is two-fold: Firstly, I wanted to write a brief, precautionary tale based on my own experiences of the 2007-08 PEV and perhaps convey a lesson that we have hopefully learned.  Secondly, this is a very intentional “shot across the bow” of a small but extremely influential group of people whose careers have benefited massively from the last PEV.  I am not talking about the politicians this time.  Rather, I am speaking directly to the international journalists who will cover the current Kenyan exercise.

Kenya has long been a very key strategic ally for many European and North American countries.  This is clearly nothing new and I won’t drag on about this in this space, save to say, it is quite natural, and extremely mutually beneficial that the relationship between Kenya and many external countries, continues, uninterrupted by the passing politics of the day. That in itself is why the world is watching and why high-profile stringers from every major media outlet are also standing by, as self-proclaimed experts, to give their take on the current political climate.

Interestingly, Kenya’s leaders have been warned repeatedly, including by everyone from Obama to Ban Ki Moon, to choose peace, and renounce violence. Ominously, some envoys have even warned that if presidential aspirants Uhuru and Ruto are voted into the presidency, there will be consequences for Kenya’s international standing, based on their current indictments by the International Criminal Court.  This is expected and warranted.

The International Crisis Group has urged CSOs, the private sector, religious bodies etc. to preach peace, encouraging them to take very public stances against violence.  This is excellent and a commendable position.  Kenyans have responded to this and many people have taken very public stances indeed, culminating in a public commitment by the aspirants themselves to condemn violence associated with the polls.

But one thing has remained under-emphasized and that is the implicit and critical role of the media in this equation.  And by media, I am referring mostly to the international media outlets and their stringers in Kenya.

In 2007 and 2008, I was living in between Naivasha and Nairobi. Parts of each of these urban areas were considered among the most highly impacted of the political violence.  During the entire spate of violence, I spent my time, as did millions of other Kenyans, attempting to proceed with life, work, and love. In fact, the vast majority of Kenyans did proceed with life as normal because the violence was restricted to a relatively small area (less than a fraction of a percentile of Kenya’s total area).  I am not saying this to minimize the impact of the violence on individuals and some communities. I was a first – hand witness to several events, roadblocks etc. during this time. The violence was intense, ugly and nefarious.  However, it was spatially bounded, in explicit pockets, not uniform across the country. Moreover, it is the headlines from the international media that stuck with me the most: Kenyan Crisis WorsensScores dead in Kenya poll clashesDisputed Vote Plunges Kenya Into Bloodshed.  While these headlines and the subsequent media coverage, are not (spatially-speaking), inaccurate in that they were occurring within Kenya’s international boundaries, they are grossly misleading and sometimes even ridiculously speculative.  The fact is that Kenya, as a whole country, was not burning, not descending into bloodshed and chaos, not “blowing up in a cloud of widespread ethnic cleansing akin to Rwanda’s famous violence” as one reporter once told me.  There were pockets of intense violence and suffering as I have stated above.  These have left some deep scars on Kenya’s reputation and society. However, Kenya, as a whole was still functioning, with most Kenyans still pursuing life, and livelihoods despite chaos in pockets. 

Then came the travel bans and the associated paranoia of the international organizations.  The travel bans urged people to avoid Kenya completely. Never ever having been a target, many of the personnel that were evacuated from Kenya during this time, did so on the basis of the inaccurate media reporting that they were constantly being fed, creating an image and feeling that they themselves would somehow be targeted.  This was wholly inaccurate and not based on any verifiable fact. Unfortunately, the media did nothing to educate the wider audience that the violence was not engulfing every enclave of Kenya. The often-cited reason for not being more spatially explicit and specific about place names is that journalists do not feel their audiences will know where places like Kibera are. However, the role of a journalist is also the role of an educator, assisting audiences to be more informed about our world.  Surely, not everyone knew where Bhopal, Hiroshima or Sandy Hook were when those stories came to light?  We do know now, but surely we aren’t claiming that India is completely toxic, Japan radioactive or the entire US is at risk of being shot? Educating, not playing into our stereotypes, is one of the most important roles of media. Education about the spatial boundaries of the violence was only ever partially or inaccurately communicated to the audience and a lack of intensive scrutiny meant that journalists simply got away with it. Imagine if Boston evacuated because of the school shootings in Connecticut?  Imagine if every time a murder happened in Houston, people cancelled their business trips to Chicago?

The impact of inaccurate, imprecise reporting was felt most gruesomely in the tourism sector where cancellations, based on the international media’s claims that Kenya was burning, nearly collapsed the tourism market.  The Kenya Tourist Board estimate that 200,000 Kenyans are directly involved in the tourism industry and with an average family size of six, many millions more Kenyans depend directly on tourism revenues, not to mention the associated support industries.  During the 2007-2008 PEV, tourism numbers dropped catastrophically, with cancellations hitting an all-time high.   The sector showed -45% growth compared to an annual average of 9.8% growth in visitor numbers before the PEV. The economic impact was felt across all sectors of the country and with tourism as the second largest foreign income earner in the economy, GDP tumbled.

These impacts are directly attributable to international media reporting characterizing Kenya as a country descending into hell, a characterization which was grossly misleading.  I posit here that more Kenyans were negatively impacted by the inaccurate and exaggerated international media coverage, than were ever affected by the violence directly. 

You may be asking yourself why I am seemingly going after a free and fair press that gives a window in to the dark alleyways of Kenya’s politic process.  Here is the reasoning:  In all of the warnings and counter-warnings towards Kenya’s political elite, the religious leaders, civil society organizations etc., in the run-up to this current election, the media itself has never been warned to ensure that their stories are accurate and an appropriate appraisal of the actual facts.  Other independent analysts, including many of Kenya’s own political scientists are also noticing this and the message needs to be circulated.  My message to the international media is that they have a duty to ensure that the scope of their reporting is accurate to the time, the place and the extent of the impacts.  Exaggeration and misleading, speculative headlines are not the hallmark of the noble profession of journalism. Secondly, I encourage any one of my readers to get the verifiable facts, scrutinize the sound bites and news flashes you are hearing and if all else fails, call a Kenyan in Kenya and get an appraisal.  The calling rates have never been cheaper.  Or, as Uhuru believes, you can even use Skype.

In short, this is not a call for a boycott of the international media, nor is it an attack on the principles of a free-press. We all hope for a peaceful election process throughout Kenya. Indeed, the world needs Kenya, and Kenya needs the world.  However, I urge the international media to report that process accurately, fairly, and with relevant, verifiable facts.  I also ask international media outlets to refrain from speculation and drawing inaccurate, unfair conclusions lest they hurt more Kenyans than political violence ever could.  It is not only up to us to choose peace during this election; it is also up to us to make sure that that peace is reflected accurately.



Posted by on February 28, 2013 in Uncategorized


The Militarization of Natural Resource Management, Elephants, Rhinos and…Seals

The militarization of wildlife poachers and the subsequent response by the organizations charged with the management of protected areas is one of the clearest examples of the role on natural resource management in the underlying issues of security and human development.  It is no secret that current insecurity in Darfur, eastern DRC and Somalia for example, are both influenced by and fueled with financial resources from the direct consumptive utilization of mineral and more recently, ivory, rhino horn and even charcoal.  The Kenya Wildlife Service claims that the charcoal and ivory trade are fueling Al Shabab’s continued operations in eastern Kenya and enables their strangle hold on Kismayo, in southern Somalia.  Subsequently, the hunt for poachers and other purveyors of illegally extracted natural resources has intensified into a full military and para-military operation throughout eastern and southern Africa.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that these trends have been on a long steady increase since at least the 1980’s, but in recent years, the pressure has significantly intensified due to geo-political maneuvering and poor decision-making by bodies such as CITES who allowed a one-off sale of ivory in 2008 despite the protests of countries such as Kenya which warned of the reigniting of demand. This sale has been repeatedly cited as causing the renewed resurgence in demand for ivory, a contextual detail that matters.  In any natural resource grab, the path of least resistance, and therefore the path of least transactional costs, will be the one that is exploited first.

In Kenya, this is indeed a crisis which warrants a full-scale state response in the interest of Natural and inherently National security.   However, what is desperately needed is not a knee-jerk military reaction on the part of the national and international security and natural resource management community but rather, a detailed analysis of the drivers of conflict, and the responses to it, which should in turn guide our policy decisions towards a more long-term stabilization of natural resource management decisions, and consequently, national security here in East Africa.  The poaching crisis is a symptom, not the disease and the broader picture shows issues in the delivery of humanitarian aid, national development policy, maritime law and the governance of international waters, the management of grazing lands and the control of the border and immigration issues.  Like most complex management issues, the current crisis is a huge number of interrelated political and management issues.  Solutions must treat it as such and not try and narrow it down to a problem of “Somali poachers”.  Failure to take this systematic response will likely continue to entrench the status quo of half-baked approaches, which erode the natural capital of the region while we focus on chasing a few ivory poachers around an area the size of Western Europe.  Punitive actions always make us feel good.  They give us the façade of justice having been served.  However, the small vacuum created by “taking out a few poachers” will undoubtedly be filled quickly and long-term stability, the desired outcome, will be sadly unobtainable.

The transition to a broader approach has been advocated by a few and can be accomplished using common tools such as the DPSIR framework and many others.  However, a full situational analysis, accompanied by the development of both policy and legislative instruments in addition to strengthened enforcement mechanisms is desperately needed.  Unfortunately, all of what I have just discussed could possibly be overshadowed, if not completely lost on a few ‘meatheads’** (see discussion in the comments section) who lack understanding of basic pragmatism, cooperation, diplomacy and effective adaptive management, advocating instead for full scale military-based solutions.  We are currently experiencing the manifestation of those knee-jerk reactions here in Tsavo.

The current crisis has attracted some interesting characters, who often volunteer their time to assist.  Whilst volunteering one’s time and expertise is appreciated, it can sometimes do more harm than good, as contextual analysis is often quite shallow. Moreover, volunteers always have an expiry date, often leaving those that have hosted them in the lurch, picking up the pieces and repairing the damage.  A case in point is our current cohort of visitors, two former US Navy SEALs.

The two SEALs visiting us have come to ‘advise’ us on our security apparatus in an effort to bolster our current enforcement activities.  They are the most highly trained individuals imaginable, on many fronts and one cannot help but be a bit in awe of their physical presence. We all know that we need help as one of the greatest scrambles for natural resources is unfolding all around us.  However, ‘help’ is sometimes no help at all.  Anywhere else in the world these guys would be known as mercenaries but because they are from the US they are somehow referred to as ‘security consultants’.  Their presence has not gone unnoticed by our local staff, nor the Kenya Wildlife Service as their ‘advisory’ role has quickly been self-morphed into a more commandeering role.  This has caused obvious friction and some repulsion both internally in the management and externally, amongst the wider community. Whilst regaling us with their exploits in Afghanistan, Iraq and any other number of countries, “splattering brains and guts all over walls…” and “hacking down insurgents with our hatchets, splitting their skulls in half…” these gentlemen have come to epitomize the very things that make many people sick about American contemporary culture and war-mongering.  The bravado with which they extol their own exploits, the obvious solutions to our poaching problems which we clearly have never thought of, and the continual massaging of their own egos, does little to ensure the long-term proper management of natural resources in East Africa.  Moreover, this same bravado is the number one limiting factor in keeping their often excellent training and problem-solving awareness from being more widely accepted by those they are attempting to train.  These chaps are used to popping in to a country, removing or annihilating someone, and jetting back out.  Unfortunately, the ideas that is being conveyed, which are largely the ‘American way or the highway’ attitude, have been somewhat unappreciated in this part of Kenya mostly because they fail to see the loss of elephants and rhinos for what it really is…a failure to contain the situation in Somalia, and equally epic failure to apply diplomatic pressure on the markets in the Vietnam and China.  In short, for all of their good intentions, these guys are premium meatheads and cannot understand that a long-term systematic analysis of the drivers of commercial poaching, the general insecurity and the socio-economic forces underlying environmental degradation are just as key to the solution as “shooting every poacher in sight”.    This is problematic when the drivers of degradation in the environment are much more removed and insidious than a few poachers from Somalia.  Those drivers, and dealing with them at a policy and political level, are the key to ensuring long-term sustainable management of our East African landscapes.  In this case, a military solution may be needed in the immediate term, but a wholesale gang-war is not.  A long-term solution lays only in the realm of sensible policy and regular, systematic enforcement without the bravado of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now back to my two favourite SEALs…

I am a firm believer that we all have more in common than not.  I also am a firm believer that everyone has a few redeeming attributes. It is an interesting experience having a conversation with these two gentlemen, who for all of their bluster and bravado are quite congenial fellows.  They are normal guys with families who enjoy being out in the bush.  However, intensive situational analysis of the operating environment in which natural resource management decisions are made and enforced in East Africa, does not rank among their stronger skills sets. In fact, when I queried them about the greater context of influence on the poaching crisis, the underlying drivers, the market dynamics, the diplomatic and political channels that should be exploited, I was met with ‘hmmpf’ and the another zephyr of wisdom in the form of a one-liner:  “we are diplomats, humanitarians and warriors…”.   That quintessentially arrogant attitude manifested in the lines such as “we have the answers” (even after our rather shallow and paranoid analysis of the situation) and “if you guys would just fall in line and do what we say, we could take care of this problem” becomes rather unsettling the deeper into conversations that we get. This attitude also perpetuates the falsehood that stereotypical analysis and singular, militarized solutions to natural resource management issues will work for long-term sustainability.  There are far too many examples to count that prove this assertion painfully wrong.  Unfortunately, my two SEAL friends believe their own dogma far too religiously to see that larger picture. In fact, I don’t think I have actually ever met more brainwashed individuals outside of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious sects – which brings me to my final point about this entire situation.  Natural resource management is a science, not a religion.  Being a Navy SEAL is seemingly a religion, and battling the Taliban or Al Shabab or any other ideological enemy, is just another ‘religious war’.  However, real tangible long-term solutions to natural management issues are not bound in religious conviction (although they can be aided by those convictions) but rather in tangible, pragmatic, science-based solutions and policy interventions.   Until we get that right, our enforcement challenges will only grow, even with the help of the world’s finest warriors.


Posted by on September 11, 2012 in Uncategorized


The Discipline of Diligence

Our attention spans as humans seem to be getting shorter and shorter.  Some blame the Internet generation, video games and the touch-pad age.  Others blame a general apathy on our part to see the importance of following anything that is not immediately gratifying.  I tend to be an optimist.  Whatever the reason, following an issue or subject that we are passionate about, that is bigger than ourselves and that most likely, challenges and confounds our ability to find answers for, is a discipline.   There is an inherent importance in this day and age for actually paying attention to the same subject over a longer period of time.  With that said, I wanted to continue to follow and to update you, the reader, about any developments on the stories and subjects that I have written about so far.  I will start with the oldest story herein and move forward, chronologically and will likely post in several parts. 

The Machine Gun Preacher

The movie had mixed reviews in the box office. Many critics thought it was a bust but apparently it is being widely hailed among evangelical church groups as a brave testament, and sermon topic for the role that one man can have in saving people.  I still have not seen it and do not intend to.  However, a friend, who is an academic, encouraged me to see it and try and weigh the film and the idea through the academic lens.  I intend to do so, at some point.  In the meantime I have been awaiting the documentary that has been promised to show his questionable trip to Darfur.  To date, I have not been able to locate a copy.  I have repeatedly attempted to contact Sam Childers himself via his website, blog, his friends and his email address with no response to date.  I believe that constructive criticism is important and dialogue should be exercised accordingly.  He may in fact be able to dispel the rumours and my arguments and questions to his legitimacy.  I would welcome that.  However, so far, his silence tends to raise more questions about the legitimacy of many of his claims about his work in Sudan.  Alas, it seems that under legitimate questioning he is more likely to pawn it off as “persecution” for doing God’s will.

Southern Kordofan

Southern Kordofan, along with Blue Nile State and the Darfur states, continue to be subjected to the marginalization policies and violence of the National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum.  This has intensified greatly since the South Sudanese seceded in July.  Continued attacks along the border regions in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile State specifically have resulted in massive displacement into refugee camps just inside the new borders of South Sudan.   The NCP government has pursued civilians into these areas and continued aerial bombardment well within South Sudan’s territory.   The resultant displacement is a humanitarian disaster.  South Sudan’s recent decision to simply shut off the oil pipeline has only served to exacerbate the tensions.  The posturing by the new government in the South is expected.  However, the resistance and intolerance of the NCP’s actions in Sudan itself is growing as well, both by civilians and armed rebel groups.  In fact, this shared persecution is one of the uniting factors between rebel forces in each of the three states and a recent announcement of uniformity in their goals has sparked a renewed hope that the brutal regime’s continued crimes against their own people will come to and end. Khartoum’s response was as efficient and brutal as ever with the killing of Khalil Ibrahim, one of the rebel leaders and a former minister in the Government of Sudan.  However, with each passing day we are hopeful that the seeds of change sewn elsewhere in the world will begin to inspire ordinary citizens stand up to the NCP government of Omar Bashir.  In fact, residents of Nyala, South Darfur, where I once resided, displayed their discontent with the ruling NCP today in what can only be described as general civil disobedience in the town.  As expected, they were met with a categorical show of force by police, military and the infamous Abu Tira, all loyal to the NCP.  Undoubtedly, there is a long road ahead.

Unfortunately, the situation in neighbouring Southern Kordofan has gone from bad to worse with intensified bombing of civilian targets and a complete blockade of aid reaching the state.  There are now legitimate concerns that the NCP is laying siege to towns in order to ready themselves for a full on attack of both rebel and civilian targets, particularly in the Kauda Valley.   The resultant civilian casualties of a siege and subsequent attack are likely to be disastrous.  Already aid groups estimate that nearly half a million civilians are at risk of food insecurity in the coming months. Although plans for the African Union to negotiate access for aid, one wonders, diplomatically speaking, what will be sacrificed.  For example, will the support for the ICC warrant for the arrest Omar Bashir be dropped?

Citizen journalist Ryan Boyette continues to exemplify what it means to be committed to constructive action.  His professional, and extremely important work remains a valuable contribution to the mountain of evidence of the NCP’s atrocities, through his regular reporting from the front lines including heavy fighting:   

Ryan’s most recent report is as follows:

“On January 9th and 10th, 2012 there was heavy fighting between SAF and
SPLA-N forces in the village of Braum and Tess.  The SAF forces pushed their way to Braum in an offensive attack.  The SPLA-N forces repelled the attack and the SAF forces retreated back to Kadugli.

During the attack in Tess the SAF air force bombed the surrounding area
wounding and killing many civilians.  The exact number is unknown.  Although I have attached pictures of the wounded civilians.  The civilians were treated by the SPLA-N medic in a near by village.  There have also been reports of rape of women in Tess village by SAF soldiers.  Since SAF troops are still located near the road to Yida Refugee camp many civilians are scared to travel south to the refugee camp.”   

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At this juncture I think it is important to tip our hats to two groups of people.  The first group is rather obvious; immense appreciation should be shown to all of the people assisting to bring aid to those displaced by the tensions and fighting.  Your diligence, devotion and sacrifices are appreciated.  Secondly, and more importantly still, I commend the ordinary Sudanese citizens who are participating in acts of civil disobedience in the northern towns and cities in order to show their own distaste for the current leadership.  Undoubtedly, you will need to be brave. 



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Posted by on January 25, 2012 in Uncategorized


Update on The Price of Plunder

In the intervening days since Friday’s deadly events, some progress has been made in stabilizing Ijema Funan, the injured ranger.  Although his injuries are severe and likely to be a life-long disability, he is stable and in excellent hands in Nairobi.  For that I am intensely grateful. He will undergo multiple, lengthy and extensive surgeries to replace his shattered shoulder and repair the wound on his face.

Abdullahi Mohammed’s (aka Abdi) funeral was attended by many in the community, a testament to the loss and pride of the community of the role rangers play in protecting the local environment.  He will be sorely missed.

Additionally, in an excellent turn of events, two of the perpetrators have been captured in the nearby town of Mackinnon Road.  A full report of their capture is available here.  Their capture represents an important step in bringing justice to the families of Abdi and Ijema and the wider WW family.  Their arrest is also leading to a wealth of intel on other nefarious activities in the area, including the recovery of the assault rifle used the incident.

Thank you for your continued reading.  I will keep you updated. La Luta Continua


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Posted by on January 16, 2012 in Uncategorized


The Price of Plunder

I write this post with sadness. As I am typing, one of my friends and former colleagues is in surgery in a Nairobi hospital, a round from an AK having ripped off half his face and a second round through his shoulder.  Another former colleague has just been buried in the red sands of Tsavo.  This is the human price of plunder. 

In the last two years, the massive escalation of elephant and rhino poaching in eastern and southern Africa has resulted in the emergence of powerful cartels which fund and control the wealth generated from the sale of the ivory and horn.   There are various theories as to where the money ends up with some experts claiming that the money funds Al-Shabab activities in nearby southern Somalia.  Others believe that there is at least complicity, if not full involvement, within the local government structures in order to allow for the massive scale of the current crisis.  The crisis that is emerging erodes the natural ecosystems on which Kenyans are intrinsically tied and on which forms the foundation for the future.

Often, brave men like my two friends are all that stand between the widespread plundering of the environment by powerful groups of criminals.  They have selflessly given their lives for that cause and will be remembered as heroes. 

In Paul Collier’s book, The Plundered Planet, he asserts that the developing world’s greatest asset is its natural capital.  Collier claims that the governance and management of natural assets can have one of two impacts: either to buoy the country towards a sustainable development path, or in the absence of regulation, result in the absolute plunder of the natural environment.  In the past, too often, the latter has been the case. Governance (regulation), technology and natural capital form the three main components of his argument.  A poignant reminder of this paradigm comes in the form of one of Collier’s simple equations: Nature + Technology – Regulation = Plunder.  I will write more on this at a later date. 

As one man’s family mourns him, and another man’s prays for his recovery, the plundering of the environment continues unabated.  If the environment is crucial to our development, and the foundation of our future, it is my hope that we soon come to realize that the price of plunder is ultimately a human one. 

Rest in peace brother.



Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Uncategorized