Bridging the Gap and Finding Kenya’s Common Ground

14 May

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


4 responses to “Bridging the Gap and Finding Kenya’s Common Ground

  1. Heather Adkins

    May 14, 2014 at 05:47

    Well said!

  2. Calvin cottar

    May 14, 2014 at 12:14

    Well said Bryan – a voice of reason in a sea of ‘Conservationist’ dreamers! This can only come about by localizing ownership and resources and then getting the real value paid by methods that these local folk can use for their own survival and development.. Well done!

    • bryanadkins

      May 18, 2014 at 13:31

      Thanks Calvin. Let’s hope we can spread the message further. We need to find some middle ground before we lose it all. Hope you are well.


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