KASIGAU, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For 14 years, Lalo Mwakupha played hide and seek with the authorities as he poached animals and burned charcoal in the 200,000-hectare Kasigau wildlife corridor separating Kenya’s Tsavo East and West National Parks. Today, dressed in green ranger fatigues, the 35-year-old patrols the jungles he once plundered, arresting those now doing the same.
Since April 2011, Mwakupha has been employed as an unarmed ranger by Wildlife Works (WW), a company that partners with local people to protect the wildlife corridor from encroachment and poaching.
WW also sells carbon credits on behalf of the communities and 4,800 land owners along the corridor in southern Kenya. The revenues from this trade are funding water projects and education bursaries that benefit some 116,000 people in six locations.
The 30-year Kasigau project, part of the U.N.-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme, was started by WW in 2009 to address the poverty afflicting communities living in the area, while also conserving its rare animals and forests.
Local people eke out a living through subsistence farming, which is tough due to irregular rainfall, and many poach to survive. Elephants are also threatened by external poachers looking for ivory.
WW’s answer was to come up with a model that protects wildlife and creates jobs for locals at the same time. Its founder Mike Korchinsky believes that offering communities real financial support for sustainable development programmes incentivises them to safeguard the forest ecosystem.
“We invest in schools, job creation and basic infrastructure, which builds trust, and communities are motivated to learn what they can do to protect the forest,” he said.
Including more than 120 rangers, WW has employed over 400 people working in tree nurseries and factories producing soap, glass and eco-garments, as well as sustainable charcoal production and the propagation of fruit trees, chili and jojoba which are distributed locally for replanting. The garment factory produces T-shirts made from organic and Fairtrade cotton for Puma, which also buys the project’s carbon offsets.
FIRST REDD+ CREDITS
Over its lifespan, the Kasigau REDD+ project is expected to result in 30 million tonnes of avoided carbon dioxide emissions. The carbon savings will come from an expected fall in the number of trees cut down for charcoal burning, as well as new trees being planted.
Last year, landowners and communities earned more than $2 million from the sale of credits for the emissions reductions, some of which funded local projects. The credits were purchased by well-known corporations, including BNP Paribas, the French luxury brand firm Kering which runs Puma, Allianz, Barclays Bank, La Poste and Microsoft.
The revenues from the project are split roughly three ways between landowners, communities and Wildlife Works. The community’s share is placed in a trust, until Local Carbon Committees decide which projects should be funded and implemented by community-based groups.
This project was the first to issue voluntary carbon credits for a REDD+ project under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) in 2011. The offsets are also certified with the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard (CCB).
As someone who has benefited from the project, Mwakupha now treasures the wildlife, not to mention the freedom from being harassed by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Before quitting poaching and charcoal-burning in 2010 he was arrested four times. The arrests - coupled with the threat of jail sentences of up to four years - prompted him to quit, and he later landed a job with WW.
“I feel awful in my soul when I see trees cut or an animal killed. That is destroying my income (as) I’m paid to protect them,” Mwakupha told Thomson Reuters in the Kasigau corridor. Having been a poacher himself, he knows how the perpetrators operate, and acts as an informant to the authorities.
POVERTY BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Like many others, it was poverty that compelled Mwakupha to take what he could from nature. Born into a large family, his mother died in 1985. He dropped out of school aged 12, to fend for his family of seven and pay for their education as his elderly father was unable to manage.
Thanks to the revenues from carbon credits, local literacy levels have gone up, according to Mercy Ngaruiya, chairperson of the Tumaini Women’s Group, which carries out projects with the money. Bursaries of over 19 million Kenya shillings (around $229,000) have been awarded to needy students from the six project locations.
She remembers how, in the early 2000s, most people never went past class eight - age 13 to 16 depending on a pupil’s progress. Until 2006, when Marungu High School was built, the nearest secondary schools were 30 km away, and most parents could not afford to send their children to boarding schools.
Marungu now has 266 students, including more than 100 local girls, most receiving bursaries. This school, and others in the project area, receive a share of carbon proceeds to build more classrooms and buy furniture.
The region is also plagued by water shortages, requiring trips of up to 15 km to get to water sources. More than 6.5 million shillings (around $78,000) is being spent on water projects, including the construction of water catchments using natural rock formations and the rehabilitation of water pipelines, tanks and guttering, benefiting around 16,000 people.
The development dividends enjoyed by the communities have reduced their resistance to conservation, according to Steve M. Mwangombe, assistant chief of the Makwasinyi sub-location, which has a population of 7,000.
“Initially they thought they were being denied livelihoods by being prohibited from cutting trees down for charcoal,” he said. But recently, one community which is participating in water projects approached Mwangombe, urging him to stop charcoal burners, he added.
Robert O’Brein, assistant director of conservation at the KWS Tsavo Conservation Area, told Thomson Reuters Foundation charcoal burning along the corridor has reduced by 70 percent, and is continuing to fall.
But there are still poaching cases of small wildlife like dik diks for meat by communities. The main problem area is Taita ranch, where after a crackdown by KWS, Somali poachers have switched from using guns to poach, to paying locals to set up poisoned snares for them.
“We can’t stop poaching without the communities’ help. If animals are killed, tourist revenues will stop,” said O’Brein. The parks have more than 50 species of large mammals and over 300 bird species. The corridor is home to 2,000 elephants, as well as endangered species like the cheetah and Grevy’s zebra.
“We need to prevent ecosystems from getting to a point where they are so degraded they are no longer resilient,” Paul Van Gardingen, director of Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) UK, told a conservation seminar in Nairobi in June. Where ecosystem conservation is linked to social goals and livelihoods, it is more likely to be accepted by communities, he added.
James Karuga is a Nairobi-based journalist interested in agriculture and climate change issues.