Biodiversity, land use and climate change

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By DR  DAVID WESTERN

Kenya ranks among the world’s top wildlife destinations – a million and a half visitors a year boost our economy by 12 percent. But the swelling arrivals are flooding to our parks to the point of congestion.

Big cats are trailed by hoards of cars, off-road driving is pummeling habitats and visitors are grouching over the crowds.

Is there any room for further growth?  Plenty, if we look beyond the congested parks to the natural wealth Kenya has in abundance. In their rush between parks, tourists miss Kenya’s unrivalled diversity of animal and plant life and habitats—its biodiversity—to say nothing of its varied landscapes and rich cultural heritage. We have also overlooked the part biodiversity plays in rural livelihoods and national development.

Kenya, unlike the industrialised nations, depends more on renewable energy from sunlight than fossil fuels. This “natural capital”, channeled through plants and animals, is the engine of our farming, ranching, fisheries, forestry, wildlife and tourism industries. Wood fuels still supply over half our domestic energy. The ecological services biodiversity give us daily captures rainfall, regulates river flows, supplies nutrients for crops, fodder for livestock, controls erosion and cleans the air, water and soils we pollute. These services come free of charge, add billions of shillings to our local and national economy, and yet are ignored in our calculations of national economic output. 

Ignoring the value of our biodiversity incurs huge costs to Kenya. It took the destruction of the Mau Forest to raise public outrage over the loss of river flows and the downstream costs to farmers, ranchers, national parks and our economy. It took a brave political stand to evict the land grabbers.  It will take a heavier toll on tax-payer money to restore the ecological services we took for granted on

Billions of shillings are being lost to Kenya’s economy each year because we are destroying our natural capital far faster than it is being replenished. The costs are born most heavily by farmers and ranchers, the backbone of our agrarian economy. The destruction of our rangelands has halved wildlife populations and intensified droughts, culminating in a 70 percent loss of pastoral livestock in 2009 and millions of destitute herders.

The value of a nation’s natural capital is being posted and audited in the economies of progressive countries.  It is time for Kenya to do the same. Vision 2030 takes a step in the right direction in promoting renewable energy such as biomass fuels, solar and wind as we move to a post-oil economy. But we must go further. We must overhaul our antiquated conservation policies and draw up a comprehensive national framework.

Several organisations are taking some tentative steps, including the Kenya Wildlife Service, National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Forest Service, the National Council, non-government organizations, landowners associations and international agencies. Recognising the importance of our natural capital, the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Wildlife and Forests and twenty conservation bodies, businesses and donors are sponsoring a conference on Biodiversity, Land Use and Climate Change in Nairobi from September 15 to 17. The conference will mark Kenya’s participation in the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity 2010.

The conference reviews the wealth of Kenya’s biological diversity, looks at the challenges of a growing population, expanding land use and climate change.  It also considers how to improve livelihoods and sustain economic growth through better conservation policies and practices.

The conference highlights East Africa as the richest biodiversity site on the entire continent and among the richest in the world. Kenya, sitting at the confluence of Africa’s forests, deserts, grasslands, woodlands and oceans, and spanning the great lakes and mountains, has extraordinary diversity of landscapes, biodiversity and cultures.

Our national parks made a good start in protecting the most famous wildlife herds, but fall far short of conserving the wealth of Kenya’s animals, plants and ecosystems. Premier parks such as Mara and Amboseli are already overcrowded and losing wildlife worryingly fast. There is urgent need to shore up our parks and expand tourism to new destinations that reflect the wealth of Kenya’s natural endowment. The time is now to conserve the natural capital that underpins our farming, ranching, natural resource production and the health of our environment.

Conserving our natural capital depends on a full inventory of species and filling the gaps left by our parks and reserves. To do so, we must work with Tanzania and Uganda to secure the animal migrations and ecological services that traverse our common boundaries. A full mapping exercise would have been impossible a few years back. No longer.

With recent advances in information technology, survey methods, mapping techniques and software, we can now assemble vast amounts of information, size up the threats to biodiversity and plan the best options for countering them through land planning and a host of new conservation tools and incentives. However, this ambitious undertaking calls for new technical skills, training and collaboration between government agencies and a new public-private partnership with conservation bodies, landowners and business.

To protect Kenya’s biological wealth, we must also weigh the threats ahead. Land use and livelihoods are changing at an ever faster pace. How will the changes affect biodiversity and natural capital?

The biggest threats come from poor land use practices, degradation and habitat fragmentation, driven by population growth, settlement and poverty. Standing in the way of reversing the losses to natural capital is the lack of rights to land and resources, and the incentive to invest in conservation. Corrupt officials have hastened the losses by thwarting community ownership rights and pillaging natural resources.

Climate changes could add to the environmental and social cost–unless we anticipate the risks it poses and put in place precautionary measures. But just how will global warming affect land use, livelihoods, biodiversity and our national parks? There is a good deal of uncertainty about how global warming will change our local climate.

To takes stock and be prepared, we can build likely scientific scenarios and counter the worst eventualities. We can also take advantage of the global carbon-trading market created to mitigate global warming.

Communities stand to gain most from such markets, especially if they link carbon offsets to grass banks that counter drought, reforestation that boosts water, timber and fuel-wood supplies, and conservancies that protect biodiversity and foster tourism.

Communities stand to benefit all the more if Kenya puts a value on its natural capital and pays a fair price for ecological services. The biggest gain would be in renewable energy sources such as biomass, solar and wind that can boost our 2030 post-oil economy.

Before the new constitution, Kenya was edging towards a national biodiversity policy and comprehensive conservation framework. The passage of the constitution on August 23rd adds a new urgency by devolving political power and a raft of individual rights to all citizens. Among them are rights to land, property and an equitable sharing of  natural resources. In keeping with the new constitution, the conference will be open to the public and quicken the tempo for a new decentralized way of conserving our biodiversity and natural capital.

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