Feature Story

Hope from the hills

October 18, 2017

A groundbreaking partnership is protecting biodiversity, combatting climate change and increasing the prosperity of the Maasai.

Kenya's Chyulu Hills host not just rich wildlife and beautiful landscapes but a groundbreaking partnership to conserve biodiversity and combat climate change between its people and the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust.

Founded at the turn of the millennium to protect the area’s biodiversity by involving the indigenous communities in programmes that bring them transformative economic benefit, the trust has empowered the local Maasai through natural resource management initiatives and partnerships that advance sustainable economic development and conservation. It has succeeded because of its pioneering programming and its long-lasting partnerships with like-minded innovators.

The region's biodiversity is wide-ranging and diverse. Its iconic and critically endangered wildlife includes lions, elephants, giraffe, cheetah, and wild dogs that either live there or use it as a critical migration corridor. Covering over 283,000 acres, the resource-rich project area includes montane cloud forest, grassland savannah, and vital sources of fresh water, servicing populations as far away as Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city.

I am proud to serve as the president of the trust’s United States board of directors, and I have encountered first-hand the positive impact of strategic partnerships and exchanges. The trust’s main focus has always been engagement with the local Maasai landowners and communities, who have inhabited the area for centuries: they comprise its most significant, though not only, partnership. Together, we work to overcome the formidable pressures of the industrialized world: poaching, land conversion and degradation, timber harvesting, over-grazing, resource extraction, and charcoal burning, on this threatened, though paradoxically resilient ecosystem and on the traditional Maasai culture.

In 2014, initiating a vital relationship, the trust received a two-year grant from the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, administered by the United Nations Development Programme. The grant was to help local communities in their efforts to manage their natural resources more effectively – through improving grazing practices, the condition of rangelands, and ecosystem functions – so as to achieve greater livelihood security and improved biodiversity conservation.

The results have been remarkable. The trust and the community have constructed three Wetland Ecological Restoration Catchments to provide water for both wildlife and livestock and to help restore critical wetlands. They have also: built five field cattle crushes for treating and vaccinating local community livestock; trained over 100 community rangers in the use of Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool technology, improving data reporting and analysis and boosting the monitoring and protection of the wilderness and wildlife; and developed pilot grazing plans with the community and consultants.

The trust’s relationship with the Facility strengthened in 2016, when it was awarded a Facility grant and became a lead implementing partner. Spanning three years – and including two other partners (Big Life Foundation and African Conservation Centre) – the grant aims to establish biodiversity conservation and sustainable use in productive lands in the Greater Amboseli landscape and to improve the sustainability of protected areas.

Again the trust has achieved notable results, and aims to accomplish even more. So far, the grant has provided support for community-based workshops and training for a number of initiatives, including: better implementing 'Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool' technology; increasing understanding of regulations on establishing conservancies under Kenyan law; developing integrated land-use plans based on first-hand experience; identifying and mapping important wildlife corridors to minimize conflict with people and animals; paying annual management fees to group ranches for conservancies; providing seed support for a Conservancy Trust Fund for land preservation; supporting more community rangers and training community game scouts; developing sustainable tourism products in established conservancies; and establishing sustainable incentives for conservation, including Payment for Ecosystem Services. Among the most effective of these incentives is the Trust’s Wildlife Pays project, which compensates herders for livestock lost to predators with funds provided by surcharges levied on tourists at the trust’s ecotourism partner, Campi ya Kanzi.

But by far the most anticipated and game-changing initiative to date is the Chyulu Hills REDD+ Carbon Project. Supported by the United Nations Development Programme, UN Environment and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, REDD+ counters climate change by reducing emissions from forests. It prevents deforestation, degradation, and grassland conversion and helps provide alternative livelihoods for local communities living in and around them. The trust has played a key role in developing the project, which provides carbon credits for sale together with eight local partners. It aims to prevent the emission of the equivalent of an astonishing 28,122, 572 tons of carbon dioxide over the 30-year project.

After amassing 600,000 tons of carbon credits per year for the past three years, the trust and Maasai stakeholders will enter the market with close to 2 million credits. Selling these – together with income from some other promising programmes (especially payment for watershed services and a prospective solar program) – will provide long-term, sustainable funding and relief from dependence on philanthropy.

By nearly all measurements, 2017 has been a banner year for the trust and its affiliated community partners. Without the Facility and its now long-standing support, much of our success would be considerably blunted. As United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, I have encountered many earnest players in the field of conservation. But the trust stands out – from our President and Chairman of the Board Samson Parashina (a 2012 UN Environment Champion of the Earth) to our innovative programmes. The Facility's support is an affirmation of those programmes and the positive direction they are taking, and we are ever grateful for it.

by Edward Norton, Actor, film-maker and activist

This article originally appeared in "The Global Environment Facility: Delivering solutions for a sustainable future," the September 2017 issue of UN Environment's "Our Planet" magazine. The magazine was launched at the GEF-7 2nd replenishment meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.