Philanthropists’ role in empowering Africa’s environment guardians


Rose Ng’ang’a


African communities have for centuries played a critical role in forest conservation. By empowering these communities, philanthropists have stepped in to not only preserve rich cultural heritage but also tap into their invaluable wisdom for innovative climate solutions.

In Kenya, communities such as the Ogiek, Sengwer, Yakku Waata, Mijikenda, and Sanya as well as pastoralist communities including the Maasai, Endorois, Turkana, and Samburu have for centuries taken care of forests as part of their heritage and stand in a pivotal position to combat climate change by protecting and maintaining rainforests.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, while forests support the operations of most key economic sectors such as – agriculture, tourism, horticulture, wildlife, and energy, Kenya loses about 12,000 hectares of forest each year through deforestation.

About 12 percent of the country’s land area, which was originally covered by closed canopy forests, has been reduced to about 1.7 percent of its original size. This is due to the demand for fuelwood and charcoal, population pressure for settlements, infrastructure, demand for wood products, and conversion to agriculture.

Recognition of the role of Indigenous communities in protecting forests and fighting the climate crisis was celebrated by Sonia Guajajara, the first Indigenous peoples minister of Brazil after the United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP 28, held in Dubai last year.

’It was the first time that we had Indigenous people participating directly in a dialogue with Brazilian negotiators,’ she said on social media, reminding followers: ‘We are only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 82 percent of the world’s protected biodiversity is within Indigenous territories.’

‘Indigenous peoples are increasingly taking the lead in discussions. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge has already been recognised as scientific knowledge under the Paris Agreement. Indigenous peoples and traditional communities are critical allies in the fight against climate change.

Indeed, indigenous territories have proven to be one of the most effective climate change mitigation strategies. According to UN data, indigenous peoples make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, but they control more than 82 percent of the world’s protected biodiversity. This alone demonstrates the importance of preserving ways of life and cultures, and that we must establish a link between environmental protection, climate finance, and the protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Because we are the most powerful guardians, we must be recognised as decision-makers. And we are making progress in this regard. We are now able to speak directly with countries and negotiators to include Indigenous peoples in the central issues that are decided here,” said Guajajara.

The role of Indigenous communities in combating climate change was strengthened in the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan in which countries committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the inevitable impacts of climate change, as well as boosting the support of finance, technology, and capacity building needed by developing countries.

Earlier, during the high-level World Leaders Summit at COP26 in November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland, the UK, Norway, Germany, the US, and the Netherlands, in partnership with 17 funders, pledged to invest US$1.7 billion to help Indigenous and local communities protect the biodiverse tropical forests.

Some of the philanthropies engaged in the conservation of forests in Kenya include the Kenya Forests Working Group, Mt Kenya Environmental Conservation, Trees for Kenya, Trillion Trees, Reforest Action, International Tree Foundation, International Climate Initiative, Northland Rangelands Trust,  International Tree Foundation, Friends of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Mt Elgon Foundation and ISLA Kenya.

For the past 10 years, Reforest Action has planted more than 350,000 trees from local nurseries in the Mount Kenya Forest. One way they achieved this is by involving school children in the planting of trees by ensuring each child was given one tree to take care of and grow with. The children were also taught how to remove weeds twice a year.

Trillion Trees, on the other hand, partners with BirdLife International, through Nature Kenya, to develop and support local community-based conservation work in the Mount Kenya region.

The organisation also provides sustainable livelihood opportunities to vulnerable communities such as beekeeping, as well as installing clean cook stoves. It says households taking part in the initiative have increased their annual incomes and reduced their dependency on forest resources.

In the past 10 years alone, 20 percent of Mt Kenya has been deforested. Trillion Trees is, however, supporting the restoration of one million local trees. The organisation is also involved in tree planting in Aberdares and Nandi forests.

In total, 6,700 hectares of forest have been restored (5,000,000 trees in Mount Kenya forest, 250,000 trees in Aberdare, 150,000 trees in Nandi forest). A 2021 report indicated that Indigenous communities don’t receive enough funding to carry out this work successfully.

The report further showed that they are receiving less in the way of financial resources from The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) group of industrialised countries.

The report revealed that financing for forest tenure and management for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IDPLs) had fallen far short of the estimated need: only three percent of the total needed to carry out large-scale reforms in 24 countries.

Success stories

One of the success stories in Kenya involves the Indigenous Livelihood Enhancement Partners (ILEP), which works to help communities identify and prioritise their needs.

In 2019, ILEP won an award for helping the Maji Moto community in Narok County by building a dam that sorted out their water needs, including irrigation.

The initiative showcased that with correct training, Indigenous peoples have the capacity to implement projects and take ownership. After working with communities for many years, Indigenous Livelihood Enhancement Partners won the United Nations Development Programme’s tender to develop stakeholder engagement and free prior and informed consent guidelines and toolkits.

Kenya’s 2010 Constitution has also had profound consequences on how natural resources, including forests, are managed. Governance over natural resources is shared between the national and county-level governments.

The Constitution requires public participation in the management, protection, and conservation of forests. Consequently, various legislations such as the Forest Management and Conservation Act 2016 and the Climate Change Act 2016 target the process and engagement of local communities and minorities in environmental protection and monitoring, as well as benefit sharing.

There is no doubt that local communities have a big role to play in forest conservation. They are also better positioned because they have lived in the localities for centuries and developed sustainable methods of taking care of forests.

Even before the threat of climate change emerged, they had reason to conserve the forests because apart from firewood and timber, the forests have served as a source of food in the form of game meat, fruits, and honey. The communities also rely on the forests for medicinal herbs.

Philanthropists are increasingly recognizing the critical role of Indigenous people in addressing the interrelated crises of biodiversity loss and climate change.

Indeed, for Kenya, actors involved in forest conservation have a constitutional obligation to engage communities as the projects affect their livelihoods.

Rose Ng’ang’a is a Communications and Media Specialist specialising in impactful messaging. She comments on gender and climate change issues.

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