New Internationalist

Profit from principle

Issue 352

Katy Salmon goes to East Africa’s largest indigenous coastal forest to find out what converted Kenyan farmers from forest vandalism to environmental activism.

All photos courtesy of the Kipepeo Project
Farmers hatching butterfly eggs - and an income - from the Arabuko-Sokoke forest in Kenya. All photos courtesy of the Kipepeo Project

The subsistence farmers complained that the forest brought nothing but suffering. At night animals came out from behind the trees and destroyed the farmers’ cassava, maize and cashew nut crops. ‘Elephants can eat and trample all your crops in one night. The baboons steal maize when it is growing. Then you have nothing to eat… or to sell,’ says Charo Ngambao.

Charo is talking about the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, the second most important in Africa, located some 80 kilometres north of Kenyan city of Mombasa. At one time this ancient coastal woodland stretched from Somalia to Mozambique. Now just 400 square kilometres remain.

Visitors from all over the world come to Arabuko-Sokoke to see some of the 230 kinds of birds that nest here, among them 6 globally threatened species. Here too live several unique plants and animals that are found nowhere else on earth – such as the Sokoke scops owl – and endangered species like the African elephant and the Sokoke bushy-tailed mongoose.

Yet 10 years ago the majority of local people like Charo living on the edge of the forest wanted it to be cut down and allocated to them as farmland. When he and others like him tried to supplement their meagre incomes by taking wood from the forest, they risked arrest and prosecution by local police.

Charo was jailed for illegal logging back in 1982. Kenyan prisons are a virtual death sentence. Malnourished inmates are locked into filthy, overcrowded cells where they sleep on the floor, often among their own waste. Fatalities are common. ‘I stayed in prison two weeks but then I paid the fine. I don’t want to go back there again,’ he recalls.

Today Charo no longer steals timber. Instead he works with the forest to create butterflies and butterfly eggs. When the eggs hatch into caterpillars he looks after them, feeding them on forest leaves until they pupate. The pupae are then exported to butterfly houses in Europe and the United States, before the butterflies emerge.

His work forms part of a project that conservationists developed in 1993 to persuade locals that it was in their interests to preserve the forest. Called the Kipepeo Project (Kipepeo means butterfly in the local Kiswahili language) farmers like Ngambao make in a good week about US$20 from selling the pupae, compared to 25 cents before the project started. He now has money to send his seven children to school and pay for medical treatment. And with loans from Kipepeo, his family has also been able to set up two other businesses. ‘We have opened a kiosk and my wife also is tailoring with a machine we got from the Kipepeo project.’

The majority of butterfly farmers are women. Looking after the caterpillars is a job that they can fit in between their many other domestic chores. Florance Riziki, a mother of six, lives with her fifteen family members in two mud houses on the edge of the forest. Cats and dogs run around the compound playing with the children while the women sit in the shade of a tree preparing beans for lunch. They are largely self-sufficient. Chickens and cows provide meat and milk and a vegetable patch provides greens, maize and tomatoes.

However – like Charo – Florance and her family barely had access to the cash economy before the Kipepeo project started, so paying for school fees and medical bills was a real problem. Now, with the money they earn from Kipepeo, they are keen guardians of the forest that grows beside them.

We are trying to conserve it by looking at who is the enemy, who is going to cut timber. Then we tell him to change, maybe to start rearing butterflies instead of cutting the trees,’ says Florance’s husband, Matano Unda.

Charo Ngumbao agrees. ‘We get rain from the forest. It brings clouds from the sea to the place where we live. So we educate others to know the benefit of the forest. We need them to join us,’ he says.

But not everyone is happy. There simply isn’t a big enough overseas market for butterflies for everyone to join the Kipepeo project. Those left out attack the butterfly farmers – sometimes physically – for sabotaging their efforts to get the forest cleared and given out as farmland.

For politicians this tension provides an emotive electioneering tool. ‘Some politicians tell the community to refuse to do butterfly farming because the money is not enough,’ explains Ngumbao. ‘They say they will go to President Moi and get permission to divide the forest and then people will get title deeds and take them to the bank and get loans. But that is not true. They have been promising that for 10 years. And the sandy soil is not good for farming,’ he says.

Land-hungry squatters have invaded the forest several times. In 1997 – Kenya’s last election year – a prolonged campaign to have 5,000 acres excised nearly succeeded. The Kipepeo farmers were at the forefront of the battle to save the forest, along with tourism industry stakeholders and environmentalists.

Another election is scheduled to take place this month and the Kipepeo farmers fear the issue of land could once again be used to garner votes. Last year the Kenyan government decided to excise 167,000 acres of forest land, ostensibly to give it to landless squatters. But many observers believe the plots will end up in the hands of politically connected government supporters.

Despite the ongoing tensions Kipepeo’s manager, Washington Ayiemba, believes the project has been a great success.

Since 1993, local communities have earned Ksh10 million ($128,200) from the Kipepeo project. In terms of big business, the profits are quite small. But in terms of driving the conservation agenda, it’s been a showcase where communities have been able to participate and the programme has been able to sustain itself, breaking even after about four years,’ he says.

Initially, we had only 150 recruits. But now we have over 1,000 people each year who want to participate and we have to limit them to 700 because of the market problems,’ he says.

Butterflies take flight in certain seasons. In addition, only people living within five kilometres of the forest are allowed to join the project now. So the Kipepeo Project is looking into other ways in which the forest can benefit local communities. Bee-keeping started in 1999. The hope is that the honey it will produce – a future export currently only sold to nearby hotels – will provide a further sweetener to those who now seek to destroy the forest.

Katy Salmon is a freelance journalist living in Nairobi.

Invest in partnership

Put ‘sustainable development 2002’ into a web search engine and you’ll be swamped by World Earth Summit-speak from Johannesburg, South Africa, earlier this year. It’s not very helpful. But that’s not really surprising. Because the very qualities that bring people together with their environment – such as genuine commitments to protect both human rights and fragile eco-systems – were so notably absent from the Summit.

The Kipepeo project is about finding mutual value: value that has just as much to do with principles as profit. People are being valued through recognition that the forest can’t be protected at the expense of local livelihoods. The forest is being valued as people discover how its habitat could work for rather than against them. Once valued in this way, people and their environment can work in harmony.

There are many examples of these principles in operation.

High up in the mountains around Baltistan in Northern Pakistan there lives an endangered species of snow leopard. It shares its environment with the farmers of the village of Skoyo: farmers in the poorest region of one of the poorest countries in the world. Local livestock – an essential source of income for the village people – sporadically falls prey to the snow leopards. So, seeing the snow leopard as a risk to their livelihoods, the farmers kill them. That is, until a 1998 insurance scheme came into being between the farmers and a private eco-tourism company running snow-leopard trekking expeditions. Both the farmers and the eco-tourism company contribute to the fund, which compensates local farmers for any loss of local livestock. And a proportion of profit from the treks goes into a separate fund to subsidize village activities or be shared amongst villagers. As a consequence, the protection of Pakistan’s snow leopards is being directly achieved by protecting the interests of locals.

Similarly the protection of Peru’s beautiful vicuña . The vicuña looks like a small long-necked deer and has until recently been protected by strict policies on reserves specially ceded during the 1960s. The success of the policy was patchy, with negative growth being recorded during some periods. Surrounding communities complained that they have no control over the land that once belonged to them, nor benefits from it. So the management of the vicuña has been handed back to the locals. Between 1994 and 1998, the vicuña population increased on average by over 17-per-cent each year. The local communities are now exporting between 2,000 and 3,000 kilos of vicuña wool annually: the finest and most expensive animal fibre in the world brings its farmers between $300 and $350 per kilo.

These examples turn their backs on extreme conservation alternatives like locking people out of sensitive environmental areas. They recognize that intertwining livelihoods with environment will provide protection for each. They show us how people can be slowly but surely reconciled with their environment... provided the shrill from talk-fests like the Earth Summit don’t get in their way.

Chris Richards

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