Mangrove conservation: traditional wisdom often ignored
I spent a summer researching traditional conservation techniques utilized in mangrove forest areas along Lamu’s coastal area to fulfill my master’s degree inenvironmental science. As part of this work, I asked the mangrove harvesters to take me where they were currently working so I could take pictures to document my research. I was shocked by their reaction – the harvesters adamantly refused to allow my recording of the area. When I inquired as to why they refused, they told me a Swahili saying: ukiumwa nanyoka, ukitambawa na ungongo huruka—when one is bitten by a snake, one becomes sensitive even to the slightest touch of a thread.
After a long argument with them, they proceeded to tell the story about how the global nongovernmental conservation organization, WWF, had conducted itself in Lamu. They told me how WWF officers took a guided tour of all the areas in which the forest grows. During the tour, the WWF officers became interested in an area in which mangroves have never grown naturally. The harvesters explained to the WWF staff members how some places in the forest have soil qualities that are incompatible with forest growth and they showed the WWF staff similar places as their interest grew. Little did the harvesters know that the WWF was going to use this information against them.
Based largely on this tour, WWF published its Kenya report for 1999-2001 and on its first page they wrote that mangroves were overexploited in Lamu. They pleaded with the government of Kenya to act immediately to save the remaining forests. The government, which had already passed laws limiting mangrove exportation, subsequently enforced a complete ban on harvesting mangroves. Even breaking a leaf was a criminal offense.
The government policy did not take into consideration the effects that the regulations would have on the community. It is a fact, for example, that all of Lamu’s old buildings are cyclically repaired with new mangrove wood, that the economy of the district is partly dependent on mangrove trade, and that the health of the forest itself is dependent on harvesting old trees.
The Lamu case represents one in many where an international organization’s findings are the basis for imposing policy on developing nations and their indigenous people in the name of biodiversity conservation. The Lamu communities had perfected a sustainable utilization system of their primary natural resource, but policies implemented by the government and international bodies to fulfill conservation goals have led to the communities’ dispossession of natural resources, and thus a dislocation of livelihoods. And in this case, the documented information was based on false testimony.
Lamu’s Social and Ecological Context
The Lamu district’s inhabited islands and adjacent mainland are estimated to encompass 70% of Kenya’s total mangrove forest cover, which is approximately 50,000-60,000 ha.
The mangrove forests, which grow in river deltas where fresh water meets the sea, serve a variety of purposes for the Lamu people. The forest shelters the archipelago from harsh sea waves, supplies nutrients to fish and crustaceans, and controls water quality. The tree trunks, called mangrove poles, are used for building houses, dhows (sailing boats), and fencing; the bark is used for leather tanning; the dead parts are used as charcoal; the young leaves are used to make a common side dish; the seeds are made into medicine; and the flowers promote local honey production. Lamu people’s culture and architectural skills are centered on these trees.
For over three decades, the Kenya government has put mangrove forests under protection, due to their degradation through detrimental human utilization such as salt and aquaculture farming and charcoal making, by banning the exportation of mangrove products. Recently, a restoration program for mangrove forests was initiated south of Lamu due to the dwindling supply of building materials caused by clearing for aquaculture and salt farming. Then, in September 2001, the government slapped a blanket ban on any form of forest harvesting.
UNESCO and WWF Involvement
Lamu has one marine park called Kiunga National Marine Reserve
(KNMR) and a national reserve called Dodori. The Kiunga National Marine Reserve and Dodori Nature Reserve were designated as Biosphere Reserves in 1980 by UNESCO, as a product of UNESCO’s initiative for “conserving nature,” which was accepted by the government of Kenya. Since the Kenyan government is poor, UNESCO contributed beyond simply maintenance costs by proposing in the late 1990s that a world conservationist “expert” from WWF be in charge of management. The plan was attractive to a poor government with little financial means.
In 1999, WWF established its East African Eco-Region in Kenya. The organization was charged to work with the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), the national agency responsible for reserves. Today, the current power structure leading to forest management relies mostly on government officers’ reports to the forest headquarters in Nairobi, and the Eco-Region conservation report from WWF (KWS inclusive).
Reserves’ Impact on Local People
The people that I interviewed in the area all opposed the existence of the Kiunga and Dodori National Reserves and the involvement of WWF.
They complained that the existence of the national reserve in Lamu has disrupted their whole socio-economy. Traditionally, the local people divided the sea area into zones. The fishermen knew their fishery zones; the farmers planned their jetties for the transport of goods, and the mangrove cutters had their harvesting zones. But, according to the traditional knowledge of the area, the national reserves fall in the fertile agricultural lands, the fisheries’ nutrient beds, and the healthy mangrove forest swamp, all of which were part of local peoples’ utilization schemes.
They perceived that WWF’s management had set these areas off-limits to their traditional uses. The indigenous peoples who are most directly affected by the reserves are the Wandau mangrove harvesters, Bajuni fishermen and farmers, and Waboni hunters and gatherers. These people have considerable knowledge of the medicinal and nutritional properties of many plants and trees.
Indigenous peoples were relocated to areas outside the reserve when the reserves were designated and were encouraged to undertake agricultural practices. It is believed there are only 500 Waboni left, most of these in the three villages along the Kiunga-Lamu road: Milimani, Mangai, and Basuba.
Although the government, WWF, and KWS have tried to alleviate the problems the reserve has caused to these indigenous groups through various programs, local people are not happy with the management. They say that they are denied the benefit of using their land for agriculture,mangrove harvesting, and fishing, and that very little of the levies collected from tourism go back to them.
Politics and the Harvesting Bans
The conflict between UNESCO’s and WWF’s interest in conservation and the locals’ interest in forest-based livelihoods created a management system that wavered between bans and reinstatements of the forest harvest between the 1970s and today. The issue became more complicated when political parties, the government, and the local people politicized it. After WWF’s quick survey of the forest in 1999, the government supported WWF’s idea of a complete ban in order to be in good rapport with international interests concerned with global environmental issues. However, at the same time, the votes of the
Lamu people, who wanted the ban lifted, mattered to the government.
This dual affiliation led to the series of bans and lifts. Harvesting was banned over fear of overexploitation, yet the reason for lifting the ban is less about people changing their patterns of mangrove cutting than about local people pressuring for reinstatement of harvesting.
This becomes clear when we see that, throughout the 1970s to 1990s, the Kenya government did not have a reliable inventory of the forest. This changed with WWF’s quick 1999 survey.
The issue was obviously significant and politically delicate, as it involved, on the one hand, Lamu people’s environmental, social, and economic conditions, and, on the other hand, the international conservation community’s vision—and their financial assistance to the Kenya government. The government needed to balance between the two.
Lamu citizens used all means in their hands (national media, memorandums, politicians, and votes) to press the government to make a decision in their favour.
During the political campaigns in 2002, the opposition party NARC promised to lift the ban immediately if they came to power. Partly as a consequence of this promise, NARC won the national elections in December 2002.
WWF, seeing that it caused troubles in Lamu after the complete ban, joined hands with the government’s agencies, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and the KWS, to conduct another survey of the mangrove forest adjacent to the Marine Reserve. The government did not have enough funds to do the survey, and thus asked for support from German, Norwegian, and UNESCO programs. The results affirmed that sustainable harvesting is possible in the area. Mangrove Forest Research specialists, J.G. Kairo and B. Kivyatu, concede that “given its high potential productivity and regeneration, mangrove forests within and adjacent to KMNR have excellent prospects for sustainable exploitation.”
After this report, WWF openly supported a lift on the ban. They were then in the daily papers with other pressure groups in Lamu trying to persuade the new government to lift the ban. In September 2003, about a year after the newly elected NARC government was formed, the ban was lifted.
Pressure from all sides helped to lift the ban. However, the actions of the WWF, which caused the complete ban, increased suspicion in Lamu people towards government agendas. It caused people to ask the government questions about their relevance as citizens. The citizens’ anger towards the government was due to the exclusion of local people from decisions concerning their own areas’ management issues while including foreigners who do not know the land.
WWF initially did not pay enough attention to the people’s and the forest’s history and context – social, political, and ecological – in the mangrove area. In this case, the organization acknowledged that they had been wrong and changed their course. However, we must ask: if the people in Lamu had not been organized and mobilized enough to protect their interests, what would have happened?
This case is not an uncommon occurrence, and it is part of a larger problem in conservation projects. I cannot put the blame solely on WWF for the problems encountered in the management of the Lamu forest. While WWF is partly accountable, the deeper issue is a system where the politics and agendas of resource-rich, cash-poor countries like Kenya intersect with the large budgets and priorities of international institutions and conservation groups. In the collision and negotiation of these interests, it is the local people who too often continue to lose out