Caring for the environment and for people

Natural Resources

by Stanley Baya.

The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in Kenya is what remains of an East African coastal forest which used to extend from Somalia to Mozambique. It is now only 40km long and needs urgent international protection. It holds many plants, animals and birds, like the wonderfully named Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew, which are at risk of dying out. It is a very beautiful place. Within its shrinking boundaries there is an almost unimaginable diversity of life. If the forest disappeared, a whole treasure-house of species would disappear too. This fragment of remaining coastal forest is truly important.

Since the Kenyan branch of the conservation organisation A Rocha started in 1998, the team has included local people who work alongside volunteers and visitors from wealthier places. Together they began to look for solutions to prevent the destruction of the forest by local people for their livelihoods. They found that experts said different things. Some said that it was more important to protect the environment, and others said it was more important to help local people out of poverty. This suggested a conflict between the environment and the people. However, A Rocha studies were showing that the forest was closely related to the well-being of the creek that supported local fishing, the local climate that was essential to the crops being grown and the soils on which the planting was done.

After a long process of consultation, the team finally began to understand why the forest was being destroyed. Drawing on the hard-won trust of their local friends, they learnt that most of the wood was being cut to fund secondary school fees. Everyone knew that education was the only way for any family to find its way out of poverty. Only one out of ten children who gained the necessary grades was able to continue from free primary schooling to secondary education because of secondary school fees.

To satisfy the urgent needs of the people and the forest, in 2001 the A Rocha team began a programme called ASSETS – the Arabuko-Sokoke Schools and Eco-Tourism Scheme. The idea was simple. The programme trained local guides to work with the hotels in nearby Watamu so that tourists could visit the forest for a small fee. The United Nations Development Programme and other agencies provided start-up funds for a tree-hide and a spectacular walkway out through the mangroves at Mida Creek. Through this project the forest and the creek has become the basis for a business providing sustainable income. Tourists enjoy seeing such amazing places and the money they spend is directed to providing secondary school fees for local children.

Now two hundred children are in secondary school and an extensive re-forestry and education programme is going on in many of the villages around the forest. People have understood that Mida Creek needs the secure rainwater supply from the forest to survive. The creek’s mangrove fringes, once cut for wood, are now secure as nurseries for the fish species on which local people depend for their protein.

In their minds, and now in ours, it all holds together in the way that God intended. At first it is difficult to see the connection between school fees and the survival of the Sokoke Scops Owl, but we now understand that human prosperity goes hand in hand with the well-being of the wider creation.

Stanley Baya, Co-ordinator
Arabuko-Sokoke Schools and Ecotourism Scheme
PO Box 383
Watamu, 80202

This story is also told in Kingfisher’s Fire: A story of hope for God’s world by Peter Harris.

A Rocha is an international conservation organisation working to show God’s love for all creation. A Rocha currently has conservation projects in 19 countries around the world.