OPINION: This should be the new normal when protecting our natural capital

By Major (Rtd) Steve Leakono

Sun Tzu, one of the greatest military strategists and a renowned philosopher said that the greatest victory is that which requires no battle.

He profoundly put it that the supreme excellence is breaking the resistance without fighting. Borrowing from Tzu’s strategy, protecting and conserving our natural resources is a battle that calls for, a focused plan to achieve a sustainable future which supports humanity and nature.

That plan should not encompass the use of force, abuse of human rights and disenfranchising communities whose only crime is calling home a biodiverse rich ecosystem.

The resources that the government of Kenya and other stakeholders in the conservation sector currently use for enforcement, especially in our gazetted crucial natural resource endowered ecosystems like forests, national parks and reserves could be halved and reallocated to enhance conservation sector dependent-livelihoods, only if forest, mineral, wildlife rich areas and indigenous communities are included in the management of these resources and further empowered to investigate, document and report cases of destruction and illegal trade of natural recourses like wildlife.

Why spend millions of shillings in deploying armed paramilitary and disciplined forces to protect and monitor what communities understand and have the details of every inch of the land mass, the wild animals, plants and all the wonders of nature in the conservation area at their fingertips. Majority of these groups have coexisted with wildlife sustainably within and around very unique and fragile biodiverse ecological environments for decades.

Where then is the disconnect? They say the decisions that human beings make may have a positive or negative influence on our wellbeing. Who makes these decisions? Are the communities who bear the brunt of brutal security measures imposed on them as well as the degradation of the only place they call home and, in some cases, even denied access or evicted in the name of securing what they have not destroyed or planned to destroy?

As government and community led conservancies cut down on their security personnel in various parts of the country, due to the Covid-19 pandemic precautions, tourism dependent businesses are now unsustainable, due to the economic impact of the pandemic’s travel restrictions and precautions imposed by governments across the world to control the spread of the virus.

Kenya’s largely nature-based tourism sector is at the brink of collapse. It is now clear that community led security systems, coupled with indigenous knowledge and contemporary innovations, is what Kenya and other nature reliant economies across Africa and beyond need.

With a strong integrated wildlife management approach which assimilates community integrated wildlife security systems, our only worry during the coronavirus crisis would be the economic losses which I believe the sector and my country will bounce back, but once a species is wiped out due to exploitation, illegal wildlife trade and poaching aggravated by the reduction of rangers, community scouts and other security personnel, during the health emergency, there will be no reversing the human induced destruction. Extinction is forever, it is irreversible.

The importance of ecosystem services and biodiversity for the full enjoyment of human rights is recognized world over so are the rights and the crucial contribution of indigenous people in protecting environmental assets. But the rights of those who call home such areas of interest continue to be infringed.

The same way decisions humans make with regard to biodiversity ultimately affect our wellbeing, security decisions and interventions in such areas also affect the very natural wealth we all strive to conserve and the life as communities know it – the very fabric of their existence, sometimes leading to unprecedented deaths, suffering, human rights violations and loss of property.

As the biodiversity week comes to a close, it would be prejudicial to us, future generations and nature if we don’t ask this crucial question, does the International Day for Biodiversity theme ‘ Our Solutions are in Nature’ apply or will apply when formulating and implementing policies to boost wildlife security and other natural resources?

The people and communities who live in these unique biodiverse regions across Kenya are ‘part of nature’ and a great security resource. They are actually assets that the government should channel resources into to augment their capacity and utilization of their extensive indigenous knowledge and solutions to today’s environmental challenges.

This will ensure that they play a critical role in protecting Kenya’s key income earners sectors which are entirely dependent on nature, like tourism and agriculture, but what defines our identity socially and culturally.

The security of our natural capital cannot be guaranteed by the number of boots on the ground, or electric and other security fences around forest and game parks but by the ability of security forces to inculcate the culture of cooperation and co-management while enhancing inclusion to increase the length of social fences, get community buy-in, improve monitoring and reporting, because when I see something and will say something if there is trust, value attached to it, opportunity, mutual respect, appreciation, and incentive in some cases. This will not only give such security personnel the social license to operate but the wildlife to coexist with communities due to its true value which is quantifiable and equitably distributed.

Forcing citizens to value wildlife is not a good strategy, citizens enjoying and reaping the benefits of wildlife will make them to willingly reciprocate by being ‘probono’ security personnel because they know without wildlife their livelihoods and future will be at risk.

It, therefore, becomes significantly important that the benefits are not only bankable for such groups but they are involved fully, and not just in paper or the participation of a section of the chosen few community members, in the management of such resources to guarantee inter and intra generational equity for sustainability and prosperity.

A synchronized purpose, an ultimate mission defined according to international, regional and national laws coupled with, public participation and the localisation of conservation security approaches should, consequently, be our new normal.

Major (Rtd) Steve Leakono, CSMP, PCI, is a risk and security expert.