By Jim Bliesner
Editors note: Jim Bliesner spent the last month traveling through Africa. This post from the road is about a trip from Nairobi to the Lale’enok research camp near the Tanzania border.
You drive for four hours, South out of Nairobi on a two lane rutted road that spirals down into the South Rift Valley. By the time you reach the bottom of the winding decline and into the Valley floor the “city” has receded into the background and plains stretch into the clouds in all directions. Black sprinkles of cattle tended by figures robed in bright reds and blues break the landscape.
Periodically the car stops while cattle are walked across the road to greener pastures. Now and then a speed bump slows the journey and we are introduced to local vendors selling vegetables, fruits, bright colored candies, tourist trinkets, mementoes of the culture and geography.
We arrive at Olorgesaile the sight of a regional meeting of Maasai landowners assembled to discuss their collective future at the First Annual Maasai Cultural Heritage Festival. The Maasai tribe dominates the geography in the South Rift Valley and is organized into the South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO) headed by John Kamanga.
The movement percolated through the African Conservation Center, a Kenyan national non-profit dedicated to “saving African biodiversity through sound science, local initiative and good governance”.
After the meetings the journey continues south. We mount a 1983 Land Cruiser that rides like a half track military vehicle. Two Maasai elders climb in the back seat splendid in their robes and ornaments. Peadar Brehony is the driver and staff (Information and Science Systems Coordinator) to SORALO’s Borderland Conservation Initiative. We will drive another two hours south to Magadi to the Lale’enok camp owned by a Maasai women’s collective (Oplirajmatiaon Maasai Womens Group).
Thirty minutes into the ride, down a winding incline and stretching across the entire landscape is Lake Magadi; a black smoke stack pumps grey smoke into the sky on its eastern shore. We approach a gate and enter the property of the Tata Chemical Corporation of India. They own the entire lake and tens of thousands of acres of land around it.
The British bought it from local tribesman maybe a hundred years ago and recently sold it to the Tata, an international conglomerate. It is a salt and soda ash factory. We approach the increasingly dank town center, factory worker housing stretches off to the left, four stories high, one after the other.
A slight rain is falling and the black ground is slippery. We stop at a gas station and a grocery warehouse, people coming and going, chatting, eating chips and drinking Coke. Nostrils burn, from an acrid cloud brought down by the slight drizzle made grey.
In time we reenter the vehicle with two people now on the roof, an additional woman and small child in the back seat. The Land Cruiser does not bounce as much. I pull my camera out to shoot the bleak environment and Peadar cautions against it; “I don’t think they want you photographing the factory”. The immediate landscape has turned from black to crusty white salt flats. It looks like dirty snow and stretches for miles in every direction
The water is sucked in, removed of its salt and ash then pumped back into the lake streaming past us like thick plastic sheets of vinyl. A pump rigged with a vertical chute spews black ash 100 feet off the roadside. Flamingo’s used to nest here but they haven’t returned in over fifty years.
They died or were saved and removed when the new born baby’s legs were encrusted in salt and couldn’t fly. The landscape is denuded, not a tree in sight, no fishing piers or cottages around this lake.
We hasten down the road, eventfully drop the Maasai grandfather and baby off, the woman is continuing south to visit relatives and recuperating from cancer, she says to Peadar who speaks fluent Swahili and translates. He’s Irish (speaks Irish too) and was born in Tanzania to parents who work for international aid and development organizations. They still live in Tanzania which is just South across the border from Kenya.
We arrive at the camp and unload into tents. Peadar, aged 24, does many things at the research camp. He goes out at night to track lions using telemetry. The movements are also recorded via satellite GPS and registered on GIS maps showing their movement over time. He manages the data systems that maintain these records and communicates with community members about the lion’s movement. He works as part of a team that includes Guy Western (Coordinator of Rebuilding the Pride) who runs the lion research and surveys it from graduate school in Oxford and Samantha Russell the SORALO Research and Education Coordinator.
The camp also serves as the hub for the Borderland Conservation Initiative which includes SORALO as well as other Maasai groups, government agencies and numerous conservation trusts to draw a line around over 60,000 acres (almost twice the size of San Diego County) to save it from development and preserve the wildlife and biodiversity.
According to Peadar “The area covers most of Southern Kenya and a large part of Northern Tanzania and would probably be one of the largest reservations in the world. The Kenya-Tanzania borderlands region supports some of the richest wildlife populations on earth through a network of national parks and reserves, as well as the pastoral lands that connect them. Conservation of the borderlands region is critical to the long-term viability of both elephant and lion meta populations.
However, there are many challenges to conservation in these areas. Pastoralists, eager to secure formal titles to ward off land grabbers, are rapidly carving up the areas around and between parks. The wave of subdivision is hastening the loss of wildlife and the isolation of parks (Brockington, 2002; Thomson and Homewood, 2002). Additionally, the illegal slaughter of wildlife has recently escalated in northern Tanzania. Although wildlife protection agencies in Tanzania and Kenya have reacted to this threat in protected areas, most of the community lands in this region have had little or no protection.”
The area abuts the salt and ash factory and provides a dramatic contrast between saving the land for ecological uses or exploiting the natural resources for industrial uses. The focus is on building community capacity and knowledge about alternatives to selling the land to development and exploitation of mineral resources. The work is largely done by young organizers who are aware of the global climate change phenomenon.
The research and activities of the camp include young Maasai community members who express an interest in cap and trade investments and reducing carbon emissions here on the equator. The scale and potential of this effort is unprecedented and unique because it is community based conservation that has tremendous economic development potential for the transnational border area. The link between eco tourism and maintaining healthy bio diversity has large potential as a cap and trade investment.
The potential to pursue cap and trade investments either from the United States or from Europe is unique but the base for doing that is being established by a community preservation strategy developed along the writings of David Western the Chairman of the African Conservation Center in Nairobi. It is a model that is applicable to an area the size of San Diego County as well.