• Irũngũ Houghton

Protect Environmental activists

A photo of a woman crouched in the bucket arm of an industrial excavator dramatically caught my eye last week. The woman climbed into the huge yellow excavator coincidentally on #WorldWetlandsDay to stop an attempt to illegally encroach on a Kiambu wetland. I had just stumbled on an environmental crime scene.

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Familiar whatsapp group discussions followed. Shock was expressed and questions were asked. Elizabeth Nzani-Wachira promptly declared she would be by the whistleblower’s side in a couple of hours and she did. Three days later, Peter Kinyua and the Kenya Forest Services team arrested and arraigned two persons in a Kiambu court and impounded their low-loader and excavator.📷


Kenya’s 27 rivers, 16 lakes and coastal mangroves constitute our wetlands. Without them, the careful ecological balance between water, soil, vegetation, humanity and animals is cooked. The current drought and food insecurity is directly connected to how we are managing this gift from nature. It is also the reason why my and and some of your taps have been dry for six days straight now.


Within this context, it is amazing that crimes against the environment are now the world’s fourth largest criminal enterprise. Only drug, counterfeit and human trafficking beats it. Environmental crimes or ecocide as the experts prefer to call it, ranks higher than the sales of illegal arms. There were 2,335 cases of natural resource based conflicts across the world last year. Four lives were lost each week in the struggle against this trade. This number has gone up four-fold since 2002. To avoid being one of these statistics, Kenyan Phyllis Omido and her team of environmental defenders briefly went into hiding last year.


Our history is littered with stories of corporate and community encroachment of our wetlands from Yala swamp, Kwale mangroves to Nairobi’s Kileleshwa Dik Dik gardens and elsewhere. Developers have built mansions, commercial blocks, malls and estates on riparian reserves and then watched helplessly as mother-nature floods their properties. Others have built septic tanks or emptied their sewage and garbage into neighboring rivers and streams. This ushenzi is the reason why 72-year-old Nairobi dam is no longer a source of drinking water for Nairobi residents.


Our history is also colored with stories of citizen’s actions to protect their environment. Professor Wangari Maathai is probably our best known eco-warrior, but she is not the only one. In 2017, the United Nations took steps to recognize and hold Member States like Kenya accountable for the empowerment and protection of environmental defenders.


The model is a simple one. Update laws and enforcement systems, actively avail information on companies and agreements and strengthen Government capacities to settle disputes between communities and investors. Insist on environmental impact assessments and promptly investigate and act when whistles are blown. Deliberately nurture, protect and build the capacity of forest dwelling and indigenous communities like the Sengwer and Ogiek to defend our forests, lakes and rivers.


Too many of our state officers still see environmental activists as trouble-makers, disruptors or even a necessary nuisance. Before Parliament this week, incoming Environment and Forestry Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko listed an increased conviction rate for wildlife crimes as one of his achievements. Courageous ivory investigator Esmond Bradley Martin was murdered in the same week that Tobiko spoke. Martin and others directly contributed to the achievement cited by Tobiko.


If Tobiko passes parliamentary and public vetting, he owes it to the late Martin to raise and protect a community of environmental whistle-blowers and defenders. The scale of the challenge is beyond our Goevrnment agencies. Much more also needs to be done in our counties to domesticate and enforce national conservation policies and laws.

The Green Belt Movement turns forty this year. It is one our oldest public benefits organisation or NGO. They and others like the Friends of Lake Turkana, Greenpeace Kenya, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Kenya Forestry Group are committed to protecting our forests, rivers and lakes. They cannot do this without our voice, action and membership.


My take home from the woman who sat in the excavator bucket? The next time a wetlands warrior acts, reach out and help, you might both win. Alternatively, keep buying imported vegetables and water from the cartels while the country gets drier and more conflictual. Cape Town just dried up, any of our county capitals could be next. We have to #choosepowerfully and make protecting our wetlands and forest cover personal. This is a precondition for the survival of Kenya.

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First published Sunday Standard, February 11, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

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