In a macabre murder on Thursday, unknown assassins took the life of Kiambu resident Joannah Stutchbury. International media headlines currently lead with the death of this environmental defender. Who was she, why did she die and who could have sent the killers?
Three years ago, this column anonymously captured Joannah’s single-handed show-down with private developers in Kiambu forest. The iconic photo of the woman sitting in an excavator bucket to stop them dredging the wetlands has now gone global. Her direct action caught the eye of the Kenyan Forestry Services and the attempt was stopped. Visiting her home in the wake of her killing, this wetlands area remains secure and serene. Monkeys, birds, giant bamboo, and water lilies populate the former environmental crime scene.
Her action was not only local. Gitathiru, one of five perennial tributaries of the Nairobi river, is located here. These tributaries form the Nairobi Water Basin and are critical source of fresh water for the Thwake Dam, 200 kilometres away in Kitui.
Joannah was not your typical activist. Born into a white Kenyan family, she left school early and worked her way up to KTN Head of Programmes in the nineties. Without a formal botany degree, she nurtured a deep passion and proficiency in all the trees, shrubs, and animals on her eight-acre property and across Kiambu forest and wetlands. Through her company, she promoted permaculture and organic farming across schools and communities. Just how did an environmental crime scene turn into her murder scene in three years?
212 people were killed across the world for defending their homes and their environment in 2020 according to Global Witness. That is, four defenders every day. 212 is the highest recorded number of deaths in a single year since they started documenting. While Columbia and Philippines are responsible for 50 per cent of the cases, Murang’a land defender Esther Mwikali is among them.
Private greed, corruption and misgovernance drive the worst abuses. Nature, the primary victim of environmental crimes, doesn’t speak in ways most humans understand. They need people like shujaa Stutchbury to speak for them. Not enough citizens care and when they do, they don’t produce hard data for effective intelligence and compliance. Community forestry associations are often under financed and occasionally captured by elite interests. Inadequate penalties become operating costs for destructive entrepreneurs who easily dart between agencies with envelopes.
Now that that criminal investigators have collected the crime scene evidence, criminal profiling must establish who had motive enough to kill her. All leads must be followed including the threats she received and spoke about to her friends. Any citizens who have information and actionable intelligence must come forward. Can State House and Environment Ministry review and revoke all controversial titles and consider a posthumous commendation for her this year?
We must demand her family does not experience the trauma families of Robert Kiprotich (2018), Esmond Martins (2019) and Esther Mwikali (2020) and others currently feel. We must not allow justice to remain elusive or environmental impunity in Kenya to take a step towards the lawlessness seen in Columbia and Philippines.
To Joannah Stutchbury’s family and friends, poleni but be proud. Like many now, I wish I knew her better. Prof Wangari Maathai receive and welcome shujaa Joannah well. She kept the faith and bravely protected our constitution and environment.
Rest in Power Joannah.
This opinion was also published on Sunday Standard, 11 July 2021