Development Challenges

Loita Hills forest, on the Southwestern boundary of the Maasai Mara Reserve

Loita Hills forest, on the Southwestern boundary of the Maasai Mara Reserve

Nathaniel Robinson has worked with Africa Exchange on many occasions over the past 12 years. From 2009 - 2010 he served as the Development Initiatives Coordinator for Africa Exchange. Since then, he has worked in the Maasai Mara, focusing his attention on the complex dynamics between conservation and development. Currently he is completing his PhD at the University of Montana in Forestry and Conservation Sciences. In January, Africa Exchange funded his trip to Kenya where he worked with a few of Africa Exchange’s partners.

Three years is a long time to be away from a place that was once home, especially a place like Kenya. Kenya is changing incredibly fast. An average economic growth rate of more than 5% over the past 10 years is reflected across the landscape. Roads and railways are being built and expanded. Towns across the country are bursting with new development. Agriculture is expanding into places we once thought couldn’t be farmed. The technology revolution is alive and well across Kenya. In the most remote places, you can find people checking Facebook on their smart phones. You can tweet from the middle of the Mara. By many metrics, Kenya is becoming a development success story. The middle class is growing. Life expectancy is increasing. Illiteracy is decreasing. Businesses are thriving. In just three years, some areas of Nairobi, a place I called home for over 20 years, are unrecognizable, filled in with swanky malls and high rise apartment complexes and new super highways. There is no doubt that for many people across Kenya life is improving.

Had I not left for three years, the changes may not have felt so dramatic, they may have felt more gradual, or may have even gone unnoticed. In this way, leaving for a time can be a gift. It brings a different perspective to places undergoing rapid change. The contrast between memories of the past and perceptions of the present illuminates what is being gained and what is being lost. This perspective is crucial as what is being lost is often overshadowed by the measurable metrics of progress. The losses are often harder to see, more nuanced, difficult to measure, and tend to affect vulnerable (human and non-human) populations the most.

Travelling from Nairobi to the Maasai, this pattern is clear. Expansion of towns, settlements, and agricultural is having tremendous consequences. Marginalized people lose access to key resources. Wildlife lose critical habitat, and migration routes are cut off. Like the American West, the landscape is rapidly filling up with fences, as individuals attempt to protect their small pieces of land. One recent study shows that the land area fenced across the Mara ecosystem has increased by 20% since 2010. Another recent study estimates that wildlife populations have declined on average by 68% since 1977.  History has shown us this before. The western United States was once home to some of the largest populations of animals. Up to 60 million Bison roamed across North America before European settlement. By 1900 there were little more than 10,000 of these creatures left. Luckily, through many conservation efforts and initiatives, Bison were not lost completely, and populations have recovered (slightly) over the past 100 years. But there may never again be large herds of free roaming Bison across the North America. This is a seemingly inevitable cost of development.

But this does not have to be the cost of development. And this is key to the vision of Africa Exchange, with many of their partners working across Kenya. It recognizes that the practices and ideas that can transform our paradigms of development, that integrate the well-being of people with the long-term well-being of the environment, not only exist today but are often rooted in the deep cultural heritage of people groups across Kenya. It recognizes that we from the West, may have substantial resources to offer, (e.g. capital & technology), but that we have as much, if not more to learn.

I hope that my trip to Kenya in January reflected this vision. Through a small workshop at the Maa Trust in the Maasai Mara, I shared my PhD work, focused on developing new tools for monitoring and managing ecosystem conservation across broad scales. At the same time, I came away with renewed insight as to how these tools can be put to better use, to support the work of organizations and people on the ground. I came away with renewed energy, believing that the negative consequences of development are not inevitable, but can be minimized, stopped and reversed. But it all starts with a mutual exchange of respect, ideas, skills, and understanding. This mutual exchange is the essence of Africa Exchange’s involvement in Kenya.