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Elias Kimaru: working with communities to conserve Kwale County

As part of this year’s Handshake, we will once again be working with WWF Kenya, this time as a dedicated project which will explore the organisation’s work in greater detail, providing digital media support to many aspects of it. We will be collaborating closely with Elias Kimaru, the project executant, who has been working with WWF Kenya in Kwale since 2005.  Here, Elias explains how he came to work protecting habitats and livelihoods in this incredibly diverse region, and gives a taster of the kind of things the Handshake staff and volunteers will experience this year.

Elias showing the Kenya 2012 volunteers around a tree nursery in Kwale

Elias showing the Kenya 2012 volunteers around a tree nursery in Kwale

Elias’ role entails coordinating WWF-supported work in the Kwale and Kilifi Counties of Kenya’s Coastal region.  This includes working closely with elders from the kaya, or sacred forests; local communities; nature-based enterprises; government agencies and the private sector.  In addition, he carries out activities to build the capacity of civil society organisations so that they can effectively engage with other stakeholders on natural resource management and other aspects of conservation.

Through meetings with government and private sector officials and local communities, Elias offers technical advice regarding planning and developing strategies for sustainable livelihood interventions and developing management plans for forests areas.  He also works to mobilise communities to ensure policies and development plans adhere to best environmental practice, and that biodiversity losses do not occur due to poor planning and development priorities.

Lima self-help group, one of the communities with which Elias works

Lima self-help group, one of the communities with which Elias works

Elias grew up in a rural area of Kenya where the local administrator was very strict on good land management practices.  Farmers in the area were encouraged to improve farming methods by making terraces and planting trees, and even at that young age Elias could see the difference between farmers who improved their land and those who did not; it was evident from the poverty levels in the villages alone.

Further inspiration came in later years from Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement.  Elias remembers a quote that illustrated her passion for defending the environment:

“The danger with our leaders is that they are blind..they cannot see the link between environmental degradation and poverty...it should be embarrassing to our generation that we inherited such a wonderful country from our ‘illiterate’ forefathers who were able to hand over to us a wonderful land full of forests, wood lots, clear water, fertile  valleys for cultivation…yet, in our turn and in spite of our ability…to apply advanced technology, we have been unable to protect the land from the elements so that we too hand over to the next generation with as much pride and confidence” .

These words provoked Elias to do something in his own small way to ensure the country moved forward in environmental protection.  Kwale County is one of the poorest in the Kenya, despite being one of the richest in natural resources, and he felt there must be a missing link somewhere for this situation to have arisen.  Much like Professor Maathai, Elias attributes the problems in Kwale to “…the blindness of our leaders, who even today cannot see the direct link between poor governance in natural resource management and the poverty that is so much affecting our people.”

Working with communities and being able to see gradual but significant improvements to their lives and livelihood makes Elias proud to carry out his role.   “…that someone who could not feed his or her family, educate their children or have two meals a day, is today able to do so, and yet not have degraded the ecosystem.”

The area in which Elias works is a global biodiversity hotspot, where not only do unique and often threatened species exist, but habitats also have direct connection to human livelihoods.  The services provided by these habitats are able to sustain millions of people; the Shimba Hills ecosystem, for example, is home to more than 1500 different species, including species of global significance, and the forests act as a watershed that feeds the city of Mombasa, thousands of communities downstream, mining industries and large-scale sugar plantations.

A view of Shimba Hills Forest Reserve

A view of Shimba Hills Forest Reserve

What can ordinary people do to help protect vital environments like this?
“We need a lot of awareness-raising for our people, we need to develop long term strategies and interventions, we need to influence our leaders to change their attitude. Everyone has a role to play, either by talking about the issues in different forums, providing funds to support our work, or influencing our leaders to pass relevant policies and laws that will guard against the misuse of our natural resources.  It’s our sacred duty to protect and conserve these habitats so that our children, when they look back, will say we are proud for our fathers deeds.”

With this in mind, the Handshake’s work in Kwale this September will document and promote the tireless efforts of Elias, his team and the numerous communities in the county, hoping to inspire others to support Kwale, or their own small bit of the world, in any way they can.


To be part of this year’s expedition, check out http://www.primatehandshake.org/expeditions/projects-kenya-2013/.

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