This is the second of a three-part series on how social and economic interactions between people in the developing world and those in the developed world creates serious implications for fragile ecosystems. We invite you to join Kenyan journalist John Mbaria, who has experienced first hand the struggles of many in Africa who face the consequences of an increasingly warming earth, the destruction of many life-sustaining ecosystems and the failure of political systems and institutions to plan for the consequences of these forces. Mbaria is a trained land use planner and a journalist who previously worked as the environment correspondent with The EastAfrican, a regional weekly read in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. He recently moved to Seattle from Kenya and is a contributing writer to InvestigateWest.
Part two of a three-part series
In my many travels across Kenya, I found enough justification to explode the myth that ecotourism – as practiced there and elsewhere in Africa- is responsible, respectful travel, that is also enabling the poor to bake real bread as well as helping to keep communities happy who communally own the land,.
Before I went out to cover the story, my attention had been drawn to several agreements made between investors and such communities over the last couple of decades. I had made powerful bonds with people like Sammy ole Mpeti, a persistent and courageous Maasai man who had engaged in an incessant struggle for the rights of his people to own and benefit from the tourism business generated from the Siana Group Ranch (located outside the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve). Sammy's efforts recently yielded fruits when – together with other local people, he managed to register a community-owned tourism business and to put up a tourist camp. I had also befriended Richard Koiyet, Andrew ole Nangurai, Daniel ole Leturesh and Meitamei Oldapash – all who had carried the Maasai people's aspirations under the banner of Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition (which is also registered in the U.S.). After the many visits we made together to communities living in and outside Maasai Mara, I became acutely aware of the lopsided nature of the tourism business that had now assumed the ecotourism banner. This was between early 2001 and mid-2002.
Much of the ecotourism occurring in Kenya is taking place on the lands of the Maasai people in southern Kenya. This is primarily because the Maasai have maintained their traditional way of life, which preserved the land and the animals that live on it. The land is rich in wildlife because the Maasai did not kill or eat wild animals, only cattle, sheep and goats. Investors now reallize that this land, still with traditional villages and huge tracts of wildnerness, is what tourists want to see when they visit Africa.
I visited dozens of exclusive, high-end tourist resorts, tented camps and other facilities in Kenya. Most were stashed in the middle of the wilderness and were so creatively laid out that they blended perfectly well with the environment. I had driven, flown and walked into these areas in the company of their proud owners. Occasionally, I found myself flanked by nervous, mid-level managers eager to chip in whenever their employers gave them the right signal. I had listened to numerous stories of the many community projects that some of the proprietors had funded -from the “generosity of my heart,”,as many were eager to point out. These were feel-good stories of the millions spent on community water projects, cattle dips, nursery schools, police stations and so on. This photo shows a water project dug by investors for a community. (Photo by John Mbaria)
But as one rosy picture after another was narrated, one question (which I often failed to ask) lingered in my mind; why did these guys feel so obliged to “donate” projects to people they were in business with? Something, my mind started telling me, didn't add up. But I couldn't figure it out, then.
As I came to learn then, treating oneself to a slice of the exclusive wilderness in Kenya is an expensive, but immensely enjoyable affair. Those lucky enough to tour there are bound to interact with the “big five”– lions, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and leopards — at close quarters. You are bound to spend time out in the middle of nowhere being serenaded by sweet melodies of exotic birds or put to sleep by repetitious howls of hyenas, occasional trumpeting of excited elephants or grunts from hundreds of gnus. But the costs are – to most locals – quite prohibitive –spending a night in the midst of such rare company costs as much as $800 a night.
That the ecotourism concerns generate big cash from selling such services as accommodation, meals, game drives or curios might be an understatement.
Ideally, such income is supposed to be split proportionally between the communal owners of the land and the investors. Indeed, were such an ideal situation formula were to be upheld, it would essentially mean that the community would — before signing any agreement — engage the services of a land valuer to assess the value of the resource at hand; seek out experts to do bio-audits and come up with a money value of the wilderness — its fresh air, sparkling clear water flowing along the streams and the ambiance that goes with setting up a business in such paradise. This would also have meant, comparing this immense value with the investor's investment capital – which in most cases ranged from $70,000 to $150,000. Apparently, what investors had pumped into the agreement was nowhere near the value of the 10,000 acres 25,000 acres of the undisturbed wilderness that relevant communities in Kenya have devoted for the exclusive use of the investors.
But as I dug deeper into the story, I came across casual and serious evidence of how lopsided the cost-benefit system in ecotourism is in Kenya. Initially though, I lacked well-grounded research – carried out in a scientific manner – that I could hang on to. To me, this was important because many of those who owned the ecotourism resorts in Kenya were either powerful or had powerful connections and were likely to create quite a stink, in the event that I published a story that might injure the reputation of their businesses.
The big breakthrough came in late 2007.
(Read the final installment in this series on Monday.)