in Kenya

A question for African Wildlife Foundation: “Is this what conservation is really about?”

African Wildlife FoundationIn November 2011, African Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy gave an area of land covering 6,920 hectares to the Kenyan government to create the proposed Laikipia National Park. What African Wildlife Foundation doesn’t tell us in its press release is that people were violently evicted to make way for this conservation project.

A Channel 4 Documentary broadcast in June 2011 documents the violence behind the creation of this national park. AWF and TNC paid US$2 million each to buy the land from Kenya’s former president Daniel arap Moi. The Samburu indigenous people, who lived in the area, have been subjected to a series of brutal evictions.

Watch the programme here:

The Samburu told Channel 4 journalist Oliver Steeds that the AWF were using the police forces to evict people. Police beat people, took their property, burnt villages, raped women and murdered people. Standing at the site of a recently burnt out village Steeds asks,

“Extraordinary to think what is happening in the name of conservation at the moment. To make way for a park for AWF, an international conservation organisation, with money given to them by people like you and me. Is this what conservation is really about?”

Steeds interviewed AWF’s president Helen Gichohi, at the organisation’s headquarters in Nairobi. The African Wildlife Foundation was founded in the US, 50 years ago. It has annual revenues of more than US$20 million. AWF’s mission is to work “together with the people of Africa … to ensure the wildlife and wild lands of Africa will endure forever”. On the programme, the interview went as follows:

Steeds: Whilst we were up in Laikipia, we stumbled across an issue around Eland Downs, which is President Moi’s farm, which he’s selling to AWF, and there have been some brutal evictions there to make way for AWF conservation area. Is this really something that a conservation organisation should be involved in?

Gichohi: One, it’s nice to correct that information. We committed to buying a land that was, that had no one, that had the prospects for conservation. Our understanding is that that is not the case. So what we have done is gone to the owner and said you the owner said there was no one on this land. AWF would like its money back.

Steeds: So you cancelled your purchase?

Gichohi: We tried to get our money back. That’s what we want to do. We would like to cancel the purchase. So we are waiting to get our money back so we can cancel the purchase.

Steeds: When did you do this?

Gichohi: Well we’ve written letters. I’ve got a whole file of it.

Steeds: I hope that’s the case, because these evictions have been going on for a number of years now. And there have been documented cases of beatings, theft, rape, brutality by the police and murder. All to make way for a conservation area for AWF. Don’t you feel you’re somewhat culpable?

Gichohi: AWF is not culpable. AWF is not responsible.

Steeds: We’ve even been given a photograph of an 18 year old man called Kinny Lemoyak who was murdered by police, by Kenyan police on that land to make way for your conservation park. Are you aware of the murders which have taken place?

Gichohi: No we are not.

Steeds: You are not aware?

Gichohi: Not responsible.

Steeds: You are not aware of the murders that are going on?

Gichohi: We are not. And if you do not mind I would like us to stop this line of questioning on Eland Downs.

Steeds: We are here to discuss …

Gichohi: I’d like you to switch it off and then we can talk about this.

AWF made no public announcement about cancelling the purchase. The evictions continued. Survival International reports that, “2,000 Samburu families now live in makeshift squats on the edge of the land and 1,000 others have been forced to relocate entirely.”

Of course, none of these people were mentioned in the press release about the ceremony in November 2011, when the land was handed over to the government of Kenya. But the statement from AWF’s President, Helen Gichohi, confirms AWF’s active role in creating the proposed national park:

“Securing the land for a future Laikipia National Park demonstrates the African Wildlife Foundation’s approach to conservation. We targeted an area with significant ecological potential that was under severe threat and worked diligently with our partners, both governmental and otherwise, to secure it.

On 7 December 2011, Survival International wrote to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (pdf file, 75 kB) about the “grave situation that now confronts the Samburu” in the Eland Downs area. In the letter, Survival notes that the police continues to harass the community. Despite heavy rains and flooding in the area women and children are sleeping in the bush, “for fear of police attacks.” The Samburu have taken out a court case against AWF and former President Moi. The next court hearing takes place today.

Three days before Survival sent its letter, AWF’s president was in Durban, having been invited to give a keynote speech at CIFOR’s Forest Day event. On CIFOR’s blog about her speech, CIFOR describes Gichohi as a “leading conservationist”, who says that “REDD needs to move quickly as forest degradation decimates Africa’s wildlife”. Gichohi spoke about REDD. No surpises, she’s in favour of a REDD carbon trading mechanism:

“For REDD to work we need to bring down the transaction costs of getting the carbon to market. We need to design ways of sharing carbon incomes fairly and equitably, particularly those who bear the opportunity costs of foregone forest uses.”

Obviously, it slipped her mind to mention AWF’s role in the creation of the Laikipia National Park. Or the brutal evictions of 3,000 Samburu families from Eland Downs. Or the time when a journalist showed her photographs of two of the people murdered to make way for AWF’s conservation.

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  1. Donations should cease until such time as there is a Commission of Inquiry into the Eland Downs issue. But this highlights the conservation land grab across Africa. AWF stood back in Zambia while a major part of the Mosi oa Tunya National Park in Zambia was alienated, and have set up questionable CBNRM projects elsewhere, projects that alienated customary land to leasehold – even though it was to the community. And they have lifted not a finger on the assault by mining companies on the Lower Zambezi. And we have the recent Millenium Challenge Corporation’s attempt to take over the Kafue National Park and allow the customary commons on its borders to be alienated to investors. Then we have African Parks and their questionable ‘business model’ in Zambia and the Congo Republic – which you covered recently. And recently the USAID report : CBNRM stocktaking assessment in Zambia, merely gives the official Lord Haw Haw position, covering up massive human rights abuses on villagers and diminishing wildlife stocks. The public is being conned.

  2. An article in the Guardian yesterday includes the following responses from AWF and TNC:

    John Butler, director of marketing for the AWF, said: “The African Wildlife Foundation does not condone violence. AWF has a longstanding history of working closely with local communities to ensure that conservation solutions benefit both people and wildlife. Unfortunately, we cannot comment at length on this issue due to a pending court case in Kenya.”

    Blythe Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Nature Conservancy, said: “The conflict over natural resources across Africa is a serious issue. Everywhere we work in Africa, we’re working with local communities to address natural resource issues. We’re closely monitoring this situation; unfortunately we can’t comment at length due to a pending court case in Kenya.”

  3. Why do you focus only on AWF, and leave out Nature Conservancy?

  4. @Alejandro – Good question. In my defence, I didn’t entirely leave out The Nature Conservancy – TNC’s involvement is mentioned in the first sentence. This article focusses on AWF because Oliver Steeds’ documentary for Channel 4 also focusses on AWF. I thought it was worth highlighting the hypocrisy of the head of AWF, Helen Gichohi. She was aware of the violence at Eland Downs at least since the interview with Steeds. Yet the violence continued and Gichohi seems to have made up a story about AWF pulling out, rather than attempting to address the problem.

    But you’re right – there is another story to be told about the US$2 million that The Nature Conservancy paid to buy the Eland Downs land. It’s funny that both AWF and TNC told the Guardian that they “can’t comment at length due to a pending court case in Kenya”, but the court case didn’t stop them putting out quite a long press release a month ago (when the court case was already running).

  5. I find it interesting that the article and the documentary focus overwhelmingly on the culpability of AWF and to some degree the TNC in human rights violations. Why hasn’t more culpability been directed towards the government or the Kenyan Wildlife Services, or the police that are directly responsible for the evictions? I am not suggesting that no fault lies with the NGO’s but I think that the critique of this issue should be a but more nuanced.