In Kenya’s storied hills, traditional ways confront a modern problem: climate change

© Charlie Shoemaker

Editor’s note: In July 2017, Conservation International (CI) launched its Carbon Footprint Calculator, a tool to calculate your carbon footprint and reduce it by purchasing what’s called an “offset.” One beneficiary of these offsets is a forest-protection project in Kenya’s Chyulu Hills, home to 140,000 indigenous people and an incredibly effective carbon sink. The project will prevent an estimated 18 million tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted over the next 30 years.

Overlooking the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro across the border in Tanzania, the Chyulu Hills emerge between Kenya’s Tsavo and Amboseli national parks — and were said to be part of the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa.” Savanna grassland and acacia woodlands dominate the low-lying areas as far as the eye can see, contrasting starkly with the lush green cloud forest atop the hills.

In this arid landscape, the numerous springs and rivers of the Chyulu Hills stem from a unique cloud forest that acts as a critical water tower for nearby communities, livestock and wildlife.

The Chyulu Hills are an integral part of Kenya’s largest conservation landscape that provides critical habitat for many of Africa’s most iconic species, including endangered rhinos and elephants.

In addition, the area is home both to Maasai pastoralists — sheep, goat and cattle farmers — and Kamba agriculturalists, who have utilized the land for hundreds of years.

Despite its critical importance, the forest is being degraded and destroyed by agricultural encroachment, the practice of charcoal burning (carbonizing wood in a charcoal pile or kiln) and forest fires, among other threats.

A recently verified REDD+ project could help keep the vital forest intact. Short for “Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation” — the “+” stands for additional features including the role of conservation and sustainable forest management — REDD+ provides financial incentives for communities, regions and countries to keep forests intact, preventing carbon emissions caused by deforestation.

“The Chyulu Hills Conservation Trust — a unique coalition of partners including two government agencies, three local NGOs and four Maasai community members — will oversee the flagship Chyulu Hills REDD+ project that will compensate communities for keeping the forests standing,” says Christina Ender, regional climate change advisor in Africa. The project recently completed its first verification in accordance with the Verified Carbon Standard and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard.

“The Maasai communities strongly support this project and it is an important opportunity to further clearly demonstrate building our local economy based on protecting the natural environment, living sustainably, and maintaining our cultural link to the land while promising a better future for generations to come,” said Samason Parashina, Maasai leader and Chairman of Chyulu Hills Conservation Trust.

The revenue generated from the sale of carbon credits, available for sale to corporations and individuals via CI’s Carbon Footprint Calculator, will help reduce deforestation and protect forests and natural resources. It will also support employment of forest or game rangers, safeguard the Chyulu Hills water catchment and provide communities with improved social services in health and education, employment and business opportunities.

For instance, revenue generated from the carbon credit sales within the first year helped the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust hire 24 new community rangers to protect wildlife and mitigate illegal activities.

"When I was a young boy, I turned to poaching and other illegal activities as a way to support my family," said community ranger Justice Munyao. "Years later, because of the REDD+ project, I am proud to join the team of rangers and provide them with knowledge as an ex-poacher to help protect the landscape and its wildlife from other poachers. I am able to provide for my family and keep our home safe.”

Calculate your carbon footprint — and offset your emissions — here.

Cassandra Kane is the communications manager for CI’s Conservation Finance Division.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.