Nestled at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya sits the Chyulu Hills. This vast and rolling expanse of rangelands and woodlands, fabled as the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa,” is home to Kenya’s largest population of African elephants and the critically endangered black rhino.
But these storied hills are at risk. Overgrazing of grasslands, poaching and deforestation — especially for agriculture or charcoal production — have put increased pressure on the land, on wildlife and on people. The effects of climate change, such as frequent droughts and unpredictable weather patterns, are compounding these impacts.
To address these issues, Conservation International and partners are implementing a REDD+ initiativeJump to references1 alongside two government agencies, three local nonprofits and Maasai community members to protect nature and the climate . Local communities have full decision-making power over how the project’s carbon revenues are spent.
In the past, NGOs or other organizations have often come in and tried to tell communities what they need. This is different. The decision power sits with local stakeholders. They use the funding as they see fit. It creates an incentive to align everyone toward long-term goals and think strategically — not just for one year, but multiple years.
Project Manager, Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust
Theory of change
Given the drivers of deforestation across Chyulu Hills, protecting forests requires providing local people with alternative sources of income that preclude the need to clear more forest. In 2013, a local coalition (see below) convened to protect the region’s woodlands and grasslands through a large-scale forest protection (REDD+) project.
REDD+ projects make standing forests more valuable than cleared forests. The volume of carbon prevented from entering the atmosphere through forest conservation is calculated using historic deforestation rates. The project also uses participatory rural appraisal surveys to gather data on the local drivers of deforestation to further inform the rate calculations. From here, a corresponding volume of carbon credits can be sold on the voluntary carbon market to businesses and governments seeking to neutralize hard-to-abate emissions. This helps corporations meet their climate targets while offering alternative incomes to local people around the Chyulu Hills. Carbon revenues are returned to these communities to be invested in local infrastructure such as enabling sustainable charcoal production and emergency relief planning.
The Chyulu Hills project is strengthening landscape protection, supporting stricter environmental law enforcement and working with local people to improve livestock management. To date, this has included building new forest ranger stations, training rangers on biodiversity and conservation management, and purchasing new monitoring equipment.
When I was young, life was easy. The land provided for us. Now people have to migrate from one place to another in search of water. The pressure to make ends meet is immense, and the droughts are making it worse. When revenues started to produce tangible benefits that communities could see, that’s when it started clicking in people’s minds. People started believing in the project. They felt a sense of ownership over it.
Communications Officer, Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust
Mitigating global climate change
Forests like those in the Chyulu Hills are one of the best options for slowing climate change — if they are left standing. This project has conserved and restored more than 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) of land to date, ensuring that the region’s forests can continue to absorb global carbon emissions. The project also prevents more than 700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere every year following an 83 percent reduction in forest clearance. During the project’s lifespan, more than 5.1 million carbon credits have been registered so far.
The project also supports biodiversity. More than 11,000 tree seedlings have been planted across the project area in addition to the trees that have been saved from logging and land conversion.
To help protect the region’s large mammals — including African elephant and black rhino — carbon revenues have been used to develop a predator loss compensation scheme, employ a new cohort of forest rangers, build elephant-proof fencing and create roads and firebreaks to better manage wildfire.
The project has funded the salaries of seven new school teachers and invested in improvements to school buildings, toilet facilities and the water catchment. It has also provided scholarships to 2,190 children since 2019. To date, 150 children have had the entirety of their secondary schooling covered by carbon finance.
Chyulu Hills is committed to educating girls. Carbon finance has funded the distribution of more than 200 menstrual kits to help young women continue to attend school, as a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products is historically a major barrier to education for girls in Kenya.
Emergency relief and planning
So far, US$ 1.7 million of carbon revenue has been allocated to fire management, including the training of 348 fire rangers, the organization of community meetings on fire safety and even funding for a firefighting aircraft.
Carbon finance has also been used for disaster relief. During the drought of 2022, the Chyulu Hills project used carbon revenues to provide food to 24,000 students in 59 different schools in the western part of the project area.
Assurances in Chyulu Hills
The project has committed to regular audits and reviews to ensure it meets the highest standards. Operational data and project monitoring and analysis are gathered to demonstrate adherence to the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity (CCB) Standard.
The project area protects 400,000 hectares of land that would otherwise be vulnerable to land conversion and poaching. Not only does this project deliver significant climate mitigation, it provides local people with alternative livelihoods that would not have been available in the project’s absence.
Investments made in fire management training and equipment using the project’s carbon revenue helps to mitigate the risk of forest loss due to fire. To date, 348 forest rangers have been trained in firefighting. Such training and employment opportunities boost community buy-in.
The Chyulu Hills project also operates with a buffer pool of unissued credits. Of the 3.1 million credits registered in the most recent issuance (2017-2020), close to 10 percent of the gross amount was retained as a buffer in case of non-permanence.
Sustainable Development Goals
The Chyulu Hills project addresses the following goals (learn more about SDGs):
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.
Maasai leader and Chairman of Chyulu Hills Conservation Trust
- Bionic Planet produces three episodes on the Chyulu Hills Project (April 2023)
- PBS covers the Chyulu Hills in a series on the changing planet and reasons to be hopeful (April 2022)
- When COVID flattened tourism, carbon credits kept these African hills ‘green’ (April 2021)
- 3 reasons for hope in a crucial year for climate action (January 2020)
- Wilbur Mutua’s interview on the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust’s beekeeping program (May 2018)
Conservation at work in Chyulu Hills
Among southeast Kenya’s arid landscape, one verdant place stands out: the #ChyuluHills This vast expanse of green vegetation not only provides a habitat for some of Africa’s most iconic wildlife, but also acts as a critical water tower for nearby communities, livestock and wildlife. Over hundreds of years, the Maasai have forged a deep connection with the #ChyuluHills, and now they are working to protect and restore this vital landscape. Witness the collaborative work of communities and conservationists alike to ensure a healthy future for the Chyulu Hills in the newest film from National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Ami Vitale, Sprout Films, Dane Henry and Conservation International. The Chyulu Hills REDD+ project is owned and managed by locals. Help them stop deforestation of forests like Chyulu by buying carbon credits. Key to the success of the Chyulu Hills initiative is a strong collaboration of nine local groups that make-up the Chyulu Hills Conservation Trust: -Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust -Big Life Foundation -Sheldrick Wildlife Trust -Kenya Wildlife Service -Kenya Forest Service -Maasai Group Ranches: Kulu A, Kuku B, Rombo, Mbirikani
Kuku Group Ranch
Kuku A Group Ranch
Mbirikani Group Ranch
Rombo Group Ranch
Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust
Big Life Foundation
Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Kenya Wildlife Service
Kenya Forest Service
1 REDD+ is a mechanism developed by the United Nations that provides economic incentives to protect forests. Learn more about REDD+