This is the final installment 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 on Earth Day as he takes you on a truly "green" tour that might help you appreciate these issues. He 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 three of a series
Through a friend, I contacted officials of a local NGO, the Kenya Community Based Tourism Organization that lobbied for the interests of poor communities who owned land communally and had ventured into Kenya's emerging ecotourism sector. Taiko Lemayan and David Mombo – both officials of the tourism organization – had made a report that detailed, not the rosy picture often painted about ecotourism, but how it had been used to mask exploitation of communities after they set aside part of their immense ranches for wildlife conservation and leasing it to investors. I was keen to see the report, not simply because it was going against the grain, but also because it was feeding into what I already knew – that something was just not right about business dealings between poor communities and hard-nosed foreign and local investors.
And I was not disappointed. The report shattered – to a great extent – the notion that ecotourism is a win-win alternative to mass tourism, that it not only posed lucrative benefits for poor people but was also sensitive to fragile ecosystems while, at the same time, being supportive of the world's desire to conserve wildlife for generations to come.
The researchers had sampled six ecotourism concerns spread across Kenya and in which owners of community ranches (also called group ranches) had devoted between 10,000 acres and 25,000 acres of their land to wildlife conservation. This was the amount of land the communities had handed over to the investors for their exclusive use. This meant that the largely pastoral people had agreed not to graze their huge herds of livestock there or use it in any other way.
As the report pointed out, some of the investors were not paying a dime for this vast land because they had craftily drafted agreements that partly stipulated that the partners had agreed to operate the sanctuaries as not-for-profit outfits. An example is a conservation area located near the Kenya-Tanzanian Border from where one can see the gigantic spread of snow-capped Mt Kilimanjaro. Members of the group ranch had set aside about 12,500 acres of their nearly 200,000 acres for the exclusive use of a private company. But as the report revealed, the agreement the company had with the community did not cover the 12,500 acres devoted for wildlife conservation but only the 16 acres used in setting up the exclusive, high-end camp.
Armed with this information, I contacted the owner, who said that the project was 'genuinely beneficial' to the community and the environment. He also hailed the partnership he had with the community as 'a model' of how communities in arid areas can earn an income from conservation. Information posted on his company's Website at the time showed that it cost between $670 and $865 for a two-night stay there depending on the season. Other reports show that the company had been paying the community $5,300 each year for the lease of 40 acres of the land on which the camp is located, and an additional $500 and $1,200 against the entire amount of gate fees and bed charges paid by tourists annually. The agreement runs for 15 years.
In many such a scenarios, all that local communities hoped to get was the cash generated as annual rent for the few acres that formed the compounds of the tourist resorts. In some cases, the communities also got a certain percentage of the revenue generated annually from selling bed-nights to tourists. The communities did not have a way of determining this and relied on the investor to be forthright and truthful.
Blow by blow, the report continued to paint a gloomy picture of the reality of ecotourism. Interestingly, it stated that some of the legal agreements are fashioned in such a way as to make it almost impossible for communities to disengage from them even when the deals go sour. Examples are areas near the Kenyan coast where communities had accused an investor of not sufficiently marketing the conservancies, but remained entangled in the partnership and could not disengage.
The study also offered evidence that in cases where conservancies are run exclusively by private investors, they have ended up offering ”minimal activities,” which translates into minimal benefits for local communities. As to whether ecotourism concerns create meaningful employment for local communities, the report said that the six sampled facilities employ between 12 and 50 local people each which constituted between 0.2% to 7.3% of populations in the various group ranches. Furthermore, most of those employed worked as untrained hands to perform such tasks as providing security for animals and tourists or to do menial tasks around the camps.
It was also evident that through acts of commission and omission, lawyers as well as representatives of respected environmental organizations, UN bodies, wildlife conservation organizations, and even national wildlife management corporations, had played a role, by either brokering such lopsided pacts or ensuring that they are upheld. Although some may have been driven by a genuine desire to halt the degeneration of key ecosystems in Kenya and elsewhere, they had nevertheless gone ahead to broker agreements that gave communities less lucrative deals that did not specify how liabilities ought to be shared out between the investor and communities.
As a result, there has risen disagreements on who ought to shoulder the responsibility of compensating tourists who get injured or killed by wild animals. Here, the example of a British tourist who was seriously injured by an elephant while jogging in a wildlife sanctuary comes to mind. The sanctuary was set up as a joint venture between local people and the owner of a ranch located near Mt Kenya. When the matter went before a Kenyan court, there was a dispute between the business partners as to who needed to shoulder the responsibility of paying the $1.5 million awarded to the tourist by the court.
Much of what happens in Kenya escapes the attention of a world fascinated by the virtues of ecotourism, in general, and particularly international tourists, who form the main clientele of such facilities. This is mainly because the owners of the tourist camps aggressively market them in flowery, attractive travel literature, which in a way, camouflages the actual situation.
These are difficult stories to report. My story, published in the EastAfrican in 2007, resulted in a lot of outcry and pressure on my editors. But I stood my ground. And now, I would like to invite Seattle residents to give their opinions on ecotourism. If you've participated in tours billed as "green" or helping the local economy or communities, what has been your perception? Do you think they are beneficial, or as beneficial as they could be? If you have not participated in this form of travel, would you consider doing so? Is ecotourism better than international travel without regard to ecological impact? Please give us your thoughts?