Balancing Infrastructure Development with Conservation in Kenya

On a really, really bad day in Kenya, you might be attacked by a lion.
A tragedy only rivaled by your bank -along with everything you’ve worked hard for- going into receivership.
A plausible explanation for the unnervingly frequent instances of lions escaping from the Nairobi National Park, including one that ended tragically for the iconic Mohawk, is the disturbance occasioned on wildlife habitats by the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). While the SGR has been on the radar for encroaching on the park, the recent human-wildlife conflict is proof of what else, besides the obvious loss of biodiversity, can happen when projects interact significantly with natural resources. It also raises an issue that will persist as Kenya pursues the ambitions outlined in Vision 2030: How can Kenya best balance infrastructure development with conservation?
The consolation is that this is a familiar challenge for developing economies as governments strive to deliver critical infrastructure for expanding populations. The good news is that pursuing economic growth need not cause net losses to ecosystems, and that success is achieved by valuing natural capital, rigorous project planning, effective public participation, and with the support of solid institutions and regulatory frameworks.

When mainstreaming conservation into infrastructure development, the best departure point is to value the services both infrastructure and nature provide to economies. Else, consensus between seemingly idealistic conservationists, and, the also seemingly callous policymakers, remains elusive. Infrastructure investments catalyze economic growth by facilitating movement of goods and people, bolstering trade and competitiveness, and expanding productivity, and are thus easy to value. Improved infrastructure accounts for 30% growth in developing economies, and, the SGR is estimated to contribute 1.5% to Kenya’s GDP once complete.

On the contrary, despite evidence that natural capital contributes circa $145 Trillion annually to the global economy, valuing ecosystem services is complex because markets are used to consuming nature for ‘free’. Valuing natural capital enables policymakers to consider more balanced, conservation-friendly approaches of pursuing growth. The business case for Nairobi Park is a no-brainer: it is a major revenue earner upon which many livelihoods, and the economy depend. Secondly, valuing natural capital ensures that citizens, taking cues from their governments, engage with natural resources responsibly, which benefits economies, and reduces catastrophic human-natural capital conflicts.

Obama’s sentiments on his visit to Kenya, that “If people see a false choice between their livelihoods and conserving animals, the animals will lose”, hold true whenever citizens interact with natural resources. Whether in regard to deforestation, poaching, herding in the parks, or a railway in the park, citizens must never feel that conservation stands in the way of their livelihoods. The government can ensure this through conservation awareness, and, more importantly, by delivering policy promises to citizens to ensure conservation is never perceived as a ‘false choice’.

If people see a false choice between their livelihoods and conserving animals, the animals will lose”
President Barack Obama,
Global Entrepreneurship Summit, 2015

Balanced infrastructure projects move beyond financial feasibility to integrate conservation safeguards in their design and operation in order to avoid, minimize, or mitigate potential negative impacts. This depends on the rigor with which state ministries and agencies conduct Environmental Impact Assessments and Audits (EIA/EA), and the commitment with which regulatory institutions enforce compliance. National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), the regulator sitting semi-autonomously under the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, enforces compliance through the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA). Unfortunately, despite the EMCA’s robustness, NEMA’s shortcomings in enforcing compliance by contractors, ministries, state agencies, and businesses persistently cause harm to communities and ecosystems.
Substantive public participation; a constitutional right and a mandatory component in the conduct of EIA, augments institutional capacity for rigor by enabling policymakers to leverage the unique knowledge and perspectives of various stakeholders. However, it is only effective when complex project information is distilled into relatable concepts for citizens; and when well-informed citizens engage substantively, at the right time.
Poor public participation is invariably inefficient and costly as governments spending resources on ongoing projects, will be opposed by stakeholders engaging at the wrong time, often armed with insufficient information. In the ongoing tussle re-route the SGR, citizens pushing for an alternative that will cost taxpayers an extra Ksh 70 Billion, and disrupt 46.7 hectares of animal habitats, are unaware that the initial route disrupts 15 hectares of the park.
For governments seeking to deliver their mandates more efficiently, while opening up to public scrutiny seems counter-intuitive, it grants social license to operate, and ensures projects proceed without excessive delay or opposition.
More perilously, public participation failure erodes a nation’s morale, governments lose public trust, and citizens who do not perceive the value of their petitions, and #SaveNairobiPark and JusticeForMohawk hashtags, digress into apathy as perfectly embodied by the #AcceptAndMoveOn hashtag.
Like with most of Kenya’s challenges, balancing development with conservation rests firmly on good governance, and citizen participation. Good governance, integrity, and respect for the law, define how leaders and institutions govern and protect natural resources. For citizens, at national or county levels, understanding all projects, engaging at the right time, and showing up every time your country needs you, is still the most effective way of keeping government on the straight and narrow.
These are lofty ideals; but they can be achieved in our lifetime.

A version of this post appeared on the Daily Nation on 27/04/2016:

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