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Elephants in the Masai Mara

The Greening (and Greenwashing) of Kenya's Tourism EcoForum, Short Rains, 1999 By Ralph Johnstone

"Kenya is set to lead the world in community based tourism. There have been similar experiments in Central America, but this is the first time anywhere in the world that rural communities are being fully empowered to conserve land." British Newspaper, October 1996

"The camp has become a model of environmental economy, with energy-saving devices and special lighting to minimise its impact on wildlife, visits to local villages and donations to a community fund." Kenyan Newspaper, July 1996

"Before construction began, an extensive environmental impact study was undertaken to weigh the development's effect on the indigenous human and animal populations . . . From the outset, the lodge's operations were designed to have a minimal environmental impact." Corporate brochure, August 1998

Reading the published word about Kenya's tourism industry over the past two or three years, one could be forgiven for thinking that everything was coming up roses. Not only was the indisputable king of safari still firmly on his throne; the arrival of ecotourism had ensured that he would never be deposed.

Today, of course, we know just how royally we have been deceived. According to recent statistics, Kenya has just dropped to sixth position in Africa's international tourist arrivals. Despite the glowing reports that spring up between the carjackings and the cattle thefts, we are left wondering just where we went wrong. The glowing reports may make us feel good, but they clearly mask a few fundamental falsehoods.

Consider the above statements. Not one of them is completely true. This is not to say that they are all evil lies--just conveniently stretched truths.

In the current economic environment, it's not surprising that we need to stretch the truth. After all, the tour operators need to get their oft-quoted 'bums on seats', the hoteliers heads on beds, new lodges signatures on contracts. And to do so, they all need to portray Kenya as a clean, green, flourishing destination. This is not as difficult as it sounds. With the local wilderness still outwardly pristine and green organisations too fragmented or cash-strapped to check the validity of everyone's claims, to 'greenwash' the facts is still a relatively safe form of lying.

But I can't accuse anyone of lying myself. After all, I wrote the above statements.

My intentions, I must categorically state, were at the time entirely pure. I want nothing more than for Kenya to win back its throne. In order to do this, stretched truths--be they glossy descriptions or grand hyperbole--occasionally seem necessary.

The truth with ecotourism is, after all, very subjective. One only has to consider the radically different definitions of the term to realise that nothing in this field is yet sacred. Purists define ecotourism as tourism that actually improves the environment; but by this measure, surely very few qualify. Simpler folk define it as 'natural tourism'; in which case, anyone with a square foot of grass and a fruit salad is in. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.

The concept of ecotourism--which will almost certainly be the central buzzword of the 21st century's largest industry--relies on minimising tourism's impact on its surroundings. This refers not only to its very obvious--and often potentially fatal--impact on the natural environment, but also by extension to that on the human environment--encouraging their local communities to conserve their wild surroundings, respecting and promoting their culture, educating visitors about the value and fragility of their land.

With such fundamental values--not to mention such earth-shattering implications at stake, the value of ecotourism cannot be underestimated. This is no longer a catchy slogan or a public relations bandwagon for every hotel and lodge to hitch a ride on; it strikes at the very survival of our entire natural world. One thing is for certain: we must all stop the lies.

Beneath the green veneer

In her comprehensive new book, Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? (see page 45), American Academic Martha Honey argues that the responsibility of ecotourism operators stretches far beyond their physical impact on the land.

She argues that 'real ecotourism' must involve seven vital and interrelated characteristics: travel to nature destinations; minimising negative environmental impact; building environmental awareness; direct financial benefits for conservation; financial benefits and empowerment for local people; the respect of local culture; and the support of human rights and democracy.

Honey documents some blatant examples of what she calls 'ecotourism lite'--the self-serving adoption of the facade of ecotourism--and, even worse, the greenwashing carried out by unscrupulous hoteliers, greedy tour operators, and the odd well-intentioned brochure writer. "Much of what is marketed as ecotourism amounts to only ecotourism lite, which offers tidbits of nature or minor environmental reforms such as not changing sheets every day or, worse, 'greenwashing' scams that use environmentally friendly images but follow none of the principles and practices of sound ecotourism," she says.

Honey gives an 'ecotourism scorecard' to each of seven developing countries with well-established tourism industries. Tanzania and Zanzibar get mixed reviews; Kenya scores lowest of them all. This is hardly surprising given the much-documented destruction of the Maasai Mara and Amboseli ecosystems, and the greed and corruption that have killed off so many good intentions in this country. But, put in historical perspective, it begs some important questions. For as Honey points out, Kenya could--and should--have been a global model for the ecotourism industry. With its groundbreaking experiments in community conservation, the pioneering of ecotourism practices in its parks, innovative deals between the government and local authorities, and huge donor funding, Kenya had all the ingredients for getting it right. In fact, Honey exposes (if it has not been exposed a hundred times before) a litany of political shenanigans and ill-informed decisions that make Kenya the classic example of 'getting it wrong.'

Silver Linings

That being said, there are a few shining examples that cast a brighter light amid all the gloom--Olonana Cultural Centre, the Kimana Group Ranch, Il Ngwesi in Laikipia--although Honey lambasts the exclusivity of Laikipia's white-owned farms, which she sees as using ecotourism as a front to protect their ill-gained possessions. This is the one area in which Honey has perhaps not done sufficient homework. For certainly at Il Ngwesi and, more recently, at Namunyak in the Mathews Mountains--both started with strong support from white-owned Lewa Downs--local communities are already seeing substantial returns from the tourism operations on their land.

There is one other silver lining to Honey's damning indictment: the clutch of promising, apparently honourable ecotourism initiatives that have begun since her book went to press. The recent launch of the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust on 75,000 acres of prime wilderness in the southern Mathews Mountains has shown how quickly attitudes among traditional African communities towards their environment and its wild inhabitants can change--not just through the acquisition of immediate cash, but through long-term prospects of employment and prosperity. In the Mathews, until so recently one of the ivory poachers' most savage killing fields, there are now trained scouts, radio links with neighbouring ranches, regular wildlife counts, a fledgling furniture business, a new road, two new schools, and a beautiful 10-bed camp. For the local Samburu, these are all signs of progress in an area that has until recently been completely cut off from the country's mainstream economy. As Michael Lenaimado, field coordinator of the Namunyak Trust, says: "Six years ago, the only sound we heard here at night were gunshots. Now we hear people laughing and drinking around a swimming pool. It's a completely different world."

The Real Thing

That same fundamental conversion--of atmosphere and attitudes--is underway in several other wilderness areas outside Kenya's traditional wildlife destinations. In Shompole, south of Lake Magadi in the Great Rift Valley, 150,000 acres is currently at the centre of a brave new partnership between the Shompole Group Ranch and a newly-formed company, ART of Ventures. ART founder Anthony Russell and the Shompole community have together formed a third company, Maa O'Leng ('Maasai in Depth'), which they call 'a partnership in community, conservation, and commerce'.

It's an impressive venture, and one that appears to embody the one factor that most people now agree will make or break the battle to save Africa's remaining wilderness--the local ownership and control of tourism revenue. On paper at least, Maa O'Leng is breaking away from the conventional concessions and lease agreements that form the basis of most ecotourism ventures on community reserves in Africa. Russell hopes the agreement will form a new 'template' that other group ranches in Kenya and Tanzania will be able to use; already he has the interest of several investors and, more importantly, Shompole's neighbours, who share the areas indigenous forest and migrating wildlife.

What makes Maa O'Leng a potential ecotourism pioneer is its focus on the long term; there is no greater indication of this farsightedness than the amount of time they have spent discussing the project. For the past two years, the local elders and ART have been laying the physical, financial and philosophical groundwork for their venture-seeking investment (the group ranch will invest a significant proportion of the start-up costs), training rangers, undertaking game counts, beefing up security and liaising with local officials and conservation groups. Says Helen Gichohi of the African Conservation Centre, which is supporting the project: "With the little effort already invested, we are already seeing more animals in the area--and fewer snares. With the community's involvement, the potential for tourism at Shompole is huge."

Of course, none of this would be so forward-thinking without environmentally friendly facilities. Plans have been drawn up for a first-class lodge comprising eight suites, straddling a panoramic spur beneath the Nguruman Escarpment. Water from a local spring (photo page 12) will be diverted through the open-plan suites, which will feature their own outdoor bathrooms and 'rock wallows'. Russell already has a considerable reputation for eco-friendly lodge construction, and everything will be built from local materials, sewage will be treated through a constructed wetland or eco-friendly tank system, all power will be provided by solar panels, and all landscaping designed with local plants.

With the Kenyan wildlife experience still largely restricted to game drives and rushed wildlife encounters, the emphasis at Shompole will be on a more sedate, unintrusive wilderness experience. Here, there'll be boat safaris, camel rides and (it is proposed) elephant-back safaris, fossil exploration, a salt spa, and a mobile camp that will enable the ranch to double its occupancy. As Russell bluntly puts it, "A 30-bed lodge is rarely eco-friendly." Nature walks will be conducted by highly-trained local guides, and a resource centre will exhibit historical artifacts and facets of modern Maasai life. As well as employment and a steady stream of revenue, the development will channel part of the profits into a trust fund that will finance an array of local initiatives, from piped water, roads and clinics to improved livestock practices, fast-growing tree nurseries, a fish farming industry and small-scale vegetable farming.

If this all sounds too perfect, there is one aspect of the plan that seems to signal a genuine break from the 'ecotourism lite' of the past. "The aim", says Russell, "is that the local Maasai will eventually buy the whole lodge out." With a few years of solid training and on-the-job business practice, there seems no reason why the famously astute Maasai will not be able to run such a venture. And Russell is giving them every assistance (he is currently translating his business plans into Maa). As he says, "The whole point is to give back the responsibility to the people as soon as possible."

Expanding reforms

At a time of plummeting hotel occupancies and stale safari itineraries, stories such as Namunyak and Maa O'Leng give considerable cause for hope. Fortunately, these model examples are being accompanied by an industry-wide reorganisation. Fuelled by two major grants from the European Commission-the first, of Kshs 140 million ($US 1.82 million), was released in September, while the second, a Kshs 980 million ($US 12.73 million) long-term endowment fund, was due to be agreed in October--the industry finally has some funds to rectify the lack of marketing that has let it slip against other African destinations. Marketing will be carried out through the newly restructured Kenya Tourism Board, with the key EC stipulation that it be free of government interference. The EC is also working on a programme of 'tourist reconversion' to diversify Kenya's attractions and boost its tarnished image abroad. A major element of this will, of course, involve ecotourism. As we went to press, Kenya's tour operators were rushing to put forward a fresh, secure face at the World Travel Market. The Tourism Board has been given a new lease of life through the chairmanship of Uhuru Kenyatta, the popular young patriot whose name is guaranteed to lend credibility to his difficult mission. There have also been some major developments in Kenya's tourism infrastructure, including the creation of a Professional Safari Guides Association, which promises to do a great deal to resuscitate the dwindling standards of the country's driver-guides.

Another very promising development is the recent launch of Eco-resorts, a company that proposes to introduce a rating system for measuring and monitoring the quality of Kenya's tourism experience--and for reducing opportunities for greenwashing. The system is the brainchild of Neel Inamdar, former hotelier and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) adviser, who says he is fed up with hearing and reading endless pledges to clean up the industry. His aim is to give visitors a medium for reporting their experiences, and to use this feedback to develop sound criteria for rating local operations. Although one imagines some of the lodges in the Maasai Mara balking at the prospect, Inamdar already has tacit support from the KWS and the Kenya Association of Tour Operators, and he hopes to get industry leaders to the table later this year to begin to draw up a list of criteria for his system.

The KWS, although still reeling from its most recent period as a political football, is finally replying to years of criticism about standards of accommodation and environmental responsibility in its parks. Acting Director Nehemiah Rotich says, "We are keeping our eyes open for new forms of tourism that provide no adverse environmental impact," and that all operators tendering for lodge and camp sites in the parks will now have their environmental records closely scrutinised. "We are developing a black book of past offenders who will not be allowed to be involved in any of our parks," he says.

All of this bodes well for a fast-growing travelling public that is clearly becoming more conscious of where it goes--and where its money goes. Says Inamdar, "In the US, the environmental record of a place has become a major factor in where people decide to stay." In fact, it has been for some time. According to a 1995 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, some 83 percent of travellers support 'green' travel companies and are willing to spend more for services and products designed to conserve the environment.

Getting it Wrong in the Mara

Nowhere in Kenya--probably nowhere in Africa--has the devastation of the environment by irresponsible tourism been brought into such stark focus as it has in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. And nowhere have the principles and values of ecotourism been so blatantly flouted in the avaricious carve-up of land and tourist dollars.

This was of course allowed to happen by the breakdown of an agreement that initially seemed to offer the best hope of returning the rewards of tourism to the true custodians of the land--the Maasai people. And were it not for the greed and short-sightedness of a handful of irresponsible leaders, the situation would doubtless not be as bad as it is today.

However, it is not solely the politicians that have let the environmental and social records of the Mara lodges slip so alarmingly. It is not only the politicians who are responsible for the garbage on the ground, the effluent in the Talek River, or the devastation of forests along its banks. As safari operator Tristan Voorspuy writes in the March 1999 issue of the East African Wild Life Society's Swara magazine, "Companies who advertise themselves as environmentally friendly and conservation minded perjure themselves every day in their search for fuel."

Forests are the most obvious victim of the rampant destruction of this fragile ecosystem. Despite the use of increasingly affordable solar heating and efficient insulated stoves, many of the larger lodges still defiantly use 200-litre wood-burning 'Tanganyika boilers' and light huge campfires every night for their guests. Despite promised inspections by district committees and grand plans for tree-planting and shared woodlots, the rape continues unabated. Studies carried out five years ago on the use of firewood in the Mara warned of impending disaster; several of the recommendations of an 'environmental meeting' held at Mara Simba Lodge last November were almost identical to those of a similar meeting held in 1993. As Nick Wood, director of Sekenani Camp, says, "When all is said and done, it's amazing how much more has been said than done."

Green alternatives

The real tragedy is that it is very easy to drastically cut firewood consumption. According to Wood, Sekenani has cut its use by 75 percent by switching to gas heating and using ploughshares to control the size of 'cosmetic fires'. Wood has also refined a cost-effective press for making fuel brickettes by soaking in water anything carbon-based--dead grass, leaves, used paper--which he plans to start marketing later this year.

One new technology that is finally catching on in Kenya is a groundbreaking invention by a local ecologist that is being touted as the country's first 'green charcoal'. Driven by the devastation of areas like the Mara, Elsen Karstad has developed a unique brickette using the dust from charcoal vendors' sites bound together with local clay. The ingredients are not as sparse as they might seem. According to Karstad, between 10 and 15 percent of all charcoal delivered to Nairobi is usually discarded as dust. By buying this dust directly from the vendors, he is currently producing three-and-a-half tonnes of brickettes each day for sale to local restaurants, hotels and chicken farmers.

It is to the degraded forest areas that Karstad is now looking for further sales. Already he is selling his brickettes to Abercrombie & Kent, Guerba, and Cheli & Peacock, but he insists that larger lodges would benefit, too. The brickettes are ideal for cooking and keeping ingredients warm; although they generate only 75 percent of the heat of regular charcoal, they last at least twice as long, produce virtually no smoke, and work out 40 percent cheaper than regular charcoal.

If firewood is the greatest crisis facing the Mara, energy is an equally burning issue. Of all the technologies now available to tourism operators, none makes more sense than solar power. But solar has an image problem; not only is it still relatively expensive, it is also viewed as a wholly foreign technology. According to Mark Hankins, managing director of Energy Alternatives Africa, nothing could be further from the truth. "Purists say that solar technology is all imported and doesn't use local resources. But what is the sun if not a local resource?"

Hankins does not pretend that solar energy can efficiently power the entire operation of a large lodge; but he says that with efficient solar appliances used in conjunction with other energy sources--such as gas for cooking and wood from sustainable woodlots--it can power most of the lighting and heating. "With the rapid advances of solar technology in the past few years, there is no way that anyone should still be running a 100 kilowatt generator 24 hours a day," he says. "Big camps can have a battery bank and turn their generators off at night, while small camps should be able to power everything with solar."

What is required now, says Hankins, are better local skills in designing and promoting creative solar solutions. His firm is running courses to train people in the design, installation and maintenance of solar systems, and he recently completed a training programme at one forward-thinking camp in Amboseli. "Solar power should be a vital energy component for all tourism operations," says Hankins. "Unfortunately, it's still very easy to put in a huge generator and forget all about it."

In the field of sewage disposal--another big problem in the Mara--there is another natural solution in which interest has snowballed in recent years. The installation of a wetland ecosystem comprising a series of aquatic ponds is nature's own answer to sewage disposal. Not only does it treat sewage, produce fresh water and effectively feed itself; it attracts wildlife, generates no smell, requires little maintenance, and provides an entire aquatic habitat and a complete educational experience for visitors. It is, as such, probably the greatest win-win situation available to the modern hotelier.

The 'problem' with wetlands--as with solar--is that of cost. Without researching the situation, many tourism operators reject wetlands out of hand as both expensive and impractical. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Considering the long-term costs of untreated sewage leaching into rivers and ground-water--the 'hidden' effects of imported bacteria, toxins and chemicals on local plants and wildlife--the untended cash cow has already put one foot in the grave.

Fortunately, several operations are now waking up to the sewage threat. Earlier this year, Olonana installed a four-pond wetland totalling 300 square metres, which cost in the region of Kshs 1.5 million ($US19,500)--no large sum for an exclusive camp. A&K executive director Alex Andrewes says the system is already "working incredibly well". Olonana has made several other concessions to conservation; its solar power has cut the use of its generator to four hours a day, its kuni-boosters run on Elsen Karstad's green charcoal, and the money these projects save is being used to promote community projects. As Andrewes points out, as the overseas tourist becomes more environmentally discerning, features like wetlands and solar panels become an important drawing card. "Being environmentally responsible has become far more important as the environment becomes more ruined."

One area of environmental responsibility that is often overlooked--and is usually the first to suffer under budget cuts--is that of landscaping around lodges and camps. In the Mara, lack of foresight and misguided aesthetics have resulted in the importation of exotic plants that are having a disastrous impact on the local environment. The most obvious is the notoriously aggressive lantana camara, whose tiny pink-orange flowers have taken over huge swathes of local vegetation. Several authorities have now woken up to the lantana threat; Australia recently banned planting of the species outright.

"All exotic plants that become naturalised pose an ecological problem, as they can displace indigenous species from their niches in the ecosystem," says Alexandra Archer, whose company EcoScapes has advised several lodges on their landscaping. Archer argues that lodges and camps in fragile ecosystems such as the Mara should only use indigenous plants in their gardens.

Many of the exotic plants used in lodge gardens come from South Africa's cape, where rainfall is considerably higher than in the Mara. As a result, the plants need constant watering and larger amounts of fertiliser and pesticides--with obvious implications for the area's wildlife. In addition, low-level vegetation is often cleared away to make way for lawns, and leaf litter is regularly swept away--denying vital mulch to both seeds and soil.

Dr. Renee Hailer, whose work at Bamburi Nature Trail and such lodges as Shaba Sarova and Shimba Hills Lodge has made him something of a guru in the landscaping trade, says: "A lot of lodges prepare very impressive environmental plans, get a contract from the government on the grounds of their promises, and then cut their budgets and cannot do many of the things they have promised."

All this illuminates the glaring lack of planning in the management of the Mara ecosystem--and of environmental legislation that could be used to bring offenders to book. Says Hailer, "There should be a master plan as soon as possible, not just involving 'greenies' from outside but involving all the commercial interests, every hotel owner in the area."

On the Tanzanian side of this wilderness, standards are more stringent, although according to some industry insiders, even some of the top 'eco-lodges' in Tanzania practice little of what they preach. Honey's book paints a grim picture of the main lodge operations in Ngorongoro Crater--in particular of their ruthless exploitation of water and under-employment and disregard for the local Maasai. She also exposes the famous Green Globe programme, to which many of these lodges subscribe, as "little more than a marketing ploy". Tourist operations can buy the right to use the 'green' logo for as little as $200 and a mere promise to improve their environmental commitment.

The Conservation Corporation is one company that promotes itself as an ecotourism operator, and indeed has an excellent environmental and social record at home in South Africa. But the company's move to East Africa has not been so smooth. Its exclusive Mnemba Club off the northeast coast of Zanzibar has courted considerable controversy for its policy of banning local fishermen from local waters. When ConsCorp took over the resort--which has won two major ecotourism awards--in 1996, it did boost trade with and employment of local people--although they are still paid to fish elsewhere.

ConsCorp has made some major inroads in improving environmental standards at its two camps in the Maasai Mara. At Kichwa Tembo, it has established a 'green team' for promoting environmental awareness, switched to petrol-powered Land Rovers, banned off-road driving, started a tree nursery, ensured 'proper waste separation and disposal methods', and provided employment, healthcare and income-generating projects for the local community. But the company has also struck a deal that smacks of the same high-handedness as Mnemba: moving the nearest Maasai settlement (and their cattle) 5km from the camp in return for the provision of housing, a water project, and cosponsorship of a local school. This might be good for the wildlife--and will certainly improve the view for the tourists--but will it be good for the people? Although ConsCorp is doing a lot of good work to strengthen the camp's environmental record, the cost of its exclusivity may not have such a positive impact on its social record.

"I'd personally like to see something more before we really go out and blow our trumpet," admits ConsCorp's sales manager Anthony Kigondu. However, if the company manages to carry out anything approaching the celebrated habitat reclamations and model social programmes at its lodges at Londolozi and Phinda in South Africa, its proprietorship of Kichwa Tembo is to be applauded. "All over South Africa we are restocking wilderness areas with wildlife, but in Kenya we are trying to make sure our projects are financially viable before throwing ourselves completely into it," says Kigondu.

Other proprietors in the Mara are clearly concerned about clearing up their much-publicised messes. Late last year, concerned hoteliers in the Mara got together to form the Maasai Mara Managers Association, an affiliation of lodge managers charged with policing firewood collection and promoting local conservation initiatives. However, like most other good intentions in the Mara, the recent lack of occupancy at their lodges has meant a lack of both personnel and funds for moving forward. Acting chairman Jackson Olaka admits they have not yet had "a serious meeting", but says he hopes the body will swing into action later this year. However, problems persist regarding the association's mandate, and how it will work alongside local authorities and the Tourism Board.

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