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Kenya's pastoralists reach out for carbon cash

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Issue date: 
16 Feb 2012
Publisher Name: 
David Njagi
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If the promise of earning carbon credits is realised, Nixon Parnisa counts himself among hundreds of pastoralists likely to profit from a new revenue stream.

The herder already has an anaerobic digester at his home in Kitengela, about 120 km (75 miles) northeast of Lake Magadi, in southern Kenya. The machine uses livestock waste to produce biogas for cooking and lighting.

But now Parnisa is looking beyond saving money on fuel. He hopes to increase his income by joining a scheme to adapt herding practices to the needs of grassland conservation.

Recently, 2,200 square kilometres (850 square miles) of the Kitengela–Kipeto area near Nairobi National Park were subdivided and fenced, with portions for grazing assigned to individual herders.

The community is now charged with ensuring the conservation of the land within the fenced area.

Protecting and restoring trees and grassland allows carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere to be stored in the vegetation, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.


Through the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme, Parnisa and other herders like him hope to have a financial incentive to participate in grassland restoration, according to advisors from the World Bank, which is financing the scheme.

The minority share of pastoralists who are embracing the fencing system say that by moving their cattle from communally owned land they now are able to practice rotational grazing. The herd grazes on one part of the land while the other portions, divided into paddocks, are allowed to regrow their vegetation.

Parnisa manages the grazing of his herd of up to 100 cows on the 60-acre (24-hectare) parcel of land that he has been assigned.

 “Once the paddock is exhausted of pasture, the cattle are then (moved) to the one that has grass,” he says. “I also do hay stacking, where I cut the grass, dry and store it in bales for use as fodder during the dry spell.”

Studies by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) indicate that at least 80 percent of homesteads in Kajiado county, where Magadi is located, depend on pastoralism for their livelihood.

Local leaders say that when participants in the scheme graze their livestock within the fenced allotments, pressure on overall grazing land and the ecosystem is reduced.


However, not all pastoralists trust the plan. Some, like 68-year-old Paul Leshire, suspect that the carbon push is a ploy to deny them their traditional grazing land.

The elder from Olooshoibor, a village about 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital, Nairobi, says the plan may not work in some places as drought dries up most rangeland vegetation and may leave herders dependent only on paddocks without options.

“Most herders travel great distances in search of water for their livestock,” he says. “I do not like this interference with the free movement of our livestock.”    

Experts say it is still unclear how much carbon will be sequestered as a result of the scheme, and what its value will be. But officials involved in the REDD programme say that the rewards could eventually go to individual herders or community groups involved with the programme.

“The benefits could either be in cash or investment in community activities or development projects by the groups,” says Nicholas Kunga, programme manager for environment and climate change at the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi.

Officials from the World Bank Carbon Fund Facility, which is educating herders about carbon trading, say the process of determining whether pastoralists win carbon credits involves both the institution and the communities.

“The focus is on the carbon stocks in terms of vegetation cover, natural resources and renewable energy,” explains Soikan Meitiaki, an observer with the facility. “But the volume of carbon stored must be large to qualify for the fund.”

The facility is holding meetings to educate the public about the effects of land degradation on the environment, the value of their natural resources and how they can earn income from conserving them.

According to Meitiaki, the precise criteria for financial reimbursement are still being decided, but he said that the scheme was being received positively.


Community worker Charles Leshore says that in Magadi, where group ranching is widely practiced, about 30 percent of herders have enlisted in the carbon trading scheme.

According to Leshore, the pastoralists still own the land communally, but they are abandoning harmful practices such as uncontrolled firewood harvesting, charcoal burning and burning grasslands during the dry season so that the land can sprout fresh grass when it rains.

They are also investing in renewable energy, he says.

The Nguruman Maarifa Centre, a community information centre in Magadi, says residents are benefiting from a biogas project established in May 2010 with help from the Africa Biogas Partnership Programme, to generate methane gas for household cooking and lighting.

The project, which is located in a shopping centre, has been generating sufficient methane gas from animal waste to be used by as many as 20 homesteads, officials say. There are plans to expand the capacity further.

“(The energy) is distributed free of charge,” explains Samuel Nzioka, the centre’s programme officer. “It has reduced reliance on firewood for cooking and charcoal burning.”

According to Nzioka, residents are also taking part in communal tree planting exercises.

Experts estimate that the global carbon market is worth up to $30 billion annually, but some supporters highlight the challenges in making it function well in Africa.

“There is a need for political will so that the processes in this scheme in Africa are transparent, decision-making (and) governance rules are clear and that the actual payment reaches the local people that helped secure the carbon,” observes Peter Akong Minang, global coordinator of the Alternatives to Slash and Burn (ASB) Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is testing a new model for herders to earn money for the carbon they capture by rehabilitating damaged ecosystems. Pierre Gerber, the organisation’s livestock policy specialist, said they hope to find a reliable way for herders to prove they are sequestering measurable amounts of carbon, and to fund their activities by accessing mitigation finance.

David Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi. He can be reached on danjagi@gmail.com. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut