Role of communities in driving Africa's nature-based solutions

A farmer on his organic farm in Murang'a. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

“A family is like a forest: If you are outside, it is dense, if you are inside, you see that each tree has its place.”  This is a great African proverb from which we can learn the power of the collective towards catalysing large-scale restoration and protecting nature.

And the time for action is now as the world begins to realise our reliance on nature as the foundation for our societies and economies. Biodiversity loss and climate change are humanity's greatest collective threats.

There is no species, no community and no landscape that has not fallen victim to its power. Frequent wildfires, droughts and floods have caused damage worth billions of shillings worldwide.

In 2022, a global insurer, AON, estimated that natural disasters, many driven by climate change, had caused global economic losses of $313 billion. In Africa, this has been estimated at $50 billion.

While these losses are detrimental to government administrations across the continent, they primarily impact the communities and households whose lives and livelihoods are deeply intertwined with nature.

Northern Kenya’s vast drylands are a case in point. These fragile ecosystems and contiguous landscapes support millions of people and abundant wildlife. Habitat loss and land degradation, exacerbated by climate change, result in the breakdown of nature’s functions, resource conflict and humanitarian crises.

As East Africa emerges from a prolonged drought, recent studies conclude that this drought almost certainly would not have occurred without human-caused climate change.

However, there is hope, and it lies in the natural financial power of these landscapes and the opportunity for large-scale restoration.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, the primary objective of ecosystem restoration is to restore degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems – grasslands, forests, drylands, and other fundamental ecosystems - which, when restored, support human need for sustainable food production and livelihoods.

Given the importance of indigenous peoples and local communities as the custodians of nature, community-led restoration and ecosystem management are crucial steps towards making significant change that will have strong, positive environmental and social impacts locally and globally.

By making nature investable through collaborative partnerships, improved technologies and innovative nature financing mechanisms, impact can be delivered at multiple levels, allowing communities and key stakeholders to harness nature's true value and access financial support that can transform landscapes and lives. Creating markets for nature-based solutions could ultimately be the largest driver of protecting and restoring the natural world.

Ngare Ndare is a community-managed forest that sits at the base of the majestic Mount Kenya; its sparkling clear blue water pools are fed by the mountain, providing clean water for millions of downstream users.

And yet, the forest is in dire threat from overutilisation by the local communities grazing livestock and harvesting fuelwood.

When coupled with failed replanting efforts, these threats present a long-term risk to the forest's health and ecosystem services; limited seedling recruitment has resulted in a mature forest with little new tree growth.

Enabling the communities around Ngare Ndare Forest, and others like it to explore alternative economic streams such as improved on-farm tree, livestock and soil management, can reduce these forest pressures.

Importantly, small-scale farmers need robust community access frameworks that allow them to realise these opportunities, and ensure an equitable and fair distribution of the benefits such projects can create.

Further, these communities require technical support and capacity to develop, sell, and manage restoration projects and generate carbon and biodiversity impact and revenues that can create significant social impact.

As we witnessed during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi and the New York Climate Week, financing development was never a matter of resources; with $450 trillion available, only one per cent would allow us to achieve the SDGs.

Similarly, at the recently concluded 73rd United Nations General Assembly, climate and nature were front and centre in all of the 20-plus interventions from member states, and the non-fulfillment of the $100 billion in pledges for climate finance was criticised many times.

Inaction today is no longer an option as it would only increase the cost of action tomorrow. Africa can make the just transitions that it needs to mitigate the effects of climate change and move into a more sustainable future.

Fortunately, it also has the human resources to deliver on it from within the community custodians of nature

As we explore innovative nature-based solutions to address climate change, it is imperative to emphasise and develop the role and responsibilities of communities and groups that are not only vulnerable to shifting climatic patterns, but also those dependent on nature for everyday existence.

Returning to our proverb, the community tree within the global forest of transformation needs to be nurtured and developed so that it, too, can thrive and benefit from its time in the sun.

Mr Karanja is a director and board member at Natural State. Mr Johannes is the Executive Director of Good Energies, based in Switzerland, and a Board member of World Resources Institute Brazil, Instituto Arapyaú (Brazil) and solar enterprise SELCO (India).

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