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Earning carbon credits in unspoilt Lekurruki

 Nkatito's Lekurruki Conservancy. [Peter Muiruri/Standard]

Nkatito stands on a ledge next to the swimming pool. She cannot swim though, but gets contentment from her surroundings. The vastness of the seemingly empty space gives her some tranquillity that not even the hot African sun can wipe away.

In the wild, open rangelands of northern Kenya, Nkatito is a woman at peace amid adversity. She has seen a devastating drought decimate livestock here. In her largely pastoralist community, a homestead without sheep or goats lacks a good standing within the community. Many here live lives on the edge.

Nkatito may not have a television set in her house, nor a smartphone to keep up with global news. But she is aware that her region has been described as a hotspot for resource-related conflicts. She has heard the crackling sounds of gunfire as rival communities chase each other. Still, she does not let such sporadic cases of insecurity define her.

"This is our home. It is what God gave us. Can we run away from it?" The rhetorical question affirmed her affinity with the land of her ancestors. "Wewe huwezi ukatoroka kwenu (you too cannot run away from your home).

We had met Nkatito early on in the morning near an airstrip in Lekurruki Conservancy deep in Laikipia. The conservancy is run by the local community under the oversight of the Northern Rangelands Trust. The drought may have turned the pastoralists' way of life upside down. Yet, Nkatito and her ilk are on the cusp of an ecological revolution.

The land that is heavily dotted with acacia, Newtonia and Balanites aegyptiaca is now home to the world's largest soil carbon removal project. The development will turn these vast rangelands into a money-minting ecosystem, which, together with tourism, will change the lives of people like Nkatito for the better.

Together with a village elder, Nkatito walks us across the new airstrip that has been rehabilitated with the proceeds of the soil carbon sequestration project. The project's success depends on local herdsmen employing rotational grazing practices in order to allow grass to regenerate within specific projects in a conservancy.

Away from the noise generated in global forums such as the just concluded climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the pastoralists in the north are the real climate heroes. Proponents of the carbon project say the more the grass regenerates, the more there will be for the herders and the corresponding reduction in conflicts. On the other hand, more grass means more carbon will be stored in the soil, away from the atmosphere where it is warming the planet and resulting in droughts, and during rains, deadly floods. How though, does the sequestered carbon change Nkatito's life?

Basically, a company in another part of the world that wants to offset its carbon footprint may opt to financially support a project that is harnessing an equivalent amount of carbon. Through internationally accepted evaluation standards, the company buys off permits, often called carbon credits that give the buyer incentives to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

Between 2013 and 2016, the Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project (NKRCP) generated 3.2 million carbon credits, earning $14.6 million (Sh1.7 billion) for the 14 participating conservancies, including Nkatito's Lekurruki Conservancy. Each conservancy took home $324,000 (Sh39.6 million). In short, the communities here are getting paid for trapping bad air in the ground.

If all this talk about carbon was a mouthful for you, it must have been too for Nkatito who has had very limited education. Even the local elders who had been tasked with the responsibility of explaining the project to fellow community members had a similar dilemma.

"There is no word for carbon in our language," said one. "Not even in Swahili!" Carbon is like the wind; you cannot see it, but you can see the effects of sequestration."

These effects include the ongoing renovations of a nearby community-owned lodge at a cost of Sh5.5 million, according to Simon Njalis, the conservancy manager. This piece of Eden is the only lodge within the 60,000-acre conservancy and was constructed in 2000 by the Mukogodo community to boost their earnings. Tassia Lodge is perched on the edge of an escarpment, giving one sweeping view of the valley below and the endless Laikipia and Samburu plains beyond. On this day, a young elephant family was sheltering under an acacia tree next to a watering hole, oblivious to our noises above.

Like similar outlets in the vast wilderness, Tassia is meant for those who want to immerse themselves in nature. There is no TV, no internet, and the phone network is poor. And though there were no guests during our visit owing to the renovations, it was easy to tell that her better days lay ahead. A cup of tea enhanced with camel milk together with some bread was enough to keep our energy levels high. Camels abound in the region, testimony to changing lifestyles as a result of the drought.

At a dry riverbed near the lodge, scores of herdsmen took turns drawing water from a 'singing' well. Here, the morans hummed their favourite tunes as they 'disappeared and reappeared' from the depths of the well.

The proceeds from the sale of carbon credits will help in sinking safer boreholes where such herders can water their animals with ease. Such projects will also enable women like Nkatito to educate their children. It is also hoped that with more money coming into such communities, guns will also go silent as people learn to practice rotational grazing techniques.

And as I watched the sun finally set on the western horizon from my hotel room in Isiolo, all I could picture was Nkatito standing on the edge of the pool, enjoying the tranquillity of Laikipia's wilderness. How I wished I could be in her place.

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