Samson Kodei leans on his spear as he gazes over the horizon for any signs of rain. It is the third year since the rangelands of Leparua conservancy had any good rains. But he is encouraged by the gathering clouds.
“Iko karibu (it is near),” he says of the rains. His small herd of goats, however, can nibble on the new shoots resulting from some scattered showers a few days earlier.
Despite the little rain, the land on which Kodei has always called home is now the epicenter of the world’s largest soil carbon removal project. The Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project (NKRCP) is the first-ever project to use rangeland activities in community conservancies to generate revenue for the communities.
The success of the project in rangeland restoration depends largely on pastoralists like Kodei through structured livestock grazing plans. In the plan, herders practice rotational grazing models, letting blocks in one part of a conservancy to regenerate as they graze on another. The more the grass, the more carbon is sequestered in the soil and the more fodder available for the livestock.
It is anticipated that the carbon project that sits on 4.7 million acres in northern Kenya will remove 50 million tons of CO2 over 30 years, or the equivalent of the annual emissions from over 10,000,000 cars while generating millions of dollars for local communities.
Work on the project began in 2009 with an official start in 2012 with the first carbon credits generated in 2013. These, along with subsequent years of verified credits, were offered to the international voluntary market and have since generated $14.6 million for local conservancies to date.
"This is a game-changer in the management of the rangelands," says Tom Lalampaa, chief executive officer at the Northern Rangelands Trust. "The success of this project means local communities have found alternative land use that, in addition to pastoralism, will generate enough income for local projects."
The project has already received the highest endorsement from the land when President William Ruto cited it as a success story in taming the runaway greenhouse gas emissions.
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“I am pleased to share encouraging news of an exemplary Kenyan project, which is the first and largest in the world focusing on soil carbon removals through sustainable grazing management. It is on course towards its inspiring target of removing up to 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the ecosystem of the next 30 years,” Ruto said during the high-level session of world leaders at the ongoing climate change talks (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.
In addition, the carbon project has been recognised as a Lighthouse from the Natural Climate Solutions Alliance at COP27. The NCS Alliance is a multi-stakeholder group of businesses, solutions providers, and NGOs that are working to scale NCS in the voluntary carbon market.
The award is designed to “build trust by ‘shining a light’ on projects that deliver high-integrity carbon credits, generate biodiversity gains and provide substantive social and economic benefits for local communities and Indigenous Peoples.
The sale of this sequestered carbon creates development income for local communities and enhances conservation efforts, including the improvement of habitat for community’s livestock, wildlife and the four endemic endangered species that live in the project area.
Currently, the first phase of the project involves 14 conservancies including Biliquo Bulesa, Il Ngwesi, Kalama, Leparua, Lekurruki, Meibae, and Melako. Others are Naibunga, Nakuprat-Gotu, Namunyak, Nasuluu, Ol Donyiro, Sera, and Westgate.
In February 2022, each of the 14 participating conservancies received $324,000, their first of three payments from this sale. The project has been awarded Triple Gold Status by the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) due to the benefits from the project to wildlife and communities. Only 21 projects in the world have this status.
Sales for the remaining 27 years of the project are expected to generate even higher amounts. Funding is split between conservancy operations and funding community-identified needs. Funding is channelled directly to the communities, who hold sole financial control, and spend it on community-identified and community-endorsed development programmes.
“Our people didn’t know what carbon was, we don’t have a word for it in our local language, or even in Swahili,” said Andrew Dokhole, a retired local community member and chair of the Carbon Project Oversight Committee said. “Now we have created awareness and our people are aware that really putting grazing plans in place is very important for them, for their animals and also for carbon storage.
According to the proponents, communities’ lives are improving through development projects as thy invest in infrastructure projects, education programs, and economic generating activities such as tourism and business.
Mohamed Shibia, an NRT Regional Director says community conservancies in northern Kenya have set a good example to the rest of the pastoral people and for semi-arid land across Africa in the management of rangelands.
“Carbon storage helps us in many ways. It improves the rangeland health, and by rangeland health, we mean that if we have more soil carbon, we have more grass, we have more livestock, healthy livestock, thriving wildlife, healthy livelihoods for people,” says Shibia.
Officials from the Northern Rangelands Trust opine that across the project area, wildlife numbers are increasing including four endangered species; the eastern black rhino, Grevy’s zebra, Reticulated giraffe and Beisa oryx.
Priscilla Kushi, a local community member and carbon project officer says the improved grazing management through rotational grazing across the conservancies has led to improved pasture for both livestock and wildlife.
“More grass means more pasture, more jobs, and healthier livestock and wildlife. This in turn, improves the soil conditions. When soil conditions are improved, we have more water storage and water retention and through this we are able to store more carbon within the soil. We get healthy animals which are putting better prices in the market and that improves the income of the pastoralist household,” she says.
For Kodei, the improved rangelands mean less conflicts over resources with neighbouring communities. “Kama kuna nyasi, vita itaisha (There will be less fights with more grass available),” he says.