Extend ban on issue of permits to safeguard key biodiversity areas

Photographers on a shooting expedition within the Maasai Mara National Park. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Kenya is a leader in environmental matters. We are the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme. Kenya is also the preferred regional headquarters for many conservation organisations. 

The Masai Mara is famous for its spectacular wildebeest migration. The Rift Valley lakes host millions of congregating birds. The diversity of habitats also means a variety of glamorous wildlife, beautiful birds and many creatures. Most of these species are today found inside places called protected areas.

Many of these places are now designated as Key Biodiversity Areas. Since they are home to unique species on the verge of extinction, these sites bear global significance, and Kenya is under obligation to ensure that their special wildlife is protected. Unfortunately, these places are currently under intense human pressure. In a recent pronouncement, the government banned the issuance of development permits in key wildlife conservation areas. 

It is an acknowledgement of the urgency to protect some of the country’s vital ecosystems, their biodiversity and humans. For the ban to achieve meaningful outcomes, the 'net' has to be cast far and wide to cover all Key biodiversity areas in Kenya. Protected areas in Kenya were established in the colonial era. As such, their creation was not informed by any science on species distribution. Many of these areas were chosen because they were good hunting or photography grounds. 

The government seems to have ignored unprotected key biodiversity areas, leaving their fate hanging. Yala swamp is one such wildlife site that is undergoing destruction.  The wetland, spread across Siaya and Busia counties in western Kenya, hosts unique biodiversity, including endangered birds, fish and mammals.

The wetland forms a natural buffer against floods, filters and stores freshwater, and helps regulate the hydrological cycle. Additionally, it serves as a critical carbon sink, helping mitigate climate change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Moreover, Yala Swamp provides livelihoods to thousands of local communities. The wetland supplies fish, water for irrigation and domestic use, medicinal plants, pasture for livestock, fertile soils for farming and papyrus for weaving, thatching and other uses.

The need to conserve this wetland cannot be overemphasized. Its protection is critical to biodiversity, the continuity of ecosystem services and local community livelihoods provision. In 2021, the National Land Commission (NLC) allocated 6,763.74 ha of Yala Swamp to Lake Agro Ltd despite sustained objections from communities and other stakeholders. The controversial allocation violates the rights of local communities, compromises the ecological services provided by the wetland, threatens its biodiversity and disregards intergenerational equity.

In light of the latest pronouncement, the government should reverse the allocation by NLC in the spirit of protecting our unique biodiversity.

Dr Matiku is Executive Director, Nature Kenya - the East Africa Natural History Society. [email protected]