Kenya: Community-based marine area holds some important lessons for policy makers

On a white sandy beach in a small fishing village called Kuruwitu in eastern Kenya a ground-breaking project that aimed to protect marine biodiversity and improve livelihoods was launched in 2005. Six years on what obstacles has it encountered and what lessons can be learned?

The country’s first community-based marine protected area Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association (KCWA) was initiated by the local community following concerns over an increasing decline in fish and coral cover in their local onshore fishing area. 

The theory behind community-based management projects is that devolving control and power to local people causes greater empowerment and ownership over resources, leading to a greater likelihood of resources being conserved and managed effectively.

In partnership with the East African Wildlife Society (EAWS), the KCWA effectively established a small (two square km) no take zone, around Kuruwitu’s primary fishery landing site,  which was monitored and guarded by community members.

The no take zone has been met with great biodiversity success. KCWA told me that research reports by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Coral Reef Conservation Project showed an increase in coral cover by nearly 30% of hard coral species and 12% of seagrass species. Fish numbers increased by more than 200%. These scientific reports were corroborated by the fishermen I spoke to.

The Kenyan government have been supportive in devolving rights and control to the community through the use of Beach Management Units, which ultimately give the community powers to arrest and charge people over  illegal activities in the ocean – such as illegal fishing.

However, alongside this, KCWA agreed to try to establish a community-run ecotourism venture in Kuruwitu to help compensate those fishermen who had lost their livelihoods from fishing when the protected area was set up, and to provide other members of the community with alternative ways to earn a living.

KCWA attempted to purchase an area of coastal land through donor funding in order to build a tourism “banda” (basic hut) that could be used to accommodate tourists coming to visit the area.

The plan failed. They found out that the land, which had been used for generations of fisherman as a landing site and base for fishermen, was no longer available for sale to the community. While KCWA have been given legal rights to manage and monitor the marine environment, they haven’t been given legal rights to manage and monitor the land associated with it.

While the fisherman had used the land, they had no legal rights to it. This scenario is occurring countless times across Kenya, where ancestry entitlements are not recognised as legal rights to land, and poor communities are deemed squatters.

This means that, while local fishermen have potentially been negatively impacted by the protection of the sea, they can’t benefit from the financial opportunities that the marine resource has created, such as tourism.

Obstacles encountered

Local residents told me the main reason they were unable to secure the land was because of its high value. Much of Kenya’s coastal land is being bought by wealthy Kenyans, businesses or ex-patriots to develop into tourism or other private ventures, or to live in.

Corruption was also mentioned many times, as was the community’s lack of capacity  to push to gaining rights over the coastal land.

“We tried for the land but nothing came. We don’t know how loud our voice can be for the government to know we need the land,”  said one village elder, aged 50.

Part of the problem also seems to stem from the bureaucratic government structure within Kenya. One local conservation organisation explained that there are numerous ministries with different responsibilities and it was unclear who was ultimately responsible for ensuring join up between marine rights and coastal land rights for communities.

Communities need the capacity to fight, but they also need to know who they are supposed to be approaching. Gaining consensus from multiple departments is often impossible.

Lessons learned

Over 15 other communities now want to follow in KCWA’s footsteps. But interest is not just limited to Kenya given that protecting marine areas with high levels of biodiversity is increasingly high on policymakers’ agendas. So, what lessons can be learned? 

While the Kenyan government is supportive of communities managing marine resources in theory, it has not fully devolved these rights in practice and a  lack of integration between policies across different sectors has limited the project’s ability to grow. Policymakers must consider rights and control over marine resources and coastal land together.

There are some promising developments in Kenya at present. A new land policy has many potential positive provisions for customary land rights. Kenya has not had a clear policy on land rights since its  independence, which has resulted in a lack of clarity and increased complexity over land right issues. So, this is a welcome first step. Further, the new Constitution is keen to promote devolvement of authority to the local level. This too, in theory, should provide further scope for change within Kenya’s current institutions. Both these opportunities must be used to ensure coastal people’s rights to the land are strengthened.

Kate Lee is the group administrator of the Sustainable Markets Group. Find out more about their work.

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