The history of conservation is as old as mankind and so is women’s role in conservation. This treasure has been handed down by our ancestors; and with it a prudent beckoning for the appreciation of the environment on which all life depends. “Treat the earth well; it was not given to us by our parents, it was loaned to us by our children”, they said.
As a young woman working for the Kenya Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy today, I have experienced a profound realization while leading community-based programs for 27 communities across the country.
Women have a special connection to the environment through their daily interactions with nature; something that has long been ignored in the country’s conservation debate. As a young African woman interacts with the embers of puberty, her knowledge of various plant species, the soil composition on which these plants grow, and the mastery in keeping them alive is the core of her daily life.
Her role in walking long distances in search of water from the river is just another lesson in wildlife management. She would learn how to navigate the dangerous pathways and speak only peace to the elephants and giraffes that pass her by. Indeed, women play an inherent role in the management of natural resources including soil, water, forests, and energy. An argument sorely represented by Esther Boserup in her 19th Century classic titled Woman’s Role in Economic Development.
The infringement of the country’s most critical resources in the name of development continues.
A few times, we have noted the immovable resolve of women-led movements pledging strong defiance against business prospects and government ‘ambitions’. For the few who have spoken, it has been a confrontational journey marked with great challenges. Notably, The Late Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. We remember her for the protests she led at Uhuru Park against the construction of a 60-story government building. She wrote countless letters to international powers and led peaceful demonstrations.
Everyone thought that the efforts of the ‘maximum’ (crazy) woman- as they called her were futile. They were wrong. The investors cowered away and ran! Today families and people from all walks of life idle freely in Uhuru Park’s flora. The restoration of the Mau Forest which had triggered a cascade of drought and despair in the country was a lifelong pursuit of Wangari. Since her passing on, the Kenyan government with the support of its partners, including UNEP and The Nature Conservancy(?) has repossessed more than 22,000ha of forestland.
Then came the likes of Paula Kahumbi, currently leading the campaign on elephant poaching in Kenya. Shamed and disgusted by the blood-encrusted elephant tasks behind her microscope and watching her boss (and my then boss) Richard Leakey set 12 tons of Ivory on fire in 1989 was enough for her to troubleshoot. Fervent protests and negotiations by conservationists in the global arena led to a global ban on the ivory trade.
Japan was a major consumer of ivory and many thought it was untouchable because ivory was rooted in Japanese culture. Despite the fact, that demand for ivory collapsed and poaching of elephants and ivory trafficking declined sharply. Another victory! ‘The road to victory is not always smooth’, our ancestors warned. Indeed, the rise of the ecofeminism movement has come at a great cost globally. Wangari Maathai had to bear grave police harassment and was once imprisoned. This was an all too familiar picture for the Chipko movement in India, the first ecofeminism movement. Women were battered by army men after hugging trees for a whole day protesting the deforestation efforts. But why does the fight for conservation have to come at such great costs for women who fight for its very essence? Does the montage of conservation have to be a gory picture of fights against the selfish and the self-preserved? It is time to paint a tale of conscientiousness when it comes to conservation in Kenya, and more so call for concerted efforts within our society. This is all so that our children who loaned us this earth may come to speak of the wonders of the elephant and not the bloody picture of poaching. And that there is a common understanding that trees and all other plants need to exist for the elephant and all other animals to feed on for a balanced ecosystem. We could start now and start big. Starting with the society’s appreciation of a woman’s connection with the earth and for women to realize that the fight isn’t just ours to bear but a cost to future generations.