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Not long ago, in a land not that far away, there was a forest. A magical forest, wrapped in warm moisture snaking inland from the Indian Ocean. It ran the length of the east African coastline, an unbroken paradise full of exotic birds, shrews the size of cats, and elephants the size of… well, elephants.

In a previous post, I wrote of my visit to a tiny remnant of this forest. Humans have chewed up and spat out everything in between, and the green canopy levelled to meet the demands of population growth, but the Arabuko Sokoke Forest persists.

See the isolated green spot in the centre of the map below. That’s the Arabuko Sokoke Forest and all that remains of this once sprawling expanse of life. For scale, the coastline in this image is about 500km long. Needless to say, this fragment is more important than words can express to the rare species hanging on within its bounds, as well as our collective human conscience.

Let’s play ‘spot the threatened habitat’.
Let’s play ‘spot the threatened habitat’.

So you may imagine my fury when I heard about plans to conduct a seismic survey within the forest, looking for oil and natural gas. I am no clean-energy angel, but surely there are better places to get these resources than a critically threatened habitat?

Despite the oil company’s efforts to spin a story of nature and mining happily walking hand in hand, the discovery of liquid gold here would have sounded a death knell for the forest. I am under no illusions about the nature of capitalism, but I could not believe that a company would stoop to these lows and that a government would allow it to happen in the name of profit and the individual gain of a few.

Cameroon-American Company (CAMAC) is a global energy services firm based in Texas but focused on extracting resources in Africa. Already sounding unsavoury? CAMAC then subcontracted China National Petroleum Co. (BGP) to conduct the seismic surveys. Excuse the generalisations, but foreign oil companies and Chinese contractors do not have a reputation for playing nice in other people’s yards.

The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) was conducted by Earthview Geoconsultants Limited. Please bear with me for these details because it’s so scary as to be almost funny. These supposed ‘specialists’ went as far as to propose mitigating the threat to the Grevy’s zebra (Gravy’s zebra in the report). This is indeed noble, but some might argue overcautious, considering that the nearest Grevy’s zebra (which does not inhabit forest) is 240km away, in Tsavo East National Park!  

The Arabuko Sokoke Forest is considered the second most important forest on the African mainland for bird species in terms of species diversity and uniqueness.
The Arabuko Sokoke Forest is considered the second most important forest on the African mainland for bird species in terms of species diversity and uniqueness.

Something was up. Despite ‘reportedly’ having been involved from the start, the communities that live around and depend on the forest knew nothing of the project even as the crews arrived on site.

Reading up to this point, you should be tired of the same story that is repeating itself worldwide. Faceless corporations exacting a heavy toll on people and the environment wherever they go. Thanks to wealthy lobbies and a steady flow of cash, governments either remain quietly in the background or go as far as to support the pillage. But what do we do about it in all of our different countries and communities? Do we just continue with our lives, tell ourselves it’s the way of the world, and head home to cook dinner?

Not in this case. Local community groups teamed up with local conservation organisations to take a stand. Led by the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (ASFADA), the group delivered petitions to county government representatives, as well as national resource ministers and management bodies, requesting copies of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and mining licences, and wanting to know why no one had consulted them. Local and international media stepped in to provide exposure.

Members of the local communities are able to take advantage of income generating activities in the forest, such as this butterfly collector.
Members of the local communities can take advantage of income-generating activities in the forest, such as this butterfly collector. These ‘farmers’ release female butterflies into large enclosures and then harvest and export the ova laid by these individuals to live exhibits and butterfly houses in Europe and North America.

The pressure built, and in a fantastic turnaround, CAMAC announced just days ago its decision to cancel the two seismic testing transects running through the forest (no mention of the transects that run along the forest boundaries). Whether this was a last-minute intrusion of conscience (pigs do fly, don’t they?), or worry about the fallout from the growing media attention, is unknown. But it doesn’t matter. The fact is that these communities did not roll over. And thanks to them, and the decision by CAMAC, this patch of forest is safe (for now).

The moral of the story: don’t stand by. As our planet’s natural resources dwindle, these fights will become more commonplace, pitting local communities against outside interests. We cannot rely on governments, and so it is up to every one of us to stand up and cause a stink. The worst we can do is try, and the Arabuko Sokoke Forest communities have shown we can win.

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I’m a simple guy and know what makes me happiest - time spent in wild natural places, preferably with awesome rocks, amazing clouds and my camera. After a number of years in the eco-tourism industry in Botswana and a backpacking stint around eastern Europe and Asia, I recently completed my MSc in conservation biology. My belief is that human population expansion, the root cause of the majority of our conservation problems, will eventually peak and reverse. My goal in life is to try to make sure we still have as many natural places as possible left at that time. See a portfolio of my photographic work or like my Facebook page for more constant updates from wherever I happen to be.

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