The story begins a world away from Washington. Nicholas Meitiaki Soikan — or Soikan as he’s known to most — was the sixth of seven children in what is considered a small Maasai family from Kajiado county in Kenya.
As a young boy, his mornings were spent herding livestock, mostly cattle that he had names for and considered his pets. He and his siblings went to primary school in shifts, so that meant Soikan’s turn to study was in the afternoon, often under a large acacia tree.
For Soikan, his days of studying and herding were the easy ones. He says his community started suffering the effects of climate change in the late ‘90s, as extreme weather conditions became more common, and more devastating.
“In 1996, we lost 75 percent of our cattle due to drought. The next year, intense rainfall brought disease that killed hundreds of our sheep and goats. The smell of dead sheep was unbearable. I never smelled anything like that in my life,” says Soikan. “For us, we saw climate change through the eyes of our animals. We tended them, fed them for years. It’s always so painful to see them die.”
It was perhaps perspectives like these that led Soikan’s community to see great potential in him. His community agreed to sell livestock to pay for his undergraduate degree in social work from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Kenya. Soon after, they helped him again, to become the first in his village to achieve a master’s degree, which he did in rural sociology and community development at the University of Nairobi.
“I’ve seen how my community has been left out in a lot of important discussions. Were we not counted? So, I saw education as the way I could elevate my community,” he says.
Soikan’s education and pastoralist background have opened doors for him across the world. For more than 10 years now, he has been an advocate for the engagement of indigenous communities through a variety of local and national conservation initiatives in Kenya; at two UN organizations focused on climate change and forests, and since 2010, with the World Bank. He’s currently a member of the Bank’s Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience team and works specifically on the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF).
Throughout much of this work, Soikan’s focus has been on how to meaningfully engage indigenous communities in efforts to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, and enhance forest carbon stocks in developing countries (commonly known as ‘REDD+’). For Soikan, one of the most promising aspects of REDD+ is the conversation it opens up on issues vital to indigenous peoples’ livelihoods.
“To fully benefit from REDD+, indigenous peoples’ rights and traditional knowledge have to be recognized. They tell the story of their forests better than anyone else,” says Soikan.
As part of his work at the Bank, he manages a REDD+ capacity building initiative for indigenous peoples and civil society organizations in Africa. This program, financed by FCPF, is particularly notable because it doesn’t follow the ‘business as usual’ model of funding at the country level, but rather uses a rigorous process to select and award grants to local organizations who then manage their own forest and climate change training activities to meet specific, community-driven needs. To date, recipients in Africa have used some of the funding to host a learning exchange event in Cameroon on sustainable forest management best practices in Central Africa, and to support research on the role of traditional knowledge in respect to indigenous women and climate change adaptation.
The value of now being able to advocate for these communities from within the World Bank is not lost on Soikan.
“My message to indigenous communities is to keep informing the World Bank, especially at the national level. They need to engage the Bank so that initiatives are respectful of their cultures and do no harm to the environment, livelihoods and to them as a people.”
Life has recently come full circle for Soikan. In July, he returned to his village in Kenya, where he was made an official community elder in an elaborate ceremony known as Orngesherr, which is only performed once every 15 years. Now, with a homestead and cattle of his own, and a duty to mentor community members, Soikan says the time has come to start thinking about working on World Bank projects closer to home.
No matter what Soikan goes on to do, there’s little doubt the World Bank is better off for having his passion – and his voice – at the table.