While attending the CITES (Convention on Trade in Endangered Species) biodiversity summit in Nagoya, Japan, late last year, World Bank President Robert Zoellick said that we must foster development and reduce poverty, and at the same time preserve and improve the planet’s biodiversity and ecological resilience.
He noted during a speech at the Cancun COP16 Climate Convention that “empty forests are greatly diminished.” He is completely right, but globally efforts to achieve ecologically sustainable development have been difficult and fraught with failure. Sadly, to some the issue is yet another complication to be ignored or avoided.
I spent this weekend at the Mpala Research Center , in Laikipia, central Kenya, which is a remarkable partnership with the National Museums of Kenya, its local partners in Laikipia district, the Smithsonian Institution, and Princeton University in the United States.
Mpala is very dear to me. Working more than a decade ago with a remarkable doctoral student of mine who is now a professor, Majid Ezzati, and a fabulous team of local Kenyan medical and energy researchers and extension officers, we completed a detailed “dose-response” study of the health benefits of improved cookstoves. We found that while initial particulate levels were very high–7,000 or more micrograms of particulates per cubic meter (mg/m3)–combinations of improved stoves and clean burning fuels could reduce the incidence of acute respiratory illness by 50%.
This was a remarkable achievement for several reasons. First, it demonstrated significant health benefits could result even though the pollution levels (even with the best stove and fuel combinations) were still several hundred mg/m3, compared to “do not exceed” levels of 100 – 150 mg/m3 in most industrialized nations. But equally important, this was a true field study – conducted in the rural homes of a working cattle ranch. We concluded the fieldwork in 1998, and wrote up the key papers beginning in 2001 (See The Lancet , “Indoor air pollution from biomass combustion and acute respiratory infections in Kenya: An Exposure-response study, Ezzati and Kammen, 2001).
My visit to Mpala Research Center(picture on the left) was particularly exciting because it was a chance to visit a greatly expanded research center from my time there 15 years ago, with teams studying a wide range of ecological, technological, and cultural issues. A tour of the area will bring you across herds of elephant, all of the big cats of Kenya, hippo, and a community of over 300 wild dogs. A remarkable place.
During this visit we focused on a massively important issue: the value of environmental services for human populations and to the ecosystem itself. Much is being made, rightly so, of the capacity of forests or soils to sequester carbon dioxide. At the same time, poverty demands initiatives that provide not only basic services, but the opportunities for economic advancement for everyone--specifically the world’s poorest, who are directly dependent on the environment for their livelihoods. Can communities meet firewood, medicinal plant, and water needs while sustaining the ecosystem? Can they even derive an improved standard of living from managing the environment to a healthier place? I have already written in my November 29, 2010 blog  about the use of marginal abatement curves to find energy opportunities that increase access and decrease carbon emissions. But this challenge goes further, into the valuation of the full range of ecosystem services to improve both human and ecological health.
Work in this area is only beginning, but at Mpala I saw promising signs. Mpala is home to both a large cattle population, and large herds of elephants. They share habitat and – critically – watering holes. Can these two populations and water needed by both be managed to share the resource and minimize conflict? Strategies to help communities manage traditional resources – for example, exploring sustainable levels of cattle ranching and honey production in tree-hives – are vitally needed. It will also be key to build new revenue streams through ecotourism and ecosystem conservation. All are under exploration in practical community projects and in controlled research projects at Mpala and in some of the surrounding ranches.
Water resources are a vital component of arid land management. Management of the free-flowing water for the river dwellers, such as hippos, as well as for humans is another area where research and practical experience will be needed as pressures mount in these critical mixed-use ecosystems.
Developing these new tools can’t come fast enough, and the World Bank  has been examining the lessons from recent ecosystem management assessments. (Tlaiye and Awe), 2010. In Kenya, the 2005 Forestry Act officially recognizes local communities as key stakeholders in developing forestry management plans. And while Kenya has established an impressive number of Community Forestry Associations (CFAs)–347 have been formally registered to date–significant encroachment issues exists on neighboring parks and on lands designated for indigenous communities (Makhanu, 2011). In addition, both revenue sharing among the participants as well as financial transparency remain as significant challenges.
Mpala Research Center, and other locations where community-wildlife interactions and co-benefits are under study in practically-driven, “real-world” situations are vital—both for developing new management tools, and learning lessons about the specific effects of scientific, economic, and policy choices. How well we collectively can learn these lessons will determine if the tremendous resource that is the African savannah and dry-lands ecosystem can be sustained for ecological and human well-being.