Charles Oluchina is the Africa Field Director for The Nature Conservancy - www.nature.org.
Bio: Driving The Nature Conservancy’s on-the-ground conservation efforts across The Nature Conservancy’s program sites in Africa is Charles Oluchina. Charles started with the Africa Region in early 2012 and brings more than 13 years of experience in the development and management of rural livelihoods programs. He is a leading specialist in natural resources value chain development, wildlife conservation, water resources management and land-use / policy reform programs. During his previous position as a natural resources advisor with USAID, he collaborated with the Government of Kenya, the Ministry of Forest and Wildlife, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and a coalition of conservation organizations to review the draft Wildlife Management and Conservation Policy and Bill of 2007. Additionally, Charles has demonstrated capabilities in financial management, organizational development, training and facilitation, data collection and analysis and strategic planning at macro and micro scales. In addition to his MBA in Entrepreneurship and Bachelors of Science, Charles has received training in finance, climatology and global development policy.
I had the privilege of meeting him whilst in Nairobi and this is his conservation story in his own words.
My Conservation Story.
In Northern Kenya resource-based conflict was almost a way of life between communities for a long time and it was against this backdrop that I immersed my career to address the high stakes of raw conflict and contestations over pasture, water and natural resources. In fact wildlife was more a collateral damage in a region that had come accustomed to punishing droughts that left communities with little in the form of livelihood to rely upon and brought forth the brute nature of human survival and conquest that is a fact of human civilization and societal dynamics.
Back in 2004, I had a first-hand experience of the vagaries of internecine conflicts among the pastoralists communities. In this land of endless skies and scorching heat, peace and quiet in the acacia bushes and themeda grasslands would be as deceptive and shifty as rain the Sahara. But this place presented the last promise to some of the most enigmatic and rare wildlife on earth – the gerenuk, the beisa oryx, the gravy zebra, northern reticulated giraffe and scattered herds of elephants. So how was it that a land so beautiful and enchanting would hold so much pain and death to its people and wildlife as in an endless spiral of mortal devastation? Something had to be done and be done differently. Probably, I thought, wildlife would end up being a uniting force that could bring together the communities in conflict. Then I reasoned that what was good for the community cattle must be just as good for wildlife which for a long time had been viewed as a government good with no real owner. But who would fund such a risky venture in an area with limited infrastructure, economy or organization to speak about? Forty years after Kenya’s independence the region remained marginalized with little coming forward in the way of government support.
It was my mission to build a case for community conservation that would have the US Government through USAID buy into the prospects of financing conservancy development in Northern Kenya. Armed with nothing but faith and goodwill, I ventured into the process of community mobilization with Ian Craig from Lewa Conservancy. The early days were hard and demoralizing given the disinterest that the communities expressed in us. On our back and forth drives to camp we would engage in very measured conversation and muffle our distress on the hope that one day things would get better. Each route we took to a different meeting exposed us to decaying carcasses of wildlife, chalk-white skeletons of long gone elephants and in some instances flocks of vultures circling over freshly slaughtered wildlife. In that same year, a massive drought had swept through the country and killed over 60% of community livestock. The situation was depressing and the mood was hostile – there was the smell of death in the air. Everything that I held dear in my life including the conservation concepts and theories taught in faculty begun losing perspective as we ventured deeper into remote locations to seek for community engagment. This could be me, I thought to myself, a weary sun-baked Samburu moran with little of earthly possession and whose hopes and dreams would be pegged on the remaining seven emaciated head of cattle that he was trekking for over twenty miles to water. Not all of them would make it to the spring eventually and this young warrior would still hold his faith in the remaining two even as he watched members of his cherished herds collapse and die from dehydration and hunger. In a community where cattle is the ‘bank on hooves’ it was a loss of lifesavings and investments. Hunger, drought and war had stripped a people of their dignity and pushed them to brute survival – who would blame them? This was the epiphany for me, a moment to drop from my comfort zone and shift into the reality of every day community life. I realized just how easy it had been for me to write proposals and theories of conservation from the comfort of my air-conditioned desk, how effortless it had been to run through strategic plans in the airy plenaries of five star hotels in the city and how superficial all my talks about wildlife had been around the cocktail parties in well-manicured diplomatic chanceries grounds in the city. That was conservation speak and would never be conservation action. It dawned on me that conservation was about people and their way of life and in fact the way of life stood out as the most important part of conservation. What had taken me too long to realize?
Hitherto-fore, I never spoke about wildlife conservation in the same light. I had to put people at the center of the conversation and internalize their aspirations, experiences and fears. It was a difficult agenda as you can imagine given the war of attrition that had afflicted these lands. I spent nights in the dangerous frontlines of Koya, Kom and Kauro, each night guarded by small rag-tag groups of community police reservists. Each evening as we sat by the fireside for a bowl of rice and beans we would engage the community leaders on stories of their lives – stories about rivalry, mutual hate, reciprocal vengeance painted cataclysmic images in my mind. The level of human slaughter at Kauro which was a Samburu settlement before then, the sheer devastation of revenge in Kom which was a Borana outpost and the unimaginable scale of ambush and murder at Koya which was a Rendile grazing camp was beyond imagination. Despite that heady history, I did visit and camp in all the three sites with community leaders. As if in pilgrimage and respect of the departed souls and wildlife that once adorned the lands, we camped for at least two nights at each of the site – the ‘ground-zero’ of community conflicts. It is through this immersion in the peoples losses, fears, risks and way of life that we made life-changing breakthroughs for conservation in Northern Kenya. From these entreaties, the communities did agree to set up conservancy, Sera, where over 5 former bandits and poachers voluntary gave up their earlier activities and embraced conservation. From the seed we planted at Sera with NRT in 2004 have emerged 30 new conservancies, in total covering over 7 million acres of communal land. Here conservation works in its purest and simple form – people centered and a way of life.
Image courtesy and copyright Mike Harrison/NRT.