“Achieving species conservation goals requires indigenous knowledge”

Rich countries must ask themselves what they have contributed to biodiversity loss. There is no need to negotiate this – it’s something they can check themselves and say: “We will stop this.” So says Boniface Kiteme, head of the Kenyan research institute CETRAD, which has collaborated with CDE for over 30 years and now also works with the Wyss Academy for Nature. Ahead of the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference, he asks: “What role should poor societies play in achieving global biodiversity goals?”

“If Swiss-based companies produce pesticides that are banned in Switzerland, and they put them on the market in Kenya, then the solution must come from Switzerland,” says Boniface Kiteme. Photo: CDE

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

You work with the CETRAD training and research centre in the Mount Kenya region, an area of high biodiversity. But its habitats have come under enormous pressure. What is the main problem?

Human activity in this region has increased significantly, either through immigration from heavily populated areas in the neighbouring regions and elsewhere in Kenya or through the expansion of agriculture into previously intact biodiversity areas that also hosted grazing areas and watering points. Every available space has come under pressure. This includes the routes that served to move cattle from the north of the country to the south, as well as known wildlife migratory routes and dispersal areas. This pressure has severely affected the interconnectedness of ecosystems and led to serious conflicts between humans and wildlife.

Are you referring to elephants entering fields?

It’s also about elephants, yes. Elephants can’t be shut away. They know where they passed through a hundred years ago, and they continue to use these routes. But now there are fields of maize, potato, or bean. The elephants pass and eat up the crops. So human–wildlife conflicts have intensified, with a negative impact on livelihoods, especially on the food security of families. However, it’s not just the migratory routes of elephants and other wildlife that are affected: former pastoralist cattle routes, too, have been disrupted by new farming and settlement areas. This has severely restricted the mobility essential to pastoralist livelihoods.


“We need to reinstate continuous migratory routes for wildlife and livestock”


In a project you are implementing with the support of the Wyss Academy, the aim is to defuse conflicts and create a win-win situation through shared routes or migratory corridors for wildlife and livestock. Is that successful?

The dual-purpose corridor initiative was identified in a workshop involving most of the stakeholders in the region. The aim of the corridors is to improve the interconnectedness of ecosystems and to reduce conflicts – between humans and wildlife, but also between pastoralists and smallholder farmers. Thanks to the involvement of local communities and of interest groups, we have already achieved a lot. There is a general consensus among all stakeholders that these continuous corridors need to be reinstated. Although there are still many open questions, I believe the initiative is promising.


“Pesticide use is a huge problem”


In another development in the Mount Kenya region, plantations of roses and vegetables for export are meant to bring economic progress. How is this affecting biodiversity?

We have just completed six years of research on food systems with CDE and other leading local and international research organizations. Our findings are really worrying – both in terms of plantations and smallholders producing for export. One huge problem is pesticide use: Of 53 pesticides we identified on farms, for example, only 17 are authorized in Switzerland. A total of 36 contained highly dangerous active ingredients. Another factor is the amount of product applied: Crops such as broccoli and beans were sprayed up to 15 times per cultivation cycle. This of course has a strong impact on biodiversity – bees, for example – but also on human health.


“It is time for us to move away from the model of intensive agriculture”


What do you suggest we do?

Economic considerations far outweigh all other considerations. This is the main problem. People want to increase productivity and see the use of fertilizer and pesticides as a quick fix. But it is time to move away from this model and instead to promote an agroecological approach in earnest – along with other practices that help to restore degraded areas. This would also benefit biodiversity.


“If we put 30 per cent of the country under protection, where do we send the people living there?”


Proposals ahead of the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference include protecting 30 per cent of the Earth’s land and ocean areas by 2030. Is “30x30” a promising approach for the Mount Kenya region?

If we want to achieve this goal, there are two things I personally consider key. First, we need to ask ourselves: When did the rain start beating us? How did we get to where we are now? This question should be answered independently of all political and economic considerations. As the world population continues to grow, the demand for land and resources increases each day. But the space available remains the same. That is why the next question is: If we put 30 per cent of the land under protection, where do we send the people living there? If there is an answer to that, we can move in the direction of “30x30”. If not, then, sorry – I believe we need to rethink the effort.


“As long as the population continues to grow, land will become scarcer”


The respective governments could at least look for solutions.

In Kenya, we have had presidential candidates who were not elected because they wanted people to leave the forests. A government could be destabilized if it tells people to get out of the protected areas. This begs the fundamental question: What alternative do we offer? Of course, you can discuss. But as long as the population continues to grow, land will become scarcer. That brings me to the next question.

Which is?

Last summer we discussed the corridors with the Masai community in the affected area of the Laikipia Plateau. We found that they have great knowledge about biodiversity conservation and how to manage the environment they live in – especially with regard to wildlife migration and livestock movement. Their tradition, for example, that a man in a given age group must go and kill a lion as part of being initiated into a new age set, may be incomprehensible to outsiders. But there is a lot of logic behind it. Because the respective age group has to kill a lion identified by the elders. You are not supposed to touch any other lion. Why? Because the Masai want to preserve the continuity of the lion community. So my question is: How much indigenous knowledge can we, do we want to, or do we have to include, in order to achieve the goals of species conservation? I am convinced we have to stay true to this knowledge.


“How much time will we lose in achieving the goals if we do not hurry up and address the North–South divide?”


What do you, personally, expect of the Biodiversity Conference?

We have to ask ourselves in general what the purpose of these global conferences is. Are their impacts worth the effort? I am not so sure about that. Around the “30x30” debate there are other things being discussed that I think are fundamental: What role should poor societies play in achieving the goals? How do we deal with the obvious divide between the two worlds, North and South? And how much time do we lose in achieving the goals if we do not hurry up and address this divide?

So what do rich countries need to do so that developing countries can preserve their biodiversity?

The rich countries must ask themselves what they have contributed to biodiversity loss. There is no need to negotiate this, it’s something they can check themselves and say: “We will stop this.” To give just one example: If Swiss-based companies produce pesticides that are banned in Switzerland, and they put them on the market in Kenya, then the solution must come from Switzerland. The rich countries have technical know-how, and they have greater financial resources at their disposal – they need to make use of this.


“Poor countries must also ask themselves what they can do”

I don’t mean to say, however, that poor countries can’t also act. They, too, must ask themselves what they have contributed to the current situation and what they can do. Not all measures to reverse undesirable developments require financial resources.

So it’s each to his own?

I didn’t say that. But it seems important to me that everyone first checks what they are responsible for and exhausts their own possibilities. Which then leads to the question: What do we need to do together?


Further reading

CDE Policy brief on pesticides

UN Biodiversity Conference

The Convention on Biological Diversity, also known as the Biodiversity Convention, is the most important international agreement regarding protection of biodiversity. In 2010, the 10th Conference of the Parties adopted the Aichi Targets. These should have been achieved by 2020 – but were clearly missed. A successor agreement to the Aichi Agreement was to be adopted at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), originally planned for October 2020 in Kunming, China. However, the conference was postponed to October 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Initial negotiations were then held via videoconference, resulting in a somewhat vague declaration in which protection of 30 per cent of Earth’s surface plays a central role. Continued negotiations are scheduled for March 2022 in Geneva. The successor agreement to the Aichi Targets is planned to be adopted in a face-to-face meeting in April/May 2022.

Series covering the Conference

The Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and the Wyss Academy for Nature, University of Bern, are illuminating some of the most important aspects of the ongoing negotiations in interviews with their experts. In addition, we wish to draw attention to the presentations held at the “Swiss Forum on Conservation Biology” online conferences SWIFCOB21 and SWIFCOB22, organized by the Swiss Biodiversity Forum of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. They are available in German and French.