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Q&A: Esther Mwangi on why voices of local community members will be featured at GLF Africa conference

The 2018 Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) Africa Conference is set to kick off in Nairobi, Kenya this week, bringing together representatives from both the public and private sectors, as well as scientists, indigenous peoples, youth, and others, in order to bolster efforts to combat deforestation and land degradation on the African continent.

The GLF, an initiative of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in partnership with the UN Environment Programme and the World Bank, regularly hosts global, regional, and local events that bring together key stakeholders to discuss issues around sustainable land use. The conference in Nairobi, which starts tomorrow, August 29, is particularly focused on implementation of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which aims to restore 100 million hectares (a little over 247 million acres) of degraded landscapes across Africa by 2030.

Looking ahead to the GLF Africa conference, Mongabay spoke with Esther Mwangi, a principal scientist for forests and governance at CIFOR, who is set to moderate an opening day plenary session titled “Voices of the Landscape.” According to the plenary session’s event page, this will be “the first time in the five-year history of the Global Landscapes Forum that community members and/or their representatives have constituted a plenary session. The aim is to amplify community voices in global policy debates.”

Thanks to the efforts of local communities, more than 5 million hectares (about 12.4 million acres) of degraded landscapes have already been successfully restored in countries like Ethiopia, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, and Uganda. The 2018 GLF Africa Conference aims to highlight these kinds of success stories and promote discussion of the human, technical, and financial barriers that can limit the effectiveness of restoration efforts.

Mwangi gave Mongabay a preview of what the opening day plenary session will offer, told us about the people she invited to share their stories, and explained why it’s so important that attendees of the GLF Africa conference hear directly from local community members.

Water Resource Users Association (WRUA) member Rusi Chelangat filling a potting bag with soil in Itare, Kenya: “We live along the river and we use the water mutually with the forest. We have come here for the purpose of planting seedlings so that it will rehabilitate the forest. We even want to start another tree nursery near the river so that in future we leave a legacy for our children, that they learn their medicinal plants from their parents. We need financial support to start many indigenous tree nurseries.” Photo by Patrick Shepherd/CIFOR, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Mongabay: The “Voices of the Landscapes” plenary session you organized for the upcoming GLF Africa Conference in Nairboi is the first in the GLF’s five-year history to feature representatives from local communities. Why was it important to include voices from local community members in this event?

Esther Mwangi: The GLF is an important space open to multiple actors. It has featured community representatives of different kinds: women’s organization leaders, indigenous leaders, etc. But this is the first GLF of its kind in Africa, themed on reforestation and happening at a time when a large number of African governments have made ambitious pledges to restore degraded land within a targeted time period. The GLF, happening on the back end of the African Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR 100), seemed an appropriate time to bring back into this discussion the role of communities on the ground, to shine a light on what they have been doing to restore landscapes over decades, to indicate whom they worked with and how, to capture their aspirations and opportunities going forwards, and to link them up with people from different parts of the continent who may hold similar or divergent views. They know where the shoe pinches, why not just hear from them directly?

Can you tell us a bit about the people who will be speaking at the plenary? Who are they and why were they, specifically, chosen?

There was nothing systematic, really, in how I selected this esteemed group. But I am excited about them all and the lessons they share which are both enriching and uplifting. All of them are leaders in their communities. They have championed reforestation and have, in their eyes and the eyes of those around them, succeeded. There’s a farmer from Burkina Faso who puts his own resources into developing tree nurseries and shares his resources with other community members; a woman who began her journey by lobbying against garbage dumping and ended up leading her community and others in planting trees in a setting where forest conversion/encroachment was the norm, then went further to create associations and umbrella organizations; an indigenous community leader who spent years fighting for the tenure rights of his community and is now working with sub-national and national governments to restore degraded forest; and a man who almost seems larger than life, who led many communities to restore coastal mangroves—the largest mangrove restoration effort in the world—and later became a government minister, further bringing to scale what he had begun at local level. These are the people that will speak at the plenary. They are exemplary.

Aerial view of Southwest Mau Forest and neighbouring tea estates. Photo by Patrick Sheperd/CIFOR, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

This GLF Africa Conference is focused on initiatives for the restoration of degraded landscapes. There are numerous examples of successful restoration from around the African continent. Can you give us an example or two and tell us what they did right to achieve their success?

What does success look like from the perspective of the different actors engaged in solving a problem? That’s an interesting question with real practical consequences. From the stories featured in our collection, the narrators believe they have achieved some success. Take the Burkinabe farmer for instance: he personally restored 20 hectares, but led his community to restoring an additional 200 hectares. Importantly, he has shared his knowledge, money, and time, constructed a borehole, developed a tree-nursery, distributed seedlings, and so on, over the course of 20 years. On the other hand, over the same time period the woman leader in Kenya has restored about ten times that, under pressure from a high and growing population, and has created other community-based institutions to support this and other initiatives.

They demonstrate that restoration is about persistence. It’s about leadership. It’s about working together — in and across communities and with NGOs, with government. At the heart of all this organizing and investment lie a couple of important things: a strong motivation (often livelihoods security), an enabling condition (such as secure tenure), and leadership. These observations cut across the stories regardless of geography, forest type, prevailing production system, etc. One of the things we see in these stories is that the process of reforestation can serve as a catalyst for stronger women’s rights but the converse appears to be at work too — that is, that the process of strengthening women’s rights can also catalyse reforestation efforts.

In your experience, what are some common constraints on good policy that can restrict the efficacy of restoration initiatives in Africa?

For this GLF we put together some country profiles/factsheets that will be distributed during the meeting. We worked with partners and colleagues in forestry agencies and research institutions in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to produce these profiles. While each country has a set of unique requirements based on its policy and institutional frameworks, there were some shared issues. Landscape restoration is a mandate that cuts across sectors, and many countries indicate that there is need for better coordination across sectors as well as across governance levels. Actors involved in restoration need to be better mapped, as this will help their coordination. In addition, a monitoring system that documents these restoration efforts is required. Last and probably most important is the system of land tenure and land use planning. Overlapping rights, multiple authorities, both customary and statutory, often create a situation of insecurity, dampening the incentive for individuals and groups to undertake reforestation. Overall, these are issues that should be factored into reforestation strategies, including of course a recognition of community efforts and appropriate support and incentives to those. Increasingly, countries are seeing the private sector, in all its many forms — large corporations, small, and medium enterprises — as a major opportunity for landscape restoration.

Citizen scientists gathering water samples in the Sondu Basin of Kenya. Photo by Patrick Sheperd/CIFOR, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

How have land rights affected implementation of restoration efforts in Africa?

This is an interesting question, which requires deeper exploration under multiple settings. When looking at mangroves, for example, you will find that in almost all countries they are under state management authority. Devolution and other community-based innovations are taking longer to reach them, unlike with terrestrial forests. However, in Senegal and under the Mikoko Pamoja initiative in Kenya, partial rights do not seem to deter communities from investing in restoration, contrary to what one would expect. Similarly in Cameroon and in Kenya’s Mt. Kenya, weak rights for women did not stop them from investing time and effort in reforestation, but instead helped establish and even strengthen their claims. In Uganda, on the other hand, strengthening women’s tenure rights to forests and trees opened up a path to reforestation and tree planting.
There is no doubt that tenure rights are important and do affect community restoration efforts but we need a more deliberate assessment to surface the nuances of this relationship.

What kinds of unique insights can the speakers at your plenary session provide regarding these kinds of issues?

The session will be live streamed here for those who are unable to attend physically.

The stories are available here.

Plant nursery in Yangambi, DRC. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

More broadly, what progress do you hope the GLF Africa Conference will make in terms of addressing these issues and promoting successful restoration?

The GLF Africa is being held back to back with the AFR 100. This is a very good thing and will allow for a useful cross-fertilization of ideas and experiences.

This GLF will heighten our awareness and recognition of community efforts in landscape restoration. It is my hope that these community voices will at some point take center stage in this discourse on landscape restoration, especially here in Africa — not because we want to leave the burden to communities but because they are on the ground, are affected most directly by landscape degradation, and therefore have a strong incentive to fight it.

In addition, we are making a good start towards documenting, from community perspectives, conditions under which successful restoration efforts are most likely, which is certainly relevant for actors interested in strengthening and supporting community efforts.

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