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Dispatch From The Field: Mission To Nairobi


Editor’s Note: So often in the NGO and academic sphere, we or our peers traipse halfway around the world for meetings, conferences, and summits. Once there we listen to a parade of accomplished, influential speakers and hope to learn a few things. But what is it that sinks into our memories, what is it that changes us? Often what we experience outside the meeting rooms is as powerful as what we hear inside.

What 120 tons of confiscated, burned ivory looks like. A chunk of tusk is visible in the third pile.
What 120 tons of confiscated, burned ivory looks like. A chunk of tusk is visible in the third pile.

2pm May 14, SeattleMy plane ticket to Kenya arrives in my inbox, courtesy of the UN Environment Program, only three days before I’m scheduled to fly out.  It turns out I really am going to the other side of the world for a two-day meeting, the UNEP Science-Policy Forum, where I’ve been invited to say something inspiring about natural capital.  I know little of Nairobi other than that it’s unsafe and choked with traffic.

10am May 17, SeattleWondering about the sanity of going so far to deliver one little inadequately prepared talk, before leaving the house I have one of Edgar Allen Poe’s “imp of the perverse” moments and consider just leaving my suitcase by the door, and settling in at home to work for the day.

1pm May 18, Amsterdam Airport SchipholI’m surrounded by American missionaries full of excitement about the months they will spend in Kenya and neighboring countries and their belief in God’s plan for them.  I think about my own little mission—I too have some gospel to spread.

10pm May 18, NairobiAfter a 9-hour flight from Europe over the Sahara, we land in Nairobi, where I’m met by a team of UNEP staff in colorful vests, who escort me through customs and down to the mob of drivers festooned with papers with travelers’ names on them.

Cyrus, my driver with a giant smile, and I arrive at the historic, colonial Fairmont Norfolk hotel (where I later learn a number of people died in a New Year’s eve bombing a few years ago) and clear security (wanding under the car, followed by airport-type security procedures).  After 27 hours in transit I fall into bed.

8am May 19, NairobiMy alarm shocks me awake an hour later than I planned (argh! phone still on Amsterdam time!), and only a ½ hour before Cyrus is to show up to drive me to the UN campus. A few hours of crappy sleep, no final run-through of my talk, barely time to make myself presentable, no food, and god-knows-what-time-it-is-at-home—this is going to be an awesome talk.

After a laborious security procedure at the gates of the UN’s Gigiri complex, I make my way up the flag-bedecked walkway, past monkeys tussling beneath the trees, to the main building.  I think there were some good talks that morning—Achim Steiner, Director General of UNEP surely said some inspiring things, Andy Revkin, hero from the New York Times must have done the same, and Jacques Cousteau’s son showed some lovely video of a seal swimming, but I am busy making sure I do not close my eyes and do clear my head for my “inspirational talk” in the afternoon.  (Yes, they really did advertise it, and a few others as such, no pressure).

Jacqueline McGlade, UNEP’s Chief Scientist, a bird-like woman with a British accent and obvious passion for her work, holds the reins for this meeting.  She tells us all that she has recently married a Maasai Chief—thus her apparently uncharacteristically rich and jingly adornment.  I later hear a rumor that a condition of her marriage to the Chief is the end of female circumcision in his domain.

1pm, NairobiAfter lunch, I deliver my talk.  Like those missionaries in the Amsterdam airport, I’m committed to my cause.  I work to convince the audience, many of whom are wearing those translator headphones, that understanding connections between nature and human well-being will help us make smarter decisions for a more sustainable future.  Using NatCap’s work in Nairobi’s Tana River waterfund and in national development planning in China, I make the case that natural capital information is actionable and is making a difference.  There are lots of questions and a lively discussion throughout the session.

Samuel Mureithi, head of economics and planning at the Kenya Forest Service, talks about some inspired work he and his team have done valuing all manner of things that come from forests in Kenya—soil stabilization, improved water yields, carbon storage, and more.  Addressing the perceived undervaluation of forests, they developed “Forest Resource Accounts” that estimate the contribution of forests to the national economy, from forest products, to subsistence economies, to ecosystem services. He showed that the value lost to society by cutting forests is nearly three times greater than the gain.

8pm, NairobiA reception honors Ashok Khosla, founder of Development Alternatives in India, for his lifetime service to the “science-policy interface.”  A round man with large deep-brown eyes looking like “Gandhi on a different diet” (according to introducer Achim Steiner), Khosla talks of going back to his village in India after time at UNEP in Nairobi when he was a young man to work for sustainable development at home (some credit him with coining the term “sustainability”).   He good-naturedly rails against the “science-policy” interface he is being recognized for, saying he isn’t interested in “policy,” he just wants to make a difference for people and the planet.  He talks of his work with Development Alternatives—“making good business out of delivering environmentally sound development” and engaging civil society, NGOs, and the private sector to effect change.

After the reception, Thierry Olivera, the UNEP economist who had invited me to the meeting, takes me through a downpour in his old SUV to a deserted Ethiopian restaurant.  We sit outside, listening to the rain on the metal roof of the porch, digging into incredible vegetable dishes with deep brown injera, and talk.  His father is from a fishing village in Senegal, his mother from France.  His girls were born in New York and are headed to boarding school in Europe in a few months.  He tells me stories of the violence that shook Nairobi during the elections in 2007 and his fears for the upcoming elections.

I feel parochial, white (“mzungu” as they say in Kenya), and American—with my American great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and kids.  Surrounded by so many people moving fluidly between and among cultures all day, I am hopeful that we, as a global society, can come up with creative and wise solutions to sustainable development challenges. I hope we can keep open minds, learn from others who are different from us, tear down walls, and dream big about possible futures.

8am May 20, NairobiCyrus picks me up and we crawl through traffic around car-sized potholes, dysfunctional roundabouts, mini-mountains masquerading as speed bumps, and people pushing carts overburdened with fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen before.

Thanks to the morning slog, I arrive only for the end of a discussion on public health and the environment.  A specialist in the illegal trade of live wildlife tells a story about a man getting caught with a chimpanzee in his carry-on luggage—one person part of the estimated trade in 40,000 live primates illegally trafficked each year.  An important new paradigm the panel discusses is “one health,” recognizing the interconnections of human, animal, and environmental health.

Throughout the day, I hear many interesting talks, including one by one of my new heroes, Ashok Khosla, that emphasizes the importance of simple solutions like reducing carbon emissions for $4/ton by educating girls, thereby reducing population growth instead of doing so for $250/ton through carbon capture and storage technologies.

Overall, I am inspired and invigorated by so many creative and dedicated people working to solve the world’s problems.  I am also frustrated by the level of so much of the discussion—trying to impact “policy” is so abstract.  It is hard to talk about  anything real and tangible when working at the international level.  So much turns into platitudes about systems being complex, admonishments to “involve stakeholders,” and the like.

I feel validated by NatCap’s work with real decision-makers, listening to real questions whose answers will have huge impacts on people’s livelihoods, and working together to answer them as best we can.  I feel as though we’ve got the right idea—learning what works together with people in our “use cases,” making it easier, faster, and cheaper to replicate successes through our science and technology platform, lowering barriers through training and capacity-building with key individuals and institutions, convening thought-leaders to enrich our ideas, and sharing and telling stories of success (and failure too).

11pm, NairobiAfter dinner, Thierry, an accomplished drummer, invites me to a bar where musicians gather each Friday night to play the blues.

We pass some apparently decorative security guards at the gate of a small shopping mall.  It looks like the typical mall you’d find in Cleveland, but late at night, so empty.  But filled with music.  We go downstairs to find a funny little bar that spills out into the area under the mall stairs.  Everyone knows Thierry.  He introduces me to 8 or 9 people, then asks if it’d be OK if he heads up to the stage to play.  I give him my blessing and settle in at a table by myself.

Before long, a tall, skinny smoker with a ten-gallon hat and leathery face sits down next to me.  I say, “tell me about you.”  Approximately 45 minutes later, I say another word.  Raised in South Bend Indiana, he went to Mogadishu as a young 20-something to work for an international shipping company.  For the past 40 years he has worked all over Africa in logistics—for oil and gas development, for aid agencies, for governments.  He’s flown in single engine planes up the Congo to assess refugee situations and been shot at by militias and desperately poor thieves in Kenya.  Even if half of his tales were as tall as his hat, he’s led an incredible life.

Listening to the music, I think about passion and talent and how music—or any kind of shared experience or fervor—brings people together.  I forget how tired I am and appreciate how the economist, who only recently had been e-mailing me polite e-mails from a world away about my “inspirational” talk, is now my new friend, happily bashing away on the drums late into the night.

1pm May 21, Nairobi National ParkI expect to be underwhelmed by Nairobi National Park.  It is so close to such a major, chaotic city.  I had seen pictures of giraffes with the skyline of the city in the background.  I had been told that if I’d seen African wildlife in the “real wild”, I might want to skip it and do something else with my one free day.  I’m so glad I didn’t listen.

I’m traveling with my American expat friends Evan, Kristin, and their two little boys.  Our first stop is the ivory burning site. I want to cry when I see the absolutely enormous piles of ash left over after the burning of ivory confiscated by authorities.  The newest pile, that could easily have been off-loaded by a giant dump-truck, was the result of the recent burning of 120 tons of ivory that made the news back home.  There is one large chunk of tusk near the top of the massive whitish-grey pile.  I think of all of the elephants and rhinos that lost their lives, I think of the people who poach animals in a desperate attempt to access cash to better their lives, I think of the people willing to pay extraordinary sums for ivory, I think of how the should-not-exist-black-market value of that ivory could have been used productively in countries plagued by extreme poverty, I think of the horrible waste of and the critical need to burn that ivory, and I worry that the two little boys I am with—and mine at home—may someday live in a world without rhinos and elephants.

They did not exaggerate about the condition of the roads at the park entrance (a handwritten sign said that only 4-wheel drive vehicles were allowed in the park today because it was “practically a certainty” that others would get stuck in the mud).  Evan fearlessly guns it through huge puddles, deep brown water splashing up over the top of the fire-engine red Land Rover, all of the passengers holding on and squealing with a mixture of joy and fear.  This is not territory in which you want to get out of the car and push, lest you become like one of those unfortunate zebras in a Discovery channel documentary.

Fenced only on the city-side, Nairobi National Park is open to the savannah.  So close to a major city, these animals migrate in and out of the park at will.  Human visitors pay fees–non-residents like me pay USD $50, while Kenyan citizens pay a little less than USD $5.  I like this system, but still worry about the inaccessibility of this kind of experience for so many locals. I think of the woman in our session on natural capital at the Science-Policy forum who said that growing up in Kenya, though she recognizes the importance of iconic wildlife (particularly for their attraction revenue from tourism), she still thinks of many species of wildlife as pests or as dangerous predators.  I reflect on the privilege I have of being in a position (financially and existentially) to marvel at these incredible creatures.

We see impalas, gazelles, elands, bushbucks, a massive herd of zebras, giraffes, and two black rhinos.  There are a lot of rhinos here—partly because it is good habitat for them, but also because some have been moved here from conservancies elsewhere so that they can be better protected from poachers.  Poaching rates are down in Kenya (14 poached in 2015, down from 35 in 2014 when the whole of Africa had the worst poaching year in decades), but it remains a major problem.

Mid-day May 22, 30,000 feet over the SaharaI reflect on my whirlwind trip and wrangle my thoughts into words.  I could never have foreseen that three days on the other side of the world could have been so rich, so joyful, so sad, and so beautiful.  They will stay with me always and, I hope, continue to give me perspective.

My time in Nairobi reminds me that I’ve been looking through a narrow tube and gives me an opportunity to broaden my view.  I think of my undeserved good luck of being one of the haves in this world and the way in which living in or visiting a place where those who clearly have not are everywhere is a painful but important reminder that we must do more for the people that we as a global society are leaving behind.  I vow to step up our work to link human development and environmental agendas.  Like those missionaries, I have strongly held beliefs, one of mine being that the health and well-being of people and nature are one.  A more sustainable future is possible if we do things differently.  If we open our eyes and hearts.

Anne Guerry is the Chief Strategy Officer of the Natural Capital Project, Anne works to magnify NatCap’s impact and ensure that we are achieving our strategic goals; she oversees our communications and outreach, training and capacity building, and partner relations. As Lead Scientist, Anne leads NatCap’s marine and coastal work. Beyond nature’s benefits, her primary research interests are in community ecology, rocky intertidal systems, and ecosystem-based management. She received her PhD in Zoology from Oregon State University, her MS in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Maine, and her BA in Environmental Studies and English from Yale University. She has a lifelong love of the sea and believes that shining a light on nature’s benefits can lead us to smarter decisions.

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