15 January 2013

Kenya: Colin Church - a Champion in Protecting Water Towers

It was dangled as a 2 1/2 day-a-week job. And the carrot, plenty of free time for some trout fishing. It turned out to be a full-time assignment spent shuttling between a city office, state departments and donor companies, plus chugging thousands of miles up muddy mountain tracks.

"I was hijacked," chuckles Colin Church, outgoing chairman of Rhino Ark Charitable Trust. "I was completely hijacked but I appealed to the hijackers for assistance."

Just as well, for not only are there more trout in the Aberdare Mountain range but the entire biodiversity of this vital water source has been secured into posterity. And work is well underway to safeguard the country's other key water towers.

Looking back on 12 years in the Rhino Ark, there is one man hugely satisfied with a task achieved, never mind that it wasn't part of his expected life plans.

Rhino Ark was conceived in between 1987 and 1988 as a charitable organisation to build a protective fence on the boundary of the 70km2 eastern salient of the Aberdares National Park.

Fundraising from the concerned public in Kenya had to trigger the process. The conceived idea for this was the Rhino Charge, an off-road driving event where teams of vehicles raise a minimum amount as a prerequisite to participate. And what a powerful and popular annual event Rhino Charge has become - now raising nearly $ 1 million (Sh85 million) each year.

At the time Church was busy running his own public relations company, Church Orr, but coincidentally, it was through this same firm that he got involved in Rhino Ark.

"One of our company directors - Gavin Bennett- was a volunteer on the embryonic Rhino Ark 'committee' in 1988 where he provided pro bono PR and marketing ideas and support," he explains.

However Church had a strong personal and professional interest in environmental matters. "I was a member of the International Public Relations Association which created a code of conduct for environmental responsibility. It was announced in Nairobi in 1993 by Unep Executive Director, Mustafa Kamal Tolba, and disbursed to global professional practitioners. This was the start of the CSR movement as we know it today."

No sooner had Church retired in 2000 after 30 years in the PR industry than Rhino Ark approached him to take up the post of Chairman following the resignation of the late Ken Kuhle, founder of the charity.

Colin accepted the half week duties only to discover the enormity of the task at hand. At that time in November 2000, just 111km of a fence had been built over 12 years and the project's public expectations having greatly expanded due to earlier unforeseen challenges to the entire ecosystem, high amongst them wildlife threats to high-density farming communities living along the Aberdares forest boundary.

"Over 40,000 family farms were located right on the boundary," Church says. "Crops had always been exposed to wild animals. However, because of population growth by the 1980s an extremely hard line of conflict was in place."

But the rhino fence inadvertently changed all that by creating a protective barrier against wildlife incursions into farms. "The committee had completed the Salient fence but the farmers kept saying to them, 'But we want the fence over here too.'"

It was a difficult and daunting task in the early years for Kuhle to keep the momentum going and money coming in as it became clear that the entire ecosystem was under threat from deforestation and excisions.

"The only way was to make Aberdares a water issue," Church realised at the time. "Water for drinking and daily lives was the strongest message of all. To protect the water one needed to protect the forest then all inside would be protected, including the rhino. So Rhino Charge needed to raise its bar."

The first Charge in 1988 raised Sh250,000 and by 2000 the event was realising Sh14 million. Church pondered then, "What can we do to broaden our impact on society from a few keen conservationists? How do you get a whole country thinking that this is part of their responsibility?"

He set about broadening Rhino Ark's agenda and the onus for forest conservation. The first port of call was a former employer, the Daily Nation newspaper, where he'd worked in the 1960s as a features editor and columnist.

"I asked Wildfred Kiboro, the CEO, to support us and he was very enthused," he says. "The Daily Nation created a 'Nation-Aberdare Forest Fund' and we devised a whole process of campaigning for water and forest." The campaign raised Sh18 million in three years and subsequently Rhino Ark took on a new dimension and began to attract serious attention.

Kenya Wildlife Service also demonstrated huge interest. "KWS had always supported Rhino Ark's mission but now they saw it as something that can help protect our wildlife plus the entire ecosystem," he recalls.

At the same time farmers were informing politicians about the fence. "They were very happy with the fence as it was helping them produce 100 per cent crop offtake. It was a win-win for all: farmers, wildlife and the conservation community. The Nation Media Group started it and it trickled into all the media." Rhino Ark now had a strong awareness campaign and national attention."

Internally, Church worked on strengthening the fundraising capacity of the Rhino Charge. Previously the 65 cars entered the Charge at a minimum amount of Sh100,000. The system was revised into a staggered entry over three months with minimum 'pledge systems' of Sh1 million sliding to Sh250,000 per vehicle.

"This helped us to move from a low to high financial base," explains Church. "Today the top fundraisers are bringing as much as Sh10 million and a good number more with over Sh2 million. It shows that the outreach into society was channelling through the Charge car entrants. It really woke up everybody including the international media." Additionally, raffle awards were introduced for visitor tickets which retail at Sh2,000, further spreading the fund-raising machine and project awareness.

Even with the expanded financial base fence-building wasn't always smooth-going. "One section in Muranga on the survey map was 45km long but when the fence manager walked the hillsides it was 81km, incredibly steep and with 53 streams," he remembers. "But we got it done. It was one of the most challenging moments."

"And there wasn't always enough money in the bank yet we were telling everyone that we are moving along," he smiles. "We always assumed money would come and somehow it did."

But a key stakeholder was missing; the Government. "We knew Rhino Ark couldn't run only on charitable energy alone. It needed a broad, stable and ultimately sustainable base." Colin's team started to make serious presentations to the government and in 2006 put forward a concept to the Ministry of Finance.

"If Rhino Ark raises one shilling, the government has to raise one shilling. After all, we are taxpayers; we pay tax even on office equipment." Since then the organisation has received sizeable amounts from the Government through KWS and the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife.

With the government fully on board, a tripartite partnership was established, comprising Rhino Ark, the communities and the State. "The community actively built the fence without charging for labour which was their contribution," explains Church. "Rhino Ark provides the vehicles, fuel, machinery and pays the construction labourers. The government, through KWS, pays the fence attendants that are required once the fence is built."

He was careful to keep the charity structure small with support from a large and dedicated volunteer base. "But Rhino Ark works well with big organisations that have broader human resources."

In the early days some still questioned the necessity of a 400km fence to protect the habitat, arguing that simpler methods such as a moat would be sufficient.

Consequently Rhino Ark together with KWS and the Kenya Forest Service initiated an independent environmental assessment. Following six months of surveys and interviews with farmers, the resulting Butynski Report essentially concluded a fence was the best method.

"When it comes to high-density farmland with intense commodity production literally beside high value forest, you've just got to have some sort of barrier. It's not a negative barrier but actually creates a harmonious situation," he expounds. "The Butynski Report proved that in fenced areas, illegal or uncontrolled entry was dramatically reduced and human-wildlife conflict a thing of the past. It's the working document that we could fall back on to pursue fencing."

Since 2006 the organisation has been calling on a gate access policy. "Pin pricks of abuse are going on, for example, cattle going in, dogs hunt bushbuck and people take deadwood that easily becomes greenwood. All these things require management.

"If the greatest value of a mountain forest is as a water catchment, why is it still being perceived as still an area of tree extraction, where cattle graze unlimited and deadwood can be extracted?" But he believes that with a Trust in place based on the principles of a public/private partnership the Aberdares will secure an access policy that is workable.

An Aberdares Trust would provide for the long-term management of the forest by deciding parties, namely KWS, KFS, Rhino Ark and the fence-edge communities.

"They all have a say in the governance of the ecosystem. The Trust is the framework on which all major environmental decisions can be thrashed out." That said, the fence and forest maintenance is still underfunded even with the Charge's fundraising efforts.

"In 2010 Rhino Ark instigated an Economic Social and Environmental Assessment to put a value on the Aberdares in terms of its return to the national GDP. The survey assessed it at a massive Sh59 billion annually."

A significant impact on the economy, yet Church feels the government still spends far too little in the tripartite mix to conserve the national water towers. However, he believes that is changing. "In mid-September 2012 the Minister of Finance when putting up the first post in the Mt Kenya area promised Sh200 million and another Sh200 million each year until the fence completion."

Mt Kenya is the newest fencing project for Rhino Ark together with Mau Eburu. "We made a policy decision in 2008 to stick to Kenya's big mountains and replicate the Aberdares. So Mt Kenya was the natural one; we couldn't step aside and not do it."

The Mau, however, was in such turmoil and brazen destruction at the time basically due to political leverage of a few that it was very difficult for a fencing project to be attempted. "Eburu was a heavily destroyed forest but didn't have serious excisions. That's how we got involved there. It could lead to other parts of the Mau," he says hopefully.

And after a decade of devotion to the Aberdares, Church is calling it a day. "We need to let other younger people lead the next process. I am still there behind the scenes, but it needs a dynamic process to take it forward. We must manage our transfer of responsibilities."

Behind the scenes he'll keep the momentum going for the Trust's establishment in the position of Rhino Ark's Senior Advisor. "In principle it has been accepted, but we're waiting for the specifics of the deed to be agreed."

Church has no regrets about the way his retirement has turned out. "None at all, it's been a fascinating job," he underscores. "A little bit unorthodox at times. But I realised that people can be the greatest destroyers of biodiversity, trees and wildlife or they can be the innovative rehabilitators."

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