Helen Byron’s trip to Kenya has moved on the Dakatacha woodlands – here’s her latest letter from Africa (which sounds so much better than email).

First impressions of the Dakatcha woodlands

I've spent quite a lot of time working with Nature Kenya over the last year on their campaign to defend this site from a huge (50,000 hectare) Jatropha project. This inedible crop produces oil which can be used for biofuels.  It’s planting – driven by policies in the EU and at home in the UK – is a major threat to sites in Africa that are really important for wildlife.

So, after many emails and stacks of documents about the area and the threats it faces, it's fantastic to have the chance to visit the site in the flesh. Although its called Dakatcha woodland its actually a mixed habitat - large areas of undisturbed forest, areas of more open woodland and scrubland and areas where people are growing crops around their villages.

Our host for the visit is Dominic Mumbu – NatureKenya’s (NK’s) man on the ground who clearly loves the site and its birds.  Two of the most important are which include the globally threatened Clarke's weaver (pictured) which is thought to nest here, and Fischer's turaco.



Communities and conservation together

NK have been working in Dakatcha since 2008. They have been establishing a site support group (SSG) and Patrick Changawa, the energetic SSG Chair joins us for our trip. NK are working with the SSG to explore sustainable ways of generating money for local people from the site. At the moment, charcoal burning is a major threat to the site and although some of this is being done by locals it’s mostly large scale commercial operations. The Kenyan Forest Service should be clamping down on this, but the decapitated stumps of indigenous trees and smouldering piles of wood are all too evident in parts of the forest and tell a different story....

This is sad to see, as there are other possibilities. NK and the SSG have been developing ecotourism initiatives. As well as the birding, there's the spectacular Hell's Kitchen site to visit - a kind of mini Grand Canyon in stunning shades of vibrant orange weathered from the rock. There's around 40 people a month currently visiting the site mostly from the coastal tourist resort of Malindi. And it’s at Hell's Kitchen where I see my first drongo....

But Hells Kitchen is not the only thing to see there's also the Giriama Traditional Cultural Centre which is  the burial site of Mekatilili Wa Menza - a female freedom fighter from the time of Kenya's independence. Her's is an amazing story - worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Other NK activities include setting up a new resource centre and library and a central unit for processing honey generated by the bees in the new hives distributed by NK.

Threats

In early 2009 an Italian investor came forward with a proposal to clear part of Dakatcha to grow jatropha. Jacob from the minority Watta tribe that live in the affected area tells us about the court case taken in late 2009 by his community to challenge this project. This case was successful - excellent news for the Watta who make a living from growing pineapples, but did not deter the investor who simply moved the proposal to a different area within Dakatcha.

You'll have read about this proposal on the blog before - it would devastate most of Dakatcha and displace 20,000 people. After a weak environmental assessment, the Kenyan environmental regulator rejected the large-scale project but the investor is still undeterred and has started a pilot project.

We drive past the pilot area to take a look. Gone is the undisturbed forest replaced with a small jatropha plantation guarded by security and with bulldozers waiting to clear more land. Shockingly we hear that to keep the plants alive water is being brought in by bowser. Can this be right? Surely not when close by we see food aid being distributed as crops have failed due to lack of rain.

We have to drive past the pilot area pretty quickly – threats to NK staff are by no means unknown.

Community forest area

Next we visit Mulunguni village and meet the elders from the village which is setting up a Community Forest Area (CFA) to take control and manage their own natural resources and defend them from developments. Joshua the Chair of the CFA entertains the group with mimes about the local MP who was the one who brought the Italian investor to the region. We can't understand the language but the sentiment is clear and Joshua clearly enjoys being the focus of attention of Dixon the KBC TV journalist who is travelling with us. I wonder if the footage will make it onto the TV - it would make good viewing!

And we’ll try to link the blog to it if we can (ed)

I'm blown away by the scale of the site - the landscape views are stunning and it takes us all day just to drive round the woodland. Although this is not helped by having to spend 2 hours digging our vehicle out of the loose sand - its not rained properly here for 2 years. Dixon continues the filming - I hope the footage of me labouring to push the bus isn't going to end up on TV! Although the delay does give us time to enjoy the solitude of forest and I see my first hornbills.

Having seen Dakatcha I'm even more passionate that this fantastic woodland must not be decimated to grow biofuels which could end up in our cars. The Life Cycle analysis study we've commissioned to look at the carbon consequences of the project and how it stacks up against the sustainability criteria in the EU Renewable Energy Directive is almost finished - so watch this space to hear about the results which we plan to share with decision-makers in the UK and Brussels as well as Kenya.

This is the BirdLife Partnership operating at its best - teaming up across the world to influence policy-makers. I hope we’re successful with this case - as the consequences for Dakatcha and so many other sites if we're not will be terrible.

We'll here more about Helen's trip once she's back

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