Category Archives: Conservation Agriculture

Dakatcha Woodlands under threat of ‘eco-(un)friendly’ jatropha biodiesel project

The Dakatcha Woodlands form one of the 61 internationally important sites in Kenya for bird conservation (and therefore by assumption other biodiversity as well) – known as an ‘IBA’ (Important Bird Area).

a view of the Brachystegia woodland in Marafa – a few years ago before it was hit with charcoaling

It is the only other place on the planet that Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandii can be found apart from Arabuko-Sokoke Forest 30kms to the south and it also holds several other Threatened species such as Sokoke Pipit and more recently we discovered a population of Sokoke Scops Owls Otus irenae there. We have been working with NatureKenya to have the woodlands protected, to encourage the local community to stop cutting trees for charcoal and timber and instead to use it sustainably.

Endemic Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandii (by Steve Garvie)

NatureKenya has been doing a great work with local groups of young people to encourage them to take up birding and other conservation activities. This is one of the groups with Dominic Mumbu, the NK manager 4th from the left.

This year, however, an even more devastating threat is looming – one that is masquerading as an ‘eco-friendly project’… for bio-diesel. The Malindi County Council has welcomed a proposal by an investor, Kenya Jatropha Energy Limited, to clear large tracts of land for growing Jatropha curcas.  This South American bush has been aggressively promoted in Kenya for the ‘biodiesel’ extracted from the oil in its seeds. It is now being tried in localities that range from rainfall-rich Western Kenya to desert-like Magadi area. Yet little is currently known of the plant’s suitability, its yield under different conditions, and the market capacity. Talking to Ann and Ian Robertson in Malindi – Ian being an experienced farmer and agriculturalist and Ann one of East Africa’s leading botanists – who have planted some jatropha in their garden out of interest, they report that the yield from jatropha is hugely unpredictable, some years it can be good and others it can be dire – and with no apparent reason. As a result it is highly unlikely to be suitable crop to grow on a large commercial scale and much better to be grown by small holders who can exploit the good years and get something out of it and make ends meet on the bad years with the other crops they are growing.

The jatropha / biodiesel issue is going to be one of the hottest debates going in East Africa environmentally in the next few years. A lot of businessmen are likely to jump on the band wagon where they can see big funding coming from the West to fund what some see as effectively covering up the West’s guilt complex for the vast amounts of carbon pollution it is producing – i.e. “give money to developing countries to produce biodiesel so that we can maintain our lifestyles and claim to have reduced carbon emissions – oh, and shame about that priceless forest or wetland that was cleared to grow an alien monoculture, but it’s all for the greater benefit of the planet…”

Anyway – this debate could go on quite a long time here! The point is Dakatcha Woodlands really are under threat of disappearing under an alien monoculture – and thus causing probably at least one species to go extinct.

As A Rocha Kenya we are committed to finding lasting, long-term solutions for conserving such habitats and sites whilst at the same time ensuring that local communities can improve their lifestyles and living standards but reduce their ecological footprint. We have already started working with churches in the Dakatcha Woodlands to introduce them to Conservation Agriculture, a form of farming that hugely improves productivity whilst conserving the soil and in fact improving the soil such that farms become more productive over the years and not less (as they do using the traditional farming methods). This is just one way of seeking to improve the lot of the local communities while teaching them the importance of caring for the environment – God’s creation.


Conservation Agriculture training by Paul Simpson in Marafa, Nov ’08 for church leaders

We’ve employed Gabriel Katana to work alongside the NatureKenya manager in Dakatcha and to also follow up on the Conservation Agriculture workshops we’ve held with church leaders there.

Katana – our right hand man in Dakatcha and doing a great job.
He’s also assisting in bird surveys and done some excellent work on finding how far the Sokoke Scops Owl is found as well as looking out for Clarke’s Weavers and keeping an eye open for where they might breed. The area is quite large however and currently he’s trying to do all this on just a bicycle or sometimes borrowing the piki (motorbike) that the NK manager uses. For him to be really effective we desperately need a piki for him – and then funds to cover its running. Katana’s salary has kindly been covered by a church in the UK, but any assistance towards purchasing a piki would be hugely appreciated.

More to follow…

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Almost 3,000 birds ringed in 12 hours with record numbers of Marsh Warblers & flocks of migrating Amur Falcons

It was a busy and hectic night made worse by rain on and off and then a huge downpour at 5:30am just before we opened nets. We therefore only opened 2/3 of the ‘L’ of nets to start with expecting the Marsh Warbler ‘boom’ that happens at around 6am when they start moving out of roost – but it didn’t come. With the rain and thick mist which then continued on into the morning till about 9:30am the birds just sat in the bushes and only moved off slowly throughout the morning. We had to close nets at about 7:30 due to rain but already had 1,000 birds to ring which we worked through and as the weather cleared up at 10am opened up nets again and kept catching, then opening the swallow nets too and ending up working through to 3pm!! Total for the day: 2,95 birds ringed!

Two of the three ringing tables we had going to handle the number of birds at the Leopard Cocktail Bar:

Ringing at the Leopard Cocktail Bar
A truly international team: From left: Alain (Switzerland), Yoav (Israel), Raimund (Germany), Bert (Holland), Mercy (Kenya), David Pearson (UK), Graeme Backhurst (Kenya), Bernard (Kenya).

The vast majority of birds were Ap’s – i.e. Marsh Warblers… and in fact it was a record-setting day in that well over 2,000 were ringed, the most we’ve ever ringed of a single species in one day in 39 years!! The previous high was 1,500 Sprossers in 1995.

With the rain around suddenly there were falcons – mostly Amur Falcons though a couple of Sootys were also seen. We estimated a good 500-700 Amurs came through in about 2-3 hours feeding on flying ants some just over our heads, others peppering the sky in the distance. Along with these were the Eurasian Rollers – again several 100 moving up the valley and over the ridge heading for Tanzania. It’s awesome to see the migration actually happening!!

Highlights ringed – not a huge variety, but again good numbers of Basra Reed Warblers, at last a few more Irania (White-throated Robin), a few Garden Warblers, a few more Upcher’s Warblers and a Sedge Warbler.

Hippolais languida Upcher’s Warbler Hippolais languida – note the blacker tail and you can see the old (brown) wing feathers contrasting with new (black) feathers.

Also through the day we finally had a load of Steppe Eagles, huge migrants (compared to the warblers!) from Asia that had been conspicuously missing so far.

A Great White Heron chugged around overhead the night nets for a while in the night followed by a flock of Cattle Egrets attracted to the lights an hour or so before dawn. They stayed all day in the end – pictured here perched all over the dead tree outside the lodge like Christmas decorations (see pic below). There was also a Dwarf Bittern flopping around in the bush but managed to avoid the nets and a Squacco Heron was part of the Cattle Egret contingent but realised it was in the wrong tour group once the sun came up and it slunk off into the bush on its own.

Cattle Egrets on tree - Ngulia

Growing our Assets

On Tuesday Jonathan took a trip to two schools to meet the parents of some of our current Assets studTree Nurseries.JPGents. The parents involved plant trees and vegetables partly on school land and partly on their own properties. Now that the long holidays are about to start some planning was needed for garden maintenance over the next few weeks. At Mida primary they discovered after planting that the soil on their plot was poor. However this has given the gardeners a chance to learn about treating the soil and now the paw-paw trees are beginning to thrive.

Jonathan instructs the Assets parents.

All these people have children on the Assets programme, some more than one and one lady even has a son who’s now in university.

Mida Creek gets a Face Lift

The board walk and bird hide at Mida Creek are valuable tourist attractions and revenue sources for Assets but the information boards

Info Boards Mida.jpg

and photos at the visitors’ centre there have become a little faded and in need of a spring clean. On Monday Rosalie and Jonathan removed some of the old signage and photos. The plan is to return to it in a few days with brand new up to date pictures and new laminate. We’re hoping the new pictures will attract visitors to the sight for several years to come.

long dist view alng bdwlk, Allison Duncan-2.jpg

Conservation Agriculture workshop for pastors in Dakatcha Woodlands IBA – home to endemic Clarke’s Weaver

Can you support a farmer and cover her/his costs at a Conservation Agriculture workshop? (for only $30 per farmer!). Read on…

Conservation Agriculture (CA) is a method of farming that is being taken up more and more widely in Africa with over 120,000 farmers in Zamibia alone having adopted this practice. It has been shown to significantly increase productivity on farms and is often taught in church circles as ‘Farming God’s Way’ (FGW). Why? Well because the basic concept of CA / FGW is to mimic the way that a forest grows (“God’s farm”) and thus produce the rich soils which you find in a forest (any farmer given the choice between a plot that has been farmed for 5 years and one that has just been cleared of forest would choose the newly cleared one since it will be way more fertile). There are cases where under the conventional methods, a farmer was getting 3 bags of maize from his acre and after using CA was getting 15 bags!

How do you do this? There are 3 main principles – NO ploughing (“plowing” for our American readers!),  lots of mulch (dead organic matter covering the soil surface), and rotate your crops. If you think of how “God farms his forest”, then there is no ploughing, there’s plenty of leaf litter etc on the soil surface (“God’s blanket” for the soil) and there is high diversity of trees and plants.

Taking these basic principles and building them on top of biblical teaching on how God cares for his Earth and has given it to us to look after and use wisely, it is a wonderfully effective way of encouraging rural farmers who are also Christians (probably 70% of the population in Dakatcha) to look after their farm and be able to get a good crop out of it.  Being built on biblical teaching means that church members are very quick in accepting the teaching and linking it in to biodiversity conservation – caring for God’s world – such as planting trees etc means that it becomes a very potent tool for conservation.

Conservation Agriculture plot being prepared

A CA plot being prepared near Watamu – careful measurement of where holes are dug is important.

Back in March, A Rocha Kenya ran a one-day workshop for 25 pastors in the Dakatcha Woodlands with Paul Simpson, a pastor and farmer from South Africa, giving the main teaching. This was received very positively and we are about to run a follow-up workshop going to much greater depth and lasting for 3 days for 30 farmers, pastors and church leaders. Dominic Mumbu of NatureKenya is working very closely with us on this and organising it on the ground.

Dakatcha is where we suspect the endemic Clarke’s Weaver to breed (found only in neighbouring Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and here) – a handsom black & yellow weaver found only in Brachystegia woodlands… and yet these woodlands are under serious threat of destruction due to logging and charcoal burning.

Clarke’s Weaver by Steve Garvie

Clarke’s Weaver (by Steve Garvie)

Charcoal kiln in Dakatcha Woodlands Charcoal burning in Dakatcha Woodlands IBA

It’s a very exciting venture – to be teaching people very practical and tangible ways of being able to help themselves out of poverty whilst at the same time conserving what is a particularly special part of the planet. Farming God’s Way gives people the possibility of using their land wisely and maximising what they can get out of it whilst allowing them to preserve the rest of the surrounding habitat.

Church member enjoying her Conservation Agriculture

…a cheerful farmer tilling her CA plot after a previous training at a Gede church

For this workshop to succeed, we need to cover the costs of the workshop participants – at $30 per person (includes all food, accommodation and materials). If you feel able to help support what I believe is an exciting project with huge potential to help both conserve biodiversity and raise the standard of living of poor rural farmers – then thank you and please do!