Participation & Governance

Country In Focus: Kenya’s inextricable link between the environment, economy, peace and culture

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“With the central role youth are playing in shaping the environmental policy landscape of the country, Kenya is poised to grow into a resilient low-carbon economy in the near future; but this will only happen when all responsible actors play their role effectively.” In the second of our series ‘Country in Focus’, Kennedy Mbeva reviews the historical and current environmental challenges facing Kenya.

Since writing, the Kenyan government has overhauled wildlife laws. Read more here.

…there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.

- Wangari Maathai, from her Nobel Lecture, December 2004[1]

Kenya: 2012 inter-communal conflict

For Kenya, the environment is inextricably linked to the economy, to peace and to cultural identity. Kenya’s environment is the crux of the economy, with around 80% of the country’s labour force in agriculture and agriculture-related activities, and with agriculture accounting for close to 60% of the country’s income[2]. In recent years, Kenya has experienced a rash of violence and conflict stemming from drought[3] and just last week Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta identified “intermittent droughts, famine and other natural disasters linked to climate change resulting in resource-based conflicts between communities across the borders” as being among the key challenges facing East Africa[4].

Kenya’s history on the environment is complicated, to say the least. On 1st June 2013, the country celebrated its jubilee, 50 years of independence from British colonial rule. A remarkable milestone no doubt, but celebrations were punctuated with the recurrent thorny issue of land ownership[5]. This is actually the main issue around which Kenya’s environmental policies revolve. Following independence, the political elite of that time embarked on massive land acquisitions, with the methodology used being questioned since then. Large parts of Mau Forest Complex, one of the country’s five water towers, have been excised since then, and this has thus turned out to the be theatre of the battle between politics and environmental conservation[6]. This is the backdrop that has shaped Kenya’s environmental policy domain.

The Mau Forest. Source:
The Mau Forest. Source:

In 2010, Kenya approved and instigated a new constitution, which ushered in a raft of changes in how governance systems in the country work, with the significant shift being from a central to a devolved government. With the implementation phase of this constitution currently ongoing, most of the environment-related policies are being adjusted in order be in line with the stipulations of the constitution.

Of special note is the comprehensive Climate Change Authority Bill, which is an initiative brought to the fore by Kenya’s civil society. This was motivated by the fact that Kenya in favour of the Green Economy development pathway, but in the country’s unique context. Developed over a period of three years, the Climate Change Authority Bill was a concerted effort to provide an overarching legal framework that would steer the country towards a low-carbon development pathway; this is in line with the country’s development blueprint, Vision 2030, which aims to transform Kenya into a middle income country by 2030. The bill sailed through Kenya’s parliament, but the then president rejected it in January 2013, outlining his main reason for this action as lack of public participation. Currently, the civil society, together with the relevant government agencies, is working on reintroducing the bill back to parliament for debate.

The importance of the Climate Change Bill to Kenya’s environment is that is has a huge focus on the management of natural resources. However, there are other pieces of legislation that aim to enhance environmental conservation. In 1999, Kenya enacted the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, which in turn led to the formation of the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA). This has been the body implementing environmental management in Kenya. The draft Forest Bill, Land Bill and Environmental Policy aim to create a comprehensive legal framework for realizing environmental conservation.

The new government has placed a premium on establishing Kenya as a leading player in the carbon market. This has been manifested by the government’s efforts to come up with relevant legislation aimed at realizing this. For example, the REDD+ Law and Policy, Carbon Investment Policy and draft Community Land Act are aimed at ensuring that the country has the necessary legal framework to allow it to enter into the carbon market foray.


The civil society organizations (CSOs) dealing with environmental and climate change issues in Kenya has been growing over the years, but it is important to note that the spark of interest in these issues was lit by Kenyan youth, thanks to their central role in establishing the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change in 2006. In order to be more effective, the CSOs have coalesced their efforts under the umbrella Kenya Climate Change Working Group, and they have spearheaded the drafting of several legal and policy frameworks on the environment and climate change; for example, they took lead of developing the recently rejected Climate Change Authority Bill.

The main challenge faced by CSOs is finding the middle ground when engaging with the Government of Kenya, since it is the government that normally takes lead in designing legal and policy frameworks. There have been instances of friction between the CSOs and government agencies, and the key to being effective lies in finding a middle ground for effective collaboration.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, and with the central role youth are playing in shaping the environmental policy landscape of the country, Kenya is poised to grow into a resilient low-carbon economy in the near future; but this will only happen when all responsible actors play their role effectively.







Feature Image Credit: Wikipedia