Kenya: Tana Delta and the World Bank’s monkey business


Shout Africa, Tana River Primate National Reserve, Kenya

To this day the riverine farming community of the Pokomo residing along the Kenya’s main river the Tana is still traumatized whenever the World Bank is mentioned. It is the same story for the Wardei and Orma pastoralists’ communities, who neighbour the Pokomo.

And all the anger is to do with two primates the Tana Red Colobus and Tana Crested Mangabey found in the Tana River Primate National Reserve (TRPNR) some 279km north of Mombasa. It is ranked as a “unique and diverse biological entity of global importance.” And the endemic primates have co-existed with the community for generations.

The Tana River Primate National Reserve


In 1996 the World Bank which was the main proponent of the multi-donor trust fund Global Environment Facility (GEF), together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) teamed up with the Kenyan government’s principal conservation agency the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). They all came together to initiate a five-year $6.2mn Tana River Primate National Reserve Conservation project at Mchelelo in the Tana River County. One of the objectives of the project was conserving the unique biological diversity of the Tana River riparian forests. The others were management of a fragile and complex ecosystem and reduce threats to the ecological integrity and survival of the forest ecosystem especially the two endemic primates. The development of alternative and sustainable income generating activities was also incorporated as an objective of the project.

In accomplishing this task the World Bank’s position was that the Pokomo community residing in Mchelelo village, within the 171-kilometre square Tana River Primate National Reserve (TRPNR) and the Wardei adjacent to its environs should be resettled away from the reserve to facilitate primate conservation.  The main scheme was designed at conserving these two rare primates found in the reserve which also coincidentally happened to be Pokomo’s homelands. According to World Bank documents the communities in the reserve and around it were the main threats to the primates.

“I have never known where people got that idea that the Pokomos are a threat to the primates.” Abio Gaffo who is a Pokomo and works at the TRPNR as the resident primate expert says. “We have lived with the primates for ages. They have never been a menace to our crops and we don’t eat primates either. In fact the primates prefer to live near our settlements.”

The World Bank headquarters. The international lender soiled its hand in the “monkey business” in Kenya’s Tana Delta

The total project costs adding both GEF funding and that of KWS and the communities “counterpart contribution” stood at $7.14mn. Strangely enough by the time the World Bank was closing the project on 30th June 2001 it had only disbursed $1.91mn.  The World Bank’s Africa Office declined to answer what happened to the remainder of the cash.

The project was a disaster and ended up humiliating the World Bank and the Kenyan government. Even the World Bank itself was not pleased of its involvement. In its January 10th 2003 “Implementation Completion Report” (No. 23902) the international lender judged its performance as far as the Tana primate conservation project was concerned as, “Unsatisfactory”. On 8th December 2005, the bank’s Independent Evaluation Group led by John Heath and John English followed up with a “Project Performance Assessment Report” No 34509 which returned the same verdict of “Unsatisfactory”.

The project brought out the unknown yet dark side of “conservation politics” and how conflict of interests threatened the three Tana River communities’ survival and primate conservation.

“The end result embarrassed the World Bank and the Government of Kenya as many pledges were unfulfilled.” Philip Wandera an environmental expert who was a former assistant director at KWS says.

Wandera who was right at the centre of the primate project and served as the last project coordinator of the primate conservation initiative between the year 2000 and 2003 left KWS for the academia and currently lectures at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). In Wandera’s words the project “suffered from bad conservation politics.”

The project’s failure was shocking to the community but it was not entirely unique to the World Bank. It was in fact a continuation of the decades-old collective systemic and structural failure by both the Kenyan government and the World Bank in the Tana Delta region. (See separate Tana Delta story).

The Tana-GEF debacle stands out as the harbinger of the World Bank’s skewed approaches and a bureaucracy that failed in East Africa’s rich conservation history.

Veteran environmental defence activist Hardley Becha who is a coastal resident and director of the Community Action for Nature Conservation Africa (CANCO) gives a different viewpoint. “When the primate reserve was established in the mid-seventies, the local communities, particularly the farming Pokomo community in Baomo, Ndera and Mnazini were utilizing portions of that land to do subsistence cultivation.” Becha says. “Second the reserve was to be managed by the then Tana River County Council the same way as Maasai Mara Game Reserve being managed by the Narok County Council.”

According to Becha the seeds of the primate trouble go back to the gazettement and inception of the primate reserve. Part of the problems that bedeviled the project initially emanated from this misunderstanding of ownership of the reserve. Indeed, sometimes in 1993 the community led a protest march which saw Pokomo women stripping before KWS staff at the reserve. The deep yet implicit cultural significance of this stripping act would wear down the primate project and all attempts to evict the community in the years to come.

“Since the Tana River county council did not have adequate capacity the KWS came in to manage this reserve. Co-management of protected areas was a new concept to KWS when the Tana-GEF project came into being. KWS had no experience at all.” Becha says. “It wanted to manage the reserve the way it does with the national parks. That is without involving communities.”

In Becha’s own words, “the failure of the project was a result of poor strategy, policy and poor mindset on the part of the project’s main principle executor, KWS.”

Wandera however holds a different perspective noting that the wildlife agency was used as a pawn by the interests whom he refers to as “fortress conservationists”.

“Mchelelo community and Tana River county council were left out of the project implementation.” Wandera says. “They were perceived of course wrongly to be ignorant, weak and an obstacle to conservation of primates rather than collaborators or partners in conservation.”

According to Wandera, the “fortress conservationists” whose conservation philosophy believed in excluding communities from conservation had a bigger say and wielded unfathomable influence within the corridors of the World Bank. But while they could lobby the bank to do their bidding their persuasion was ineffective within the Kenyan government bureaucracy. This explains why in the project’s five-year lifetime KWS experienced hard-to-explain top management changes affecting three directors. This lack of synchrony set in motion the project’s ultimate failure.

That there was conflict of interest between KWS, the World Bank and the community is not in doubt. The internecine inter agency cat-fights were compounded by a hostile community and a curse from its women.

“The objectives of the fortress conservation forces, Kenya government and the community were at variance from the beginning to the end of the project.” Wandera says. “The project suffered because fortress conservationists wanted to control it from outside Kenya when leadership of KWS changed. It suffered from bad conservation politics.”

At the time the project started Dr Richard Leakey was director of KWS. Leakey was replaced by Dr David Western whose conservation philosophy advocated for community and parks. According to Wandera the project did not move an inch during Dr Western’s tenure even though he was a community conservation advocate.

Dr Western was replaced by Dr Nehemiah Rotich and it was during Rotich’s tenure that the initiative gathered renewed momentum. These changes had a direct bearing on the Tana-GEF project as each of the three directors professed a diverging conservation ideal from the other.

“From the start the project was designed to benefit a certain group of researchers and conservationists and not the local people.” Wandera says. “People issues were secondary.”

To prove his point Wandera notes that the budgetary allocation for resettlement and community development was “relatively small” and that the entire project was never designed by KWS personnel. In Kenya’s conservation matrix primates are the preserve of the Institute of Primate Research (IPR) which falls under the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). IPR declined to respond to all queries on the primates.

According to the budget only 6 per cent of the entire budget which translated to $400,000 was allocated for what the World Bank called “outward migration from the reserve.”

$2.5mn was budgeted for research and monitoring, $1.4mn for the management of the reserve as community conservation and development got $2.4mn and a further $300,000 was to cater for the project’s implementation support.

This oversight by the World Bank fermented trouble and as it closed the project files it concurred with Wandera. “Unless local communities believe that their interests are at the heart of project design they are unlikely to actively support project implementation.” The World Bank closure report noted.  “Making the improvement of local livelihoods a secondary objective, merely to reduce pressure on biodiversity maybe counterproductive.”

Dr. Mordecai Ogada an ecologist and executive director of environmental think-tank Conservation Solutions Africa (CSA) echoes Wandera’s standpoint and puts the entire blame on the World Bank. “The biggest structural failure in the World Bank is their need to take shortcuts and disburse finance in the shortest possible period.” Ogada says. “They habitually use consultants who are highly paid to do things quickly rather than properly. They would prefer a consultant who can pay bribes and get things done in 2 months than the one who would take a year to do things properly. These consultants are also very rarely from the country where the project is being done. It is actually a form of corruption in the World Bank Structure.”

As the bureaucracy within the World Bank sought an exit plan to save face from its blunders it suddenly changed its earlier belief of advocating for resettlement. But as it did this it circumvented its own rules on resettlement when it decided to close the project and withhold crucial funds earmarked for the project.

After much haggling some 248 families were resettled in the 6000-acre piece of land in Witu II within the Kipini locale which is in the neighbouring Lamu County some four-hour drive from Mchelelo. In a last ditch effort, all these families were allocated 15 acres each by the Kenya government. In 2005 they received their title deeds. Two sets of promises were made to those who remained in the reserve and those who moved to Witu.

“Those who remained in the primate reserve were promised Tana GEF Phase 2 would enhance their income generating activities and reduce their dependency on the forest.” Wandera who led the resettlement says. “And those who were resettled in Witu II were promised schools, houses, roads, water and much more but to date nothing like that has been delivered.”

Early January 2007 an interesting development took place when the High Court ruled that the TRPNR was not established in accordance with the law and needed to degazetted.

Three years later in 2010 which was nine years after the primate project had been terminated, the 248 families Ndera and Ngwano villagers communities filed a civil suit at the Mombasa resident magistrate’s court against the World Bank, GEF, KWS and the ministry of lands and settlement. According to the residents the World Bank and its partners breached their agreement with the community which prompted the magistrate to order the World Bank and GEF to pay the affected families some Kshs. 634 million (US$6.14mn).

Ashamed of the backlash the World Bank and GEF went to the High Court and invoked their “immunity status” provided by the Bretton Woods Agreements Act (Cap 464, Laws of Kenya).

In all these the Pokomo community had made their point.

Suffice it to say the “monkey business” in the primate reserve taught the World Bank a few home truths.

“Uncertainty must be removed from core components before implementation begins. The fact that in this case the program for relocation of those willing to move from the reserve was not agreed before the project became effective was a handicap to implementation of the whole community development component.” Vinod Thomas, who headed the bank’s Evaluation directorate noted on the primate project. “Unless local communities believe that their interests are central to project design, they are unlikely to actively support implementation.”