Indigenous and Community Conserved Area to Safeguard Critical Ecosystems and Livelihoods in Yala Swamp

“It’s not enough to talk about development, what is the benefit of development to local communities? It’s about identity, it’s about ownership, it’s about rights, it’s about access, it’s about representation, it’s about involvement in decision making, it’s about values derived from wise use of resources, it’s about fairness and equity in distribution of benefits accrued from investments, it’s about taking charge to ensure sustainability, most of all, it’s about perpetuating our heritage,” said Thomas Achando, the recently elected Chairperson of the Yala Swamp ICCA management committee who also sits in the Luo Council of Elders.

Yala Swamp, located on the north-eastern shore of Lake Victoria, is a Key Biodiversity Area and a proposed Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance. For thousands of fisherfolk and farming communities who depend on it, it’s their “gold”, as they fondly call it. Over the last few decades, there has been a significant decline in the abundance of natural resources due to a number of threats, including over-exploitation, encroachment, habitat degradation, climate change and high levels of poverty.

Through a multi-stakeholder approach, Nature Kenya worked with local communities and the Siaya and Busia county governments to develop a Land Use Plan (LUP) to balance the various interests and address the threats to the wetland. To kick start the implementation of the LUP, multi-agency stakeholders with support from Nature Kenya established an 8,404ha Indigenous and Community Conserved Area (ICCA) at the heart of Yala Swamp.

The ICCA constitutes natural areas surrounded by open-access farming and grazing land, riverine forest and papyrus wetland. Guided by a management plan with technical backstopping from the government, the ICCA will be managed for multiple-use for the benefit of important cultural values and biodiversity, as well as ecotourism, farmers, livestock herders, fisherfolk and island dwellers. The ICCA will guarantee a continued flow of ecosystem services to enable production and ensure development overall is sustainable.

“Those are the striking features about the Yala Swamp ICCA model. I’m happy to take up leadership that will deliver the vision for local inhabitants of Yala Swamp through a balanced all-inclusive approach”, says Achando.

Meanwhile, Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group, the local community conservation champions, have intensified awareness campaigns to rally support for the LUP and ICCA through chief’s barazas and on vernacular radio station Bulala FM, in Budalang’i, Busia County. The forums have been quite instrumental for community members to ask questions, seek advice and clarification and allay fears held by local community members.

“When I received news about a meeting from my village elder with the agenda being our swamp, I was disturbed. Issues concerning Yala swamp have always been jinxed, from history, so I hardly slept at night. I was anticipating the worst, my intuition told me that we were going to lose our rights to access land for subsistence farming, because who cares about the vulnerable?” said one elderly woman from Usonga, Siaya county, during a sensitization meeting at Mlambo village in early January 2021.

“We are thankful for the information we’ve been provided with. Through the Land Use Plan we have a roadmap to finding lasting solutions for issues affecting Yala swamp. I can’t wait for the County Assemblies to give their nod of approval for the Yala Swamp Land Use Plan,” added the elderly woman.

To enhance ownership of biodiversity conservation at the village level, Nature Kenya is supporting formation of Village Natural Resource and Land Use Committees (VNRLUCs) in all the swamp-adjacent villages. VNRLUCs will facilitate governance, conservation and development actions and diversify sustainable livelihoods in line with the ICCA model.