The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/the-darwin-initiative


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Tradition, culture and conservation: The cocoa crisis

Welcome to the final post of the ‘Tradition, Culture and Conservation’ blog series! We hope that you have found this series enjoyable. If you would like to read the entire series you can follow these links to the first and second blog posts.

Our last post features a Darwin project that has encouraged collaboration between farmers, local authorities and neighbouring villages to support livelihoods and conserve local plants that play a significant role in traditional medicine within Taï National Park.

Respecting tradition through community-led conservation in the Ivorian Rainforest

Taï National Park in Ivory Coast is one of the last remaining areas of the vast rainforest that once stretched from Guinea to Togo. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is home to stunning tropical flora and many endangered species. But human activities are rapidly encroaching on the park, putting the forest and its iconic wildlife at risk. In response to these threats, cocoa farmers from the neighbouring villages have banded together to develop a community-led landscape action plan.

Ivory Coast produces 30% of the world’s cocoa, most of which is produced by smallholders living in severe poverty. The struggle to make a living is getting increasingly tougher as farmers grapple with ageing trees, low soil fertility, and climate change. In Taï, this pressure is pushing some farmers to expand into the national park, cutting down pristine rainforest to make room for new cropland.

At the same time, hunting for “bushmeat” has hit crisis point. Meat from wild animals – including endangered species – has long provided an important source of supplementary income for farmers across West Africa. But as increased demand drives a massive surge in the trade, commercial poachers are moving into protected areas – with dire consequences for Taï’s chimpanzees.

Bee-keeping program in south-west Tai, Ivory Coast (2)

Bee-keeping programme run in South-west Taï, Ivory Coast, Credit – Rainforest Alliance

With financial support from the Darwin Initiative, and on-the-ground guidance from the Rainforest Alliance, six cocoa farming communities on the park’s southern edge have united to defend the forest. Over the past three years, more than 500 farmers have participated in field trainings in sustainable agricultural practices such as agroforestry and integrated pest management. These methods are not only “climate-smart,” helping farmers increase resilience to changing weather, but also support habitat conservation by restoring degraded ecosystems and boosting productivity on existing farmland – thereby removing the impetus to expand into nearby forests.

Representatives of the neighbouring Kroumen and Mossi tribes – together with local authorities, the forest management agency and Olam International – formed a Landscape Management Board (LMB). In an effort to advance conservation through sustainable livelihoods, more than 80 farmers are now participating in a successful chicken-rearing and bee-keeping programme which provides an alternative to bushmeat as both a source of income and protein.

The LMB’s efforts to stop habitat destruction have also been mindful of the importance of local plants in traditional medicine and spiritual practices. While threatened species used for these purposes – such as Salvadora persica, the famous “toothbrush plant” – need to be protected from over-exploitation, blanket bans are ineffective. Instead, the LMB has been raising awareness of the need to manage natural resources more sustainably.

For Thé Laurent Gnaoue, a local farmer who helped develop the landscape action plan, this community approach has been critical. Culture and tradition have “a huge impact” on any decisions taken by the local villages, notes Gnaoue. The strength of the action plan, he explains, is that it brings cohesion between conservation goals and cultural beliefs and traditions.

Further information on project 24-021 led by Rainforest Alliance in the Ivory Coast can be found here. To read the full article from this project and others that were featured in our ‘Tradition, Culture and Conservation’ edition of the Darwin Newsletter, please click here.


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Tradition, culture and conservation: Respecting forests and equality

In the first blog of the series we heard about the cultural and traditional importance of birds in the Yala Swamp and how local guides have improved their livelihoods through spreading the importance of conservation.

In this blog post we explore how gender equality is being introduced and encouraged within the community-based forest management in Tanzania through a Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh led project.

Community forests in Tanzania: can they contribute to gender equaity?

Kilwa Masoko is located approximately five hours directly south on the main road from Dar es Salaam. Approximately an hour away, you turn east and begin a gradual descent to the Indian Ocean. The scent of the sea hangs heavy in the air and the road becomes dotted with the occasional flag, each one raised indicating a catch for sale. Kilwa Masoko is the home of the non-governmental organisation, Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI) which was established in 2004 to promote forest conservation through community-based forest management.

The organisation’s name is indicative of its origin; the mpingo (Dalbergia melanoxylon) or African blackwood is native to this region and is one of the most valuable timbers in the world. Its wood is prized for the creation of woodwind instruments but has been severely depleted due to unsustainable extraction, which sparked the establishment of the MCDI. Although mpingo is a species of particular interest to MCDI’s work, the southern part of Tanzania also houses a significant portion of the country’s forest and woodland ecosystems, the majority of which are located on village lands. Furthermore, it is one of the most sparsely populated and economically-poor areas. These characteristics combine to create an area ripe for the conservation and development initiatives promoted by the MCDI.

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Local woman and her children, Credit – Lasima Nzao

Community-based forest management (CBFM) had been present in the country prior to the MCDI’s formation, driven in large part by external donors, but embedded and strongly supported by the Tanzanian government. The foundation of CBFM was born in central Tanzania near Iringa where areas that had been heavily deforested were legally-transferred to community-management through the Forest Act No. 14. In contrast, the CBFM areas formed in partnership with MCDI have been more selectively degraded whilst retaining the potential to generate revenue for communities if managed sustainably.

The Darwin Initiative RESPeCT project (realising equitable, sustainable and profitable community-based forestry in Tanzania), was launched in May 2018 and showcases a collaborative research effort between the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, MCDI, and Allegheny College. The main project focus is on the provision of empirical evidence of the socio-ecological contributions that CBFM makes to the communities in which they are formed. Prior research has indicated the importance of differentiating people’s experience of CBFM. Men and women differ in their use of natural resources with growing evidence that greater gender equity in the management of a natural resource can lead to better conservation outcomes.

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Local woman preparing food, Credit – Lasima Nzao

The RESPeCT project has been tracking gender issues and assessing the potential role that CBFM plays in attaining a more equitable playing field. In particular, we utilise a quasi-experimental design and have matched ten selected villages where CBFM is present with non-CBFM sites using relevant socio-demographic and environmental characteristics. Our preliminary results suggest that women are faring less well than men regardless of the type of governance – that is, CBFM has no effect. Women were shown to have significantly lower levels of hope and felt less confident than men in making decisions that impact their lives (agency). Women have been better represented in local government since the 35% female constituency was mandated in 1982, but the change has been slow and representation does not necessarily correlate with participation. What appears clear is that if CBFM is to contribute to gender equity, there must be an explicit incorporation of these objectives into its implementation and management practices.

More information on project 25-019 led by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) can be found here. The full article for this project and others can be found in the Darwin Newsletter: Tradition, Culture & Conservation here.


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Tradition, Culture and Conservation: Birds secure local livelihoods

Welcome to the ‘tradition, culture and conservation’ Darwin blog series!

In this series we feature the work achieved by Darwin projects that are preserving traditions whilst ensuring that biodiversity and local livelihoods are protected. Around the globe, many culturally important species are facing significant declines due to land use change and over exploitation. As a result, many communities are forced into unsustainable practices in an effort to make a living. This series highlights the importance and long-term sustainability that can be achieved when communities are involved in the conservation of the species and habitats that they deem important.

In our first blog we hear from a project led by RSPB in Kenya, that has encouraged the involvement of local people as bird watching guides to share information on the importance of protecting vulnerable species and their habitats within the wider community.

The Bird Custodians: tracking the conservation journey in Yala Swamp with birders

In January 2015, a team of novice birders from the local community initiated a monthly bird walk deep within Yala swamp, one of Kenya’s key Biodiversity Areas and a proposed Ramsar site. One year later, a total of 20 individuals have been trained in wildlife guiding and nine of them further trained in ornithology through Darwin Initiative funding. Equipped with the main birding essentials coupled with biodiversity survey techniques, identification, passion, dedication and a desire to learn – the birders have never looked back.

Joseph Wajina, Chairperson of the Yala Community Ecotourism Organisation, states, “as a predominantly fishing and farming community, birds have been of significance to us since time immemorial. We have quite a number of socio-cultural practices and beliefs associated with birds and the phenomenal bird migration.”

Ibrahim Onyango, one of the acclaimed tour guides chips in, “for instance, the fishermen use the hourly successive cries of the White-Winged Warblers to count the hours until it is time for them to go and cast nets in the lake. When waders move from the shorelines deeper into the lake in search of fish, it’s an indicator that water is polluted and fish have also moved deeper into the lake in search for dissolved oxygen”.

White-winged Swamp Warbler

White-winged swamp warbler, Credit – Peter Usher

Martin Ouma, another talented birder picks up, “farmers predict the approach of rain with the arrival of flocks of African Open-billed Storks, Abdim’s Storks and Glossy Ibis and begin to cultivate the fields in preparation for the planting season. The sighting of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers among herds of livestock alerts the farmer that it’s time to take the cattle to a cattle dip for tick control. On a day to day basis, the repeated calls of the Red-eyed and Ring-necked Doves signify day break and time for children to go to school”.

Wajina continues, “Over time, we have cultivated interest in birding, acquiring information on birds, bird identification and best birding hot spots. Due to our vast experience with birds, we are involved in birds mapping through the Kenya Bird Map (an online site developed for mapping birds’ distribution in Kenya)”.

Alfred Ayiro, a tour guide who is passionate about formation of Wildlife Clubs in schools explains, “our school mentorship programme started with four primary schools and now we work with over 60 schools. Using binoculars just fascinates children, we used to organise birding once a month which we have since doubled. An increase in demand for birding from the school children, has meant that we may soon be doing birding every weekend.”

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School children birding around the Rawalo Hills, Credit – Joseph Wajina

“We have established a community bird monitoring network contributing useful information for compiling the Key Biodiversity Areas Annual Status and Trends Report. Within the lower reaches of the swamp, we have the Busia Anti-poisoning Team who are strong advocates against bird poisoning. They are at the frontline in raising alarm when bird habitats are destroyed and taking action to safeguard birds and their habitats. For us birders, the conservation of birds and their habitat is a top priority”, concludes Wajina.

The guides continue to carry out lots of community sensitisation on the importance of birds for community members to embrace the protection of birds and their habitats. At times there is even hostility with members of the community thinking that their aim of advocating for conservation is to hedge them out of deriving their livelihoods from the swamp in favour of birds and wild animals.

Community perceptions are gradually changing when people see that the guides are able to take care of their young families through tour guide earnings. The project is on track, especially with the endorsement of the Yala swamp land use plan in July 2019 by Governors of Siaya and Busia Counties and in September by H.E. the Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga (Prime Minister, Republic of Kenya 2008-2013). The land use plan recommends creation of Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas to promote ecotourism and biodiversity protection. There is hope for birds in Yala Swamp.

For more information on project 26-003 led by RSPB in Kenya please click here. The full article for this project can be found in the December 2019 edition of the Darwin Newsletter here.


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Planet Plastic: #OneLess saves one more sea turtle

We hope that you have enjoyed our ‘Planet Plastic’ blog series – welcome to the third and final post! The Darwin Plus project featured in this post is working with communities in the British Indian Ocean Territories to reduce their use of single-use plastics in an effort to save globally important sea turtles.

If you would like to read the entire ‘Planet Plastic’ series, please follow the links for the first and second blog posts.

How to protect sea turtles from plastics in the British Indian Ocean Territories

The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) covers 640,000km2 of marine protected area including an archipelago of 58 beach-fringed tiny islands. These beaches are targets for breeding females from regionally important populations of green and hawksbill sea turtles. Although only one of the islands in the far south of the archipelago is inhabited (Diego Garcia), the beaches see large amounts of ocean-borne plastic washing ashore. Our new Darwin-Plus funded project seeks to understand and mitigate negative effects of plastic waste on sea turtles. The team partners the Zoological Society of London, Swansea University and the British Indian Ocean Territory administration.

BIOT DPLUS090 Green turtle hatchling found amongst plastic waste on beach, Credit - Nicole Esteban

Green turtle hatchlings found amongst plastic waste on beach, Credit – Nicole Esteban

Beach waste tends to aggregate between the high tide mark and just beyond the vegetation line at the top of the beach. This belt of beach is also the target for nesting sea turtles coming ashore to dig deep pits and lay hundreds of eggs. We know from other studies that plastic can impede sea turtle excavations, affect the conditions in the nest by changing the temperature and humidity of the sand, present a physical barrier when hatchlings emerge from the nest, and be an inadvertent source of food for surface-feeding, omnivorous hatchlings.

The project team visited BIOT in June 2019 to start characterising and determining the origin of beach plastic waste. Comparing data from waste collected during beach cleans in Diego Garcia with that still in-situ on the beaches in both Diego Garcia and Egmont atolls, over 80% was found to fall into three categories: polystyrene pieces, flips flops and single-use plastic bottles. Plastic bottles had labels originating from 17 countries from Japan to Tanzania with the largest contributor being Indonesia, almost 3000km to the west.

BIOT DPLUS090 Marine debris washed ashore on Ile Parasol beach on Peros Banhos Atoll, Credit - Dan Bayley

BIOT DPLUS090 Marine debris washed ashore on Ile Parasol beach on Peros Banhos Atoll,   Credit – Dan Bayley

In addition to investigating beach waste, we are exploring how people stationed on Diego Garcia can reduce their use of single-use plastic. To achieve this, we are bringing experience from our #OneLess campaign, working to eliminate the need for plastic bottled water in London by creating a new system in which people use refillable bottles and tap water. Our key messages relate to the global need to reduce the amount of plastics, the importance of taking responsibility for our plastic use, and that everyday actions and decisions around plastic impact the ocean.

BIOT shares many challenges with other Overseas Territories – small islands in remote locations, difficult and expensive logistics, limited resources, and challenges with waste management. Dealing with ocean-borne plastic waste adds another burden, so as we explore recycling options, these need to incorporate clever technology and be operable in these conditions – preferably in a way that creates further useful and economically beneficial products. Our aim is by the end of this project to have identified suitable possibilities that could work not only in BIOT but potentially across the other Overseas Territories as well.

Further information on project DPLUS090 led by ZSL in BIOT can be found here. To read the full article or this project and others that were featured in our August edition of the Darwin Newsletter, please click here.


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Planet Plastic: Planting plastic

In the first blog of the series we heard how plastic pollution can be transformed into something valuable and sold to benefit both local communities and the marine environment. This post features a project that is using plastic bags to breathe new life into the community through repurposing them for saplings in an effort to reforest Mt. Kenya.

Mt. Kenya forest adjacent community manage plastic waste

In 2017 Kenya made the bold move to ban plastic bags. This decision was gazetted by Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources and took effect on August 28th. Through political goodwill the action to ban plastic bags was enforced, however this brought about other challenges related to managing existing plastic waste, particularly in rural areas of the country.

Mt. Kenya Biodiversity Organization (Mt. KEBio) is the Nature Kenya site support group in Mt. Kenya West whose mandate is to monitor, educate, and advocate for environmental sustainability while improving the livelihoods of its members. The Mt. Kenya ecosystem provides water to key National Parks and generates half of the country’s total hydropower. It is an important water catchment – the source of the Ewaso Nyiro North and Tana River systems, which are vital to Kenya’s economic development, food security and energy generation.

Understanding the plastic issue at hand, Mt. KEBio embarked on creating awareness in local market areas and organised clean-up exercises. As a result of these awareness campaigns, Mt. KEBio successfully organised three clean-up activities in the Naromoru town, Burguret and Kibunja shopping centres where over 100kg of plastic waste was collected.

Kenya 25-031 Saplings being propagated on recycled plastic milk packets, Credit - Good Hope Group

Saplings being propagated on recycled plastic milk packets, Credit – Good Hope Group

Once the waste had been collected and sorted, the group separated any reusable plastic bags that were found. These bags were repurposed by using them as tree seedling potting bags, where 500 seedlings were able to be planted in the community nursery. However, the efforts of the group do not stop there, as they are also promoting the re-use of plastic bottles as improvised drip-irrigation for watering tree seedlings in schools and local homesteads, especially during the dry season.

On-farm woodlot capacity has been enhanced through innovatively re-using plastic bags, providing the much-needed fuelwood and livestock fodder. Through this increased capacity at the local community tree nursery, more indigenous tree seedlings have been raised for planting in preparation for the next phase of the Mt. Kenya forest rehabilitation.

Lessons from Mt. KEBio have been replicated by another local community group ‘Good Hope’, a group of people living with disabilities. Good Hope has managed to raise 8,000 tree seedlings by re-using plastic bags as plant potting material. The group intends to sell the seedlings to the local communities.

More information on project 25-031 led by Nature Kenya can be found here. The full article for this project and others can be found in the Planet Plastic Darwin Newsletter here.


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Planet Plastic: Carpet with a conscious

Welcome to the Darwin Initiative ‘Planet Plastic’ blog series! The concern over plastic pollution has grown as the impacts of plastic can be felt all over the globe and is now even found in the food that we eat. This series will feature Darwin projects that are using innovative and creative ways to combat the plastic problem whilst securing livelihoods and improving biodiversity.

Our first blog highlights the work of a ZSL-led project that has taken a transformative approach to the plastic crisis in Southeast Asia.

Net-Works: Empowering communities for Ocean with ‘more fish and less plastic’

Globally, 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans and over 100 million tonnes of fish are removed each year. On current trajectories, by 2025 there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish. Southeast Asia is home to the Coral Triangle, a well-known marine biodiversity hotspot, but unfortunately it is also one of the major markets for fisheries products. An estimated 3.35 million artisanal reef fishers (>50% of the global total) live in Southeast Asia and depend on these declining fish stocks.

As well as being a hotspot for marine debris, over 85% of carrageenan (a thickening agent extracted from red and purple seaweeds) comes from seaweed that grows in Southeast Asia. An estimated 1 million fishers are dependent on seaweed farming as their sole source of income in the Philippines alone. The coastal communities that are reliant on seaweed farming suffer from the effects of overfishing and marine plastic pollution. Although the global market value for carrageenan is on the rise, with a projected value of around US$1bn by 2021, the current supply chain is fraught with inefficiencies and inequalities. Therefore, carrageenan is fast becoming the ‘palm oil of the sea’.

Phillipines 25-024 Fisherman with seaweed, Credit - ZSL

Fisherman with seaweed, Credit – ZSL

Net-WorksTM was co-founded by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Interface Inc and is an initiative that was created to address these issues. Communities are connected to global brands via a fair and inclusive business model, that started with the collection of discarded fishing nets. Collected nets are recycled by Aquafil, and supplied to Interface Inc who buy the yarn and turn it into eco-friendly carpet tiles. To do this, Aquafil has pioneered state-of-the-art technology to produce yarn from recovered fishing nets and other waste. Net-WorksTM has been progressively building on this foundation and to date have collected more than 200 metric tonnes of nets (and increasing daily) which is enough to go around the world over five times! This tackles several challenges at once: acting as encouragement to communities to clean up their local marine environment and ensuring that they have a way of disposing of old nets.

This business model has since been applied to other raw materials created by these communities in order to help us scale the impact; namely seaweed carrageenan and other plastics. We’ve already conducted successful scientific trials of ecological seaweed farming in the Philippines.

Phillipines 25-024 Fishing boats loaded with nets, Credit - ZSL

Fishing boats loaded with nets, Credit – ZSL

It has been a very positive journey so far, as something that started out as a prototype has now grown into a programme that has improved the marine environment for more than 64,000 people! One of the most striking changes we’ve seen is the sense of empowerment communities have derived from taking charge of their income and their environment, and with a model like this we can have a truly scalable supply chain – one that benefits all life.  Through Net-WorksTM we have the opportunity to empower communities to dramatically change the face of marine conservation, forever!

For more information on project 24-027 led by Zoological Society of London in the Philippines please click here. The full article for this project can be found in the August 2019 edition of the Darwin Newsletter here.


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Fantastic Flora: The rarest coffee in the world

Welcome to the third and final post of the Darwin Initiative “Fantastic Flora” blog series. This post features a Darwin scoping project that recently rediscovered a species of coffee that was seen last in 1954. Unfortunately, the forest where this unique species was found is under threat from mining and deforestation, but through conservation this species may be able to secure the livelihoods of the local communities and Sierra Leonean farmers.

If you would like to read the entire series, follow the links for the first and second blog posts.

Searching for the Sierra Leone Highland Coffee

Whilst leading a project to rehabilitate Robusta coffee production in Sierra Leone with the Natural Resources Institute , we heard about another coffee that is native to Sierra Leone. Known botanically as Coffea stenophylla and colloquially as the ‘highland coffee’, this species was first found in Sierra Leone in 1834, and has probably been cultivated since the 1850s. Reports from the 1920s indicate that the native coffee was of “exquisite” flavour, as good as the best Arabica coffee, and highly sought after. During a trip to Sierra Leone we asked local farmers to help us find highland coffee, but the closest we managed to find were three plants in the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute coffee collection. Later genetic analysis showed that they were hybrids between C. stenophylla and C. liberica.

In 2018 the Natural Resources Institute were able search for this highland coffee through funding provided by the Darwin Initiative to carry out a scoping project. They visited the Western Peninsula National Park on the southern edge of Freetown which was threatened from encroachment, firewood collection and poaching for bush meat. Fortunately, the deeper that the team ventured into the reserve the health of the forest improved due to the lack of human disturbances. Past reports indicated that C. stenophylla was common in such areas, but despite the reassurance from local forest guards no coffee was found.

First native coffee plant

The first native Sierra Leone highland coffee plant (C. stenophylla), Credit – University of Greenwich

The search continued to the Kasewe Hills Forest Reserve, the area where C. stenophylla was last found in 1954. On exploring Kasewe it became apparent that much of the reserve has been deforested, and the only chance of finding the wild coffee would be on the forest-rich hilltops. After much searching of different coffee relatives (plants of the Rubiaceae family), they finally found what they thought was C. stenophylla. The plant was found in a forest patch only about 500m across and was the only one of its kind.

Although C. stenophylla had not previously been recorded in Kenema District, the Kambui Forest Hills Reserve is one of the closest protected forests to the Kasewe Hills. With the help of the District Forest Guards the team explored logging trails in the lowland forest, but had to create a new trail up-hill through the forest and towards the ridge top. The first coffee plant was found 390m above sea level and within 100m of this we found another 15–20 plants including three mature trees about 6–8m tall.

Gold mining in the forest

Gold mining occurring in the forests where C. Stenophylla was rediscovered, Credit – University of Greenwich

In both Kambui and Kasewe the plants had no flowers or fruits, which made it difficult to be completely sure that we had indeed found C. stenophylla. Despite this, leaf samples were used for a subsequent genetic (DNA) analysis, which confirmed that the plants from these locations were indeed the missing highland coffee of Sierra Leone. The Kambui Hills are also under threat from encroachment from the town of Kenema, artisanal gold mining and deforestation for subsistence agriculture, but there is still a significant block of primary forest at its core. Bringing this species into cultivation again and developing it as a unique coffee crop could provide a unique and valuable product, which would benefit local communities and future generations of Sierra Leonean farmers.

For more information on project DARSC196 led by the University of Greenwich working in Sierra Leone please click here. The full article from this project and others can be found in the latest edition of the Darwin newsletter here.