The effectiveness of any strategic environmental law and its contribution to the achievement of intended objectives is only as good as its formulation process. Data plays a critical role in the fabric of environmental policy formulation and management in Kenya. Policymakers, legislative bodies, members of the public, and draftspersons depend on reliable data to inform legislation and day-to-day interaction with natural resources. The design and architecture of how environmental data and information flows within decision-making bodies in Kenya have undergone significant transformation since the country got its independence in 1963. Freedom of self-rule also marked the adoption of a people-centered parliamentary system of legislation that focused on representation as a vital pillar for passing laws, taking over from a colonial system that was more dictatorial than constitutional.
In 2010, Kenya made a decision-making milestone by adopting a new constitution based on a Bicarmel Parliament that includes the National Assembly and the Senate. This new set of laws also introduced 47 County Assemblies for each of the 47 Counties and made it mandatory for all policy-making processes to include public participation. The Senate and National Assembly function as the policy-making bodies at the national level while the County Assemblies are the primary legislative systems at the county level. Institutionally, the National Environmental Management Authority of Kenya (NEMA) is the agency that establishes and reviews land-use guidelines and advises the government on national, regional, and international legislation and conventions. This body also collects data and information from stakeholders for utilization in policy-making processes. NEMA works in collaboration with other state environmental agencies such as the Kenya Forest Service, Kenya Forest Research Institute, National Environment Trust Fund, Kenya Wildlife Service, Water, and Museums. An executive order in 2018 introduced the ministry of environment and forestry, which is mandated, among other functions, to oversee national environmental policy and management.
The process of data and information flow into the country's national and county law-making entities is well coordinated. It entails a series of meaningful consultations at the respective government levels and allows decision-makers to monitor how data is collected and utilized to influence the governance of natural resources in Kenya. The government uses public forums, online platforms, stakeholder meetings, research, and expert input to guide its environmental policy process. As a policy advocate, I have observed that Kenya's national biodiversity strategy and action plan (NBSAP) 2019 is one of the documents formulated through a multisectoral approach. A dedicated steering committee oversaw the formulation of the NBSAP .
In community participation in sustainable forest management, as was the case with the enhancement of the Draft Regulation on Forests Rules 2020, the government invites the public and all stakeholders to share their submissions and proposals on the draft regulation to the Ministry of Environment and Forest for a window period of about 30 days. Input from this process is used by the respective committees to form the final draft. The consultative process is meant to enhance participation at all levels, and that quality data is collected to lay a foundation for inclusive environmental governance. NEMA also stipulates that public participation is one of the steps when conducting an environmental impact assessment or audit process for any project in Kenya. This provision has empowered local communities to have their voices heard in decision-making processes. Locals can also successfully challenge any environmental process that does not consider their contribution in a court of law. In June 2019, a group of defenders of the environment successfully blocked the construction of a $2 billion coal plant in Lamu through Kenya's environmental court. The activists, mostly residents of the affected area, argued that the Chinese-financed project could negatively compromise the lives of local people by hampering the area's pristine form, marine resources, and tourism. While delivering the historic ruling, judges of the National Environmental Tribunal stated that the developer, Amu Power, had failed to conduct a thorough assessment of the proposed company’s impact on the social, ecological, and cultural endowment of Lamu County. Further, the judges affirmed that the coal plant owners had not sufficiently consulted the local communities about the project. According to the group of environmental activists and lawyers drawn from conservation organizations in the Coast region, the judgment reflected the will of the people as communities had for a long time wanted their position on the coal plant to be known. The resistance came against the government's backing of the project in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, claiming it would stir the economic growth of the region. In 2020, another set of environmental activists won a landmark $12m court case for compensation of victims of environmental pollution in Mombasa.
The Kenyan Youth Biodiversity, a youth-led conservation organization that I coordinate, has on the forefront to include youth positions in crucial local and national environmental policies. In June 2020, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry opened a call for submission of input from various stakeholders in the review of its Forest Conservation and Management Act 2016. In September 2020, the government invited the general public and stakeholders to share their submissions on the draft Regulation on Forests (Community Participation in Sustainable Forest Management) Rules 2020. The public-focused model of information update to drive environmental policies has been embraced at the County level as well. The County Government of Kisumu is one of the first Counties to develop a comprehensive bill on Climate Change, subjected to public review and comments. The formulation of Kenya's Access and Benefit Sharing Frameworks of its natural resources was a process that involved various stakeholders and representatives of indigenous communities, youth, researchers, and civil society.
The mandatory legal requirement for decision-making bodies to consider information and data from stakeholders has also necessitated the need for capacity building of government officials at the county and national levels on proper data and information collection, generation, analysis, validation, dissemination, storage, and utilization. The visible outcomes of these procedures are improved technical and professional accountability, data privacy, modernization of information handling methodologies and facilities, routine public engagement, and investment in research. An example of community-oriented and data-driven environmental initiative in Kenya is the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, plus forest conservation, sustainable management of forest carbon stocks (REDD+) Readiness Project. Started in June 2017, the program is implemented by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MEF) with the support of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Kenya, through financing from the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), It is expected to end in December 2020, with about $3, 912, 728 having been spent to increase Kenya’s forest cover towards the achievement of the national target of 10% , mitigate the current climate crisis, and conserve the country’s biodiversity. Simply, the project aims to encourage local communities, individuals, conservation organizations, private sector, and governments to reduce emissions by maintaining a certain percentage of forested cover and receive monetary compensation or other rewards. The project employs a “results-based approach” that considers data on forests and other environmental parameters to make compensation decisions. Data used to inform implementation strategies mainly involves measuring, reporting, and verification. Further, capacity-building and stakeholder engagement forms a core element of the project. I am writing this article from the Voi Wildlife Lodge, while attending a week-long stakeholders engagement meeting on REDD+ Readiness with the Youth working in environmental conservation and climate change in Kenya. Such data-driven environmental programs have also enabled communities to be more involved in the implementation of the on-ground projects and developed a sense of ownership, an element that promises to achieve sustainability.
The data and information fed into the decision-making pipeline in Kenya through current avenues mostly capitalize on statistics on human-ecological interaction nexus, biodiversity, and ecosystem health, the impact of environmental decisions on culture and social cohesion, landscape restoration mechanisms, land use preferences, and water use sustainability. Tools such as environmental impact assessment and audit reports provide information that has already been collected and analyzed by scientific experts. The data analysis methods and processes are mostly not open to public scrutiny. In addition, the country lacks publicly known and utilized open sources low-cost platforms deliberately meant for the collection of raw environmental data and information.
Conservation organizations have recently tried to cover this gap by coming up with online tools to encourage citizens' contribution to environmental data. The Kenya Bird Map project is one such initiative. It is managed by the Bird Committee of the East African Natural History Society and implemented by A Rocha Kenya, National Museums of Kenya, Tropical Biology Association, Nature Kenya, and the Animal Demography Unit of the University of Cape Town. The free mobile application is available for download and enables birders across Kenya. Users can fill in data on species observed, location, time, and other parameters. The participatory approach contributes positively to the compilation of data on birds and its use in assessing other ecological parameters. The incorporation of decision-makers from the government, represented by the National Museums of Kenya, aids informed contribution to the country's environmental legislation. While this open-source tool and form of volunteer mapping are highly successful in ecological monitoring, they are inadequate, as they only appeal to skilled or birding individuals. Further, the use of mobile applications is not cheap as it requires data that is not readily affordable to many. 70% of Kenya's wildlife lives outside protected areas, an element that provides an opportunity for the government to provide customized open sources and low-cost data tools that encourage as many citizens as possible to provide data and information.
The government of Kenya should open up its already available environmental data to the general public. Updated environmental data is useful to both the science and local communities. A public monitoring tool on vulture population dynamics, for instance, will help local farmers understand why they need to stop poisoning carcasses and actively contribute to policies that protect the scavengers. Open government environmental data will also increase transparency and accountability of natural resource management, encourage innovation, create awareness, and enhance a peaceful working environment between communities and government agencies.
About the author: Kevin Lunzalu is Country Coordinator of the Kenyan Youth Biodiversity Network
 The team is supervised by the ministry of forestry, included experts from the National Museums of Kenya, Nature Kenya, National Treasury and Planning, National Commission for Science, Technology, and Innovation (NACOSTI), Council of Governors (COGs), National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation, Ministry of Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure and Housing, Ministry of Devolution & ASALs, Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Kenya Forest Service, Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) and Kenya Marine Research Institute (KMFRI).