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March 31st, 2021
Energy • Innovation • Health

Community Managed Marine Conservation: Kuruwitu, Kenya

In the early 2000s, overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices had resulted in declining fish numbers in Kuruwitu, a coastal community in southeast Kenya, threatening the livelihoods of local fishers.

To resolve this, the community set up the Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association (KCWA) in 2003. KCWA engaged in public group discussions with local fishers on how to improve fishing practices, which led in 2006 to the establishment of the first Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) in Kenya.

Along with the local Beach Management Unit, KCWA has utilised a range of public engagement methods to build awareness and understanding across the wider community on sustainable fishing and conservation practices and alternative community livelihood opportunities.

Today, the LMMA is jointly run by KCWA and local partner organisations. Fish have grown in abundance, size and diversity, as has the biodiversity of the Kuruwitu region, creating numerous jobs and helping the growth of ecotourism. In addition, building on the success of the Kuruwitu LMMA, 20 other LMMAs have been set up along the Kenyan coast.

Background and Context

Kuruwitu is located 40 kilometres north of Mombasa, and is a popular tourist destination on Kenya’s north coast. It is made up of three coastal villages and six fishing landing sites, with a population of around 7,000 people.1 Kuruwitu’s economy depends predominantly on fishing and ecotourism, with subsistence farming and other small-scale businesses making for a smaller secondary income source. Kuruwitu is home to a diverse marine ecosystem comprising coral reefs, platforms and lagoons as well as multiple endangered species of turtles, reefs and seagrass beds.2

Since the early 2000s, Kuruwitu fishers have been very concerned about the decline in fish numbers near the landing sites.3 It was evident that this was due to overfishing and destructive fishing activities. The fishers were being compelled to explore areas outside the reef to look for more fish, or to resort to the use of illegal fishing gear – including small-meshed nets, monofilaments and spearguns – to make their catches. Further, excessive and unregulated harvesting and the collection of live fish, live corals, and ornamental fish by commercial fishing organisations was threatening the fish nurseries of the reef.4 The fishers’ concerns for the sustainability of their livelihoods pushed the community to look for effective means to protect Kuruwitu’s fragile marine ecosystem.5

The Initiative

The Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association (KCWA) was set up by local resident Des Bowden and fisherman Dickson Juma in 2003, with the aim of protecting the Kuruwitu-Vipingo area from overfishing and at the same time improving the lives of the local community. KCWA brings together 550 families across the six fishing landing sites, made up mostly of artisanal fishers. Artisanal fishing consists of various small-scale, low-technology, low-capital fishing practices undertaken by individual fishing households.6 In 2006, KCWA closed off 30 hectares across Kuruwitu landing sites from unsustainable inshore fishing and habitat destruction, establishing the first Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) in Kenya, through a community-led movement.7 

To deliver on the environmental, socioeconomic and cultural goals of the LMMA, various collaborations and partnerships have been put in place involving the community, government, and other relevant actors. This led to the setting up of a co-management area plan that today covers nearly 10,000 hectares.8 The stakeholders include the local Beach Management Unit (BMU), the Kenyan State Department of Fisheries, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Kenyan not-for-profit organisation Oceans Alive. At the time, the newly-established BMU regulations provided a legal means for communities to assert their rights as co-managers of community natural resources. 

The overall objective of the LMMA is to balance the needs of the community with conservation goals. In particular, these include:

  • Preserve marine ecosystems by creating an LMMA and promoting sustainable fishing practices

  • Increase employment opportunities and diversify livelihoods for the local community

  • Improve community wellbeing and living standards by promoting environmentally-friendly projects and initiatives that increase household income9

  • Increase opportunities for young people in the community

Influence and educate other coastal communities, leading by example.10

How was the need for marine conservation presented and communicated?

Before the Initiative

The local fishers in Kuruwitu recognised the need to address the economic threat that unsustainable fishing practices were posing to their livelihood. From the time of KCWA’s establishment in 2003 up until 2006, the fishers were engaged in focus group discussions on ways by which they could experiment with different types of sustainable fishing practices. It was through these discussions that a proposal was made for the creation of an LMMA.11 At the time, there were no other LMMAs along the Kenyan coast to serve as a precedent.

In 2006, the East African Wildlife Society, which is a conservation NGO, arranged an exchange visit for the Kuruwitu fishers to Tanga in northern Tanzania, to facilitate learning and provide firsthand experience of an LMMA in operation. The LMMA in Tanga is a community-managed marine area set up by the Tanga Coastal Zone Conservation Development Programme alongside the local community. There, the Kuruwitu fishers had the chance to discuss and share experiences on marine conservation with their Tanzanian counterparts.

During the Initiative

Communication around the LMMA initiative in Kuruwitu was put together by the community members of KCWA and the BMU. They signed a memorandum of understanding, which clearly defined their respective roles and responsibilities. KCWA was responsible for the overall management of the LMMA, including managing ecotourism. Therefore, most of the communication was primarily facilitated by the KCWA committee and its subcommittees through regular participatory learning sessions with the wider Kuruwitu community. Much of this focused on visits to the site and activity-focused sessions to discuss and showcase the various components of the LMMA. The BMU, on the other hand, which was responsible for sustainable fishing, licensing, and enforcing fisheries regulation, covered those topics in separate learning sessions.

After the Initiative

The LMMA initiative in Kuruwitu is still ongoing, and consistent efforts are made by the community members of KCWA to reach out to the growing Kuruwitu population and build awareness of the LMMA and sustainable fishing practices.

In addition, since the establishment of the Kuruwitu LMMA in 2006, 20 other LMMAs have been set up in Kenya, and a few others have been set up in Eritrea and Djibouti, after visits to Kuruwitu for learning exchange programmes. KCWA is also working with Oceans Alive to build toolkits that will help support LMMA managers in planning, setting up, and improving LMMAs in their regions and with their communities.12

To build broader, more widespread awareness, a documentary film “Kuruwitu – Between a Rock and a Hard Place” was put together in 2011 by the African Environmental Film Foundation (AEFF). The film discusses marine ecosystems, overfishing, aquarium trade, the benefits for fishers from creating no-fishing zones, and the ways in which a sustainable marine tourism industry can provide alternative livelihood options for coastal communities. In 2018, the AEFF made another similar short film entitled “Kuruwitu – The revival of a Kenyan reef”, which covers the more recent aspects of the initiative.13

What was the level of action addressed by the public engagement?

Collaboration among KCWA members

On becoming aware of the fishing community’s frustrations with depleted fish stocks and livelihood opportunities in Kuruwitu, Des Bowden and Dickson Juma set up a range of discussions between the community and marine conservation experts to address the problem. These sessions focused on ways in which the six landing sites across the 10km coastal stretch of Kuruwitu could be better protected, and the livelihoods of the local fishers improved. A summary of those discussions was put together in a report, which was presented to the rest of the local fishing community at Kuruwitu in a well-attended inaugural meeting. At this meeting, the local fishing community agreed to formalise their ability to co-manage the marine resources in their region, by setting up KCWA and voting in a committee consisting of elders, fishers, fishmongers, and a few house-owners, with equal representation from the six landing sites. Des and Dickson were voted in as Chairman and Vice Chairman respectively. 

This group commenced work to establish the LMMA in Kuruwitu, sharing the responsibility for setting up, managing and running the area. Through the course of this work, KCWA membership was opened up to the local community and expanded to include over 1,000 people. Today, KCWA is managed by a 15-person committee, which is composed of an executive committee and subcommittees on the environment, enterprise, education, security, and welfare, each one headed by a local community member. It is a requirement that at least one-third of all committee members are women.14 Decisions are taken in a participatory manner, and if any issue arises, the committee calls for assembly meetings to resolve conflicts with the support of landing site representatives.

Collaboration between KCWA members and the wider community

As KCWA membership has expanded, its objectives have evolved. It was initially set up to give the local fishing community a formal voice in the management of marine resources and to mobilise against aquarium fishing. This involved developing a co-management scheme through extensive consultation with fishers, who were the key stakeholders driving the initial establishment of the LMMA. Focus group discussions were also facilitated to develop a plan of action on the restoration of coral reefs, ecotourism, and sustainability. In each case, KCWA identified and encouraged participation of the relevant members of the community.15,16

Today, KCWA continues to ensure the ongoing inclusion and participation of new stakeholders or beneficiaries of the LMMA through active communication and invitations to participate in decision-making. New stakeholders include Vipingo Ridge, which is developing an emerging ecotourism destination; Centum Ridge, which is developing a city in the area; and Mombasa’s cement factory. These new stakeholders are being consulted as part of the collaborative development of an updated co-management plan. This process is led by KCWA and the BMU and aims to redefine the objectives and long-term goals of the LMMA as circumstances change.17 

KCWA also looks to create alternative sustainable sources of employment and income for the wider local communities of Kuruwitu. These processes consist of interviewing community members so they can share their perspectives and aspirations for the community. Subsequent focus group sessions involve either attending training sessions, or visiting, exploring and discussing the LMMA, and sustainable marine conservation issues and activities.18 These sessions have improved community cohesiveness, increased members’ knowledge of their rights and responsibilities, and enabled them to mobilise effectively for collective action. 

KCWA also provides job opportunities for the wider community, either directly in relation to the management of the LMMA or through its offices. For example, KCWA appoints and trains scouts from the community to patrol the LMMA and ensure only sustainable fishing practices are being undertaken. Some of the community are also well trained in biodiversity assessments, and they regularly monitor the conservation area. The objective of these training programmes is to strengthen and sustain local institutional capacity and empower the community to run projects without relying on external support.

Further, KCWA runs a number of initiatives to support ecotourism. It compensates the community for finding turtle nests and looking after them until the eggs are hatched. A monitoring team of trained community managers oversees this exercise. KCWA works closely with Bureni Turtle Watch, the Mwanamia Turtle Project, and Oceans Alive to fund these efforts, and is also supporting a collaborative effort to build a rehabilitation centre for injured turtles. Additionally, KCWA owns and runs shops at Vipingo Beach and sells various locally made products, crafts and furniture. Most crafts are made from driftwood, beach waste, or derelict dhows. Initial training sessions with a professional carpenter were organised for the community, and the community members now run these sessions themselves.

What was the level of action addressed by the public engagement?

The public engagement process targeted action at the individual, community and systems level. It achieved this in two ways: firstly, by building awareness of sustainable marine conservation and its benefits to fishing communities and livelihoods; and secondly, by empowering the community to manage its own marine resources successfully and without external interference. In doing so, the communities were able to reinvest in local community development and protect their livelihoods from being encroached upon by larger industry players.

Public Impact

KCWA, the BMU, the Kenyan State Department of Fisheries, WCS and Oceans Alive developed a co-management plan for the Kuruwitu LMMA, and now run the initiative jointly, successfully promoting the sustainable use of marine resources.

  • With fishing prohibited within the LMMA, fish have grown in abundance, size and diversity. In 2015, the Kuruwitu community reported bigger and better catches in the areas just outside the protected zone. Research confirms that, compared to the 2006 baseline, there have been increases in fish biomass by 400 percent, coral cover by 30 percent, and seagrass by 12 percent.

  • In 2018, over 180 turtle nests were protected and one of three proposed turtle hatcheries was built on Kinuni beach.

  • Biodiversity has increased dramatically in Kuruwitu, making the region a destination for ecotourism and creating numerous jobs.

Since the establishment of the Kuruwitu LMMA, 20 other LMMAs have been set up across Kenya, empowering local communities to manage natural capital.19

Further Considerations and Lessons from this Case

From CPI’s extensive work on public engagement, we have found three important drivers to public impact that are relevant to discuss when designing public engagement processes around climate change: Enabling Adaptability and Learning; Designing for Inclusion; and Embracing Complexity. We discuss the relevance of each to the case study below:

Enabling Adaptability and Learning 

The process of public engagement and grassroots mobilisation to establish the Kuruwitu LMMA was the first of its kind in Kenya and owed little to any earlier models of engagement. It was adapted flexibly, through experimentation and dialogue with the local fishing communities of Kuruwitu. KCWA operates an open membership model for the local communities, and decisions are made collectively with wide consultation across Kuruwitu, taking into account the needs, concerns and aspirations of community members, business owners, and other beneficiaries and stakeholders of the LMMA.

KCWA and the LMMA are both entirely community-led and community-managed initiatives, where the community members drive the process of decision-making and participate in the implementation and delivery of those decisions and plans. This allows them the autonomy and opportunity to be experimental in identifying projects, testing them out to understand the wider community interests and income-generation opportunities, sharing lessons across groups, and either expanding those projects or trying new initiatives. This flexibility has allowed for the uptake of diverse and innovative sustainable marine conservation activities and livelihood opportunities in Kuruwitu, including training and awareness-raising on sustainable fishing practices, local biodiversity assessment jobs, and craft and furniture making using beach waste and derelict dhows.

However, it is important to note that KCWA is still largely dependent on grant funding and is currently working to build fixed and regular income streams through ecotourism to sustain its operations. Enabling the same levels of flexibility and adaptation, and feedback loops between KCWA members and partners and community members may prove challenging in this context, as they seek to balance the needs of the community against those of tourism. KCWA is sufficiently well established and embedded in the community to manage these tensions, but it would nevertheless require conscious and careful navigation.

Designing for Inclusion 

In establishing the LMMA, the public engagement processes were adapted to suit the different groups and communities in Kuruwitu. There were active consultations to discuss with communities their aspirations for Kuruwitu, their livelihoods, and how best they could be part of the community’s transformation. There were also very specific discussion sessions to engage the fishers, being the main group whose livelihoods were affected by incumbent fishing practices. The engagement was open and inclusive in the sense that it was not confined to committee rooms but also took place in the form of site visits and activity observation sessions. This approach encouraged discussion among the groups, and made the engagement process visible and accessible to the wider community. 

Primarily, however, the public engagement activities in Kuruwitu tend towards favouring openness, which in some cases could be to the detriment of true inclusion. For example, KCWA consults with new and emerging tourism businesses and stakeholders such as beach resorts and factories. They also consult with those owning land on the beach, who often do not live within the community but are based in Kenya’s capital Nairobi or abroad for much of the year.20 While these are important stakeholders, it is unclear how the outcomes of these consultations are balanced and prioritised against community-related goals and objectives. This reinforces the importance of clarifying community goals and values for Kuruwitu, and using that as a guiding principle in decision-making, to ensure that equity and inclusion are not lost while striving for equal representation for all stakeholders.

Embracing Complexity 

In Kenya, advancing livelihoods for rural communities while tackling marine conservation challenges is a complex undertaking. There are multiple environmental, social and economic factors that need to be addressed in order to ensure a more sustainable way of living for the communities involved. In Kuruwitu, this would mean addressing the “widespread poverty and subsistence lifestyles, climatic variability and seasonality, lack of access to finance and technology, restricted access to resources and assets, particularly a lack of land tenure”.21 

In its public engagement, the LMMA did not attempt to address the breadth of these issues, although it successfully drew attention to the importance of urgent action to sustain community livelihoods. Initial public engagement and interest was generated by concern over factors such as the loss of income for the fishers. Through strategic partnerships with local organisations, this allowed for broader discussions with communities on marine ecosystems and the long-term effects of current practices on their livelihoods. The Kuruwitu LMMA initiative holds many lessons on how effective communication and discussion around sustainability and climate change can be facilitated. It serves to highlight the links between short-term and long-term environmental risks and impacts, and consequently drives successful action and sustained engagement from local communities around those issues.


Engaging the Public on Climate Change

Our Case Study Compendium provides practitioners with a framework to unpack different approaches, outlining how public engagement can better embrace the complexity of climate issues.

Read the report