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Conservation Group Tries One More Thing to Preserve an African Woodland: Prayer

A Rocha Kenya cites WhatsApp intercession group as key to saving habitat for owls, shrews, and other endangered creatures.
Conservation Group Tries One More Thing to Preserve an African Woodland: Prayer

The Dakatcha Woodland is home to Africa’s tiniest owl; a long-legged shrew with golden fur found nowhere else on earth; and weaver birds so rare it took Kenyan ornithologist Colin Jackson 13 years to track down their breeding grounds.

The East African habitat, which stretch over about 465,000 acres north of the coastal town of Malindi, Kenya, are under constant threat from climate change, expanding farms, and charcoal production.

“We’re fighting against a huge wave of destruction,” Jackson, who is also head of A Rocha Kenya, told CT.

There are only so many things you can do to save a forest. You can lobby for environmental laws. Buy land and place it in a trust. Raise money. Raise awareness. Promote scientific research on the importance of the habitat for biodiversity.

And, according to Jackson, you can pray.

“There have been times when things have looked pretty desperate and yet we’ve managed to break through and things have improved,” he said.

A Rocha Kenya, the local branch of the international network of environmental organizations with Christian ethos, has set up a “wall of prayer” to protect the Dakatcha Woodland and other key sites. It consists of a WhatsApp group of about 80 or so Christian conservationists around the world that A Rocha Kenya can call on for intercession when faced with a crisis.

Many people are skeptical of the power of prayer, and there is an especially fierce criticism of those who invoke “thoughts and prayers” as a way not to take action on pressing social issues. But Christians who care about the environment have been increasingly turning to intercession as a spiritual tool commensurate with great need.

Believers from Asia, Europe, and North America gathered monthly ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in Scotland to intercede for the governments negotiating emissions targets. At the conference, Christian observers prayed for “a godly outcome.”

And the Christian conservation group in Kenya is organizing believers who will pray for the protection of the forest that is home to many rare creatures.

The combination of the spiritual and the practical in conservation is not something new in Kenya. Many of Jackson’s colleagues either are Christians or have a Christian background. Government meetings in the area often open and close with prayer.

But some conservationists are sharply critical of the approach—and opposed to any effort to care for the environment that puts an emphasis on Christian convictions.

Mordecai Ogada, executive director of Kenyan nonprofit Conservation Solutions Afrika, told CT that the model of conservation currently practiced in Kenya “is steeped in racial bias and the dominance of ‘whiteness.’” Instead of attempting to decolonize, it draws its traditions and ideas from people like Theodore Roosevelt, the US president who was a noted conservationist, and John Muir, the Scottish American naturalist and “father of the National Parks.”

“In African societies, spirituality is closely tied to stewardship of the environment, but this African spirituality has always been vilified by missionaries and Christianity,” Ogada said. “The Christian basis for conservation instantly excludes those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith.”

But as a researcher at the University of Manitoba’s Natural Resources Institute Joanne Moyer spent 11 months looking at the role of religious organizations in sustainable development and environmental protection in Kenya, and that’s not what she saw.

“While A Rocha was one of the more overtly Christian of the organizations I studied, in terms of integrating prayer, Bible study, and worship in the regular rhythms of their organizational life, I would describe their approach toward non-Christians to be respectfully invitational,” said Moyer, who is now an associate professor of environmental studies and geography at The King’s University, Alberta. “There was an atheist volunteer while I was there, and she was never pressured to attend any of the overtly Christian activities. I think I asked her about how she felt working there as a non-Christian, and she said it was just fine.”

Moyer also believes the religious approach to conservationism may connect with Kenyans more than the Western academic and scientific environmental and conservationist programs.

“Faith-based groups like A Rocha could connect with local people in a language they understood,” she said. “An uneducated farmer might not understand things like biodiversity, habitat, endangered species, and their role in the larger ecosystem. But most Kenyans are Christian, and A Rocha could articulate a fairly simple and straightforward faith-based conservation message that I think made sense to people and resonated with them in a way that made them more motivated to respond.”

That has been Jackson’s experience. He first started connecting with the local community in Dakatcha during his quest to locate the nesting site of a small black-and-yellow bird called the Clarke’s weaver, found only there and in Arabuko-Sokoke, a forest reserve to the south of Malindi.

Like the Sokoke scops owls, the weavers are endangered due to deforestation, and their nesting habits were unknown to science until 2013 when Jackson and colleagues discovered a breeding colony in a wetland in Dakatcha. In a scientific paper published in Scopus, they described the colony, which was filled with hundreds of Clarke’s weavers building ball-shaped nests from sedge fibers and filling the air with their buzzing and sizzling calls.

During the surveys for the nesting site, Jackson and his team had discovered most people they met were church members. The churches became the conservation group’s gateway into the community.

Today, A Rocha is also helping train some of Dakatcha’s farmers in methods that protect the forest, while also promoting soil health, boosting crop yields, and minimizing water usage. Through the churches it is able to give biblical teaching on why God cares about the earth and all things in it—including the farms people work, the birds they see and hear, the air they breathe, and the water they drink.

But while Jackson agrees that faith-based arguments for protecting trees, owls, and shrews are effective, he also has a most straightforward reason to prioritize prayer at A Rocha. He’s a Christian, and Christians are supposed to pray.

“God is sovereign, and he works his purposes out,” he said. “But we do know that God loves us to talk to him and to bring our requests to him and he does answer prayer.”

He also believes that prayer is powerful.

Seven years ago, for example, Jackson and his colleagues saw large yellow earth-moving equipment arrive at Arabuko-Sokoke, a coastal forest that is home to not only many elephants and buffalo but also overlooked rarities like the golden-rumped sengi, a shrew that’s found only there and in Dakatcha. A US-based oil firm, CAMAC Energy, wanted to cut lines through Arabuko-Sokoke to carry out seismic surveys. This would involve planting and detonating explosives.

CAMAC Energy (later known as Erin Energy Corporation) insisted the seismic survey would not harm the forest and that it always complied with environmental regulations. But A Rocha, other conservation groups, and locals were alarmed at what looked to them like impending devastation.

Jackson and his colleagues were spurred into action, working with communities on the ground and other conservation groups and activists. And, as with all their work, they also turned to prayer.

Within weeks, the company had shelved its plans for exploration. CAMAC Energy’s statement at the time said that the decision to not go ahead with the surveys inside the forest was “in keeping with our tradition of involving and listening to all stakeholders.”

Jackson and the other people praying for the situation were pretty sure they knew the real reason.

“We felt very much that God really answered that prayer,” Jackson said.

Pressed on whether he could be sure the prayer partners on WhatsApp were really the key to the decision made in a corporate boardroom in Houston, Texas, Jackson just said, “That’s one of the million-dollar questions.”

A missionaries’ kid who earned a doctorate in ornithology after starting a branch of the conservationist organization at home, Jackson is happy to point to another answered prayer: funds. A Rocha Kenya recently received a grant of $1 million to purchase and protect land within the Dakatcha.

“I completely see that as an answer to prayer,” Jackson said. “I see that as God’s hand at work.”

One key area the group hopes to secure is a patch of forest where the Sokoke scops owl breeds. This 17-centimeter-high bird of prey—Africa’s smallest owl—is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The breeding ground is currently threatened by encroaching pineapple farms and increased charcoal burning. Indirectly, Jackson said, the problem is climate change.

Although places like the Dakatcha Woodlands are considered semi-arid, 30 years ago farmers could plant crops like maize in mid-March and rely on regular soaking rainfall over the next three months. Now the rains come late. A severe drought in recent months has made things much worse.

“People are not getting the crops that they need. That is what forces them into cutting trees and burning charcoal,” Jackson said.

With the money from the grant, A Rocha is negotiating with some of those farmers to buy land, talking to them about the Christian reasons to protect the owls and their habitat, and praying that people might be moved to see the forest as something they should protect instead of consume.

Jackson says for conservation projects to be successful, people’s hearts will have to change.

“They need to get right with God and understand their God-given relationship with creation, which is to tend it and care for it,” he said. “If we get that right, and we’re in a healed relationship with God, then there’s a far greater chance for creation to be protected.”

For that, he believes, the best tool is prayer.

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