COP15 as a Restoration Steward: A Q&A with Adrian Leitoro

Adrian Leitoro is a conservationist and co-founder of Nature and People as One (NaPO), a local initiative working on enhancing community-led conservation in northern Kenya. Adrian served as the 2022 GLF Restoration Steward for Drylands and, as part of his role, traveled to the UNFCCC COP27 in Egypt and the UNCCD COP15 in Côte d’Ivoire. In December 2022 Adrian also attended the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Canada, made possible with the support of the Lavazza Foundation for the Restoration Stewards program. There, we caught up with him to reflect on the various conferences he had attended and discuss how they’ve affected his conservation work in northern Kenya. 

Interview by Erin O’Connell and Eirini Sakellari

Left to right: Dwi Riyan, Wetlands Restoration Steward 2023, Eirini Sakellari, GLF Youth Assistant Coordinator and Adrian Leitoro, Drylands Restoration Steward 2022

So, three COPs. How did that feel? Are you getting ‘COP weary’ at this point, or could you just COP all year long?

Well, when I first started out, I had a lot of motivation. I was looking at the COP as this place where we’ll get in the negotiation rooms, make noise and change everything. But the reality is, the COPs are important because we need to get 198 countries to agree, and it’s not easy to get even two people to agree. So, it has to be there, but at some point, it got a bit overwhelming seeing that I can’t influence, as a young person, the decisions and the negotiations.

Also, [the COPs provide] lots of opportunities to meet people. My perspectives over the last three COPs have completely changed from when I started with the [UNCCD COP15] on drylands, the biggest drylands COP, in Abidjan.

Every COP that I’ve been to has shaped my thinking, and in a really global kind of way. I’m working in a local context, but it’s always nice to look at what’s happening at the global level and try to translate that to the work I’m doing. I always felt like there was a disconnect between what is happening at the top, which at the highest level is the COP, and at the ground. It’s been a good experience to think about how to translate what’s up here, the whole climate change discussion, to the communities who are facing it in different ways and may not even call it climate change.

Could you describe how your perspective shifted and what triggered those changes?

I’ll give you an example from COP27. When I got there, I had just come from the Africa Ministerial Conference where they were discussing Africa’s priorities. So, I was like, I’m going to follow each priority here at the COP: adaptation, loss and damage, everything. But as one person, you can’t follow all these things at the same time, so it became a question of “pick a few.” Generally, in life, my perspective was “I’ll do everything,” but it helped me realize that sometimes you have to pick what you are good at or what is most important to you, and focus your efforts on those things.

For me, change is “how do I link climate change adaptation and biodiversity?” because that’s what is a priority for the work I’m doing. The communities I’m living with are facing climate change adaptation. They are facing issues with adapting, and for the longest time, they are the ones who have been taking care of these landscapes without necessarily getting paid or anything like that. But with climate change and biodiversity loss and increasing droughts, it is becoming harder for them to keep on with their stewardship. So there has to be a linkage between restoring nature and making sure that communities are adapting to the climate change that is heavily affecting them.

We think of climate change as very specific things, but it’s affecting people at the local level and so when you’re speaking with them it’s not a concept, it’s in their day-to-day. Do you find there are different ways to approach the conversation?

There’s a climate change project we were doing this year, and the first thing I decided to do was… contextualize what climate change is at the local level. We got different stakeholders – youth, women, elders – and we were having conversations around “what are the changes that are happening?” because if I started off with “climate change” then that’s a term that is top-down, right?

Some of the things that came out [of those conversations] are exactly what climate change is, but it wasn’t coming from saying “this is climate change.” It came from the community that understands what climate change is, but may not be familiar with the term. Some of the changes that were identified were: “We don’t have as much grass as we used to have. The forest used to come to here, but now it’s receded to this place.” See, this is biodiversity loss. “We used to move our cattle in this way, but we can’t because now everybody is going in this direction because of more frequent droughts. Our forests used to be our dry-season raising areas, so they would be set aside only for extremely dry periods, but now we’re spending more time in the forest because it’s always dry.”

These are some of the answers that were coming out, and it just goes to show that we need to find that middle ground between the science and what knowledge is already there, and work with that to build for nature and the communities that are feeling the impacts, to actually be able to continue with their stewardship of these landscapes.

In terms of these issues that pastoralists are confronting, are you going into communities and having conversations with them? Or are you talking more generally from your knowledge of being in the region?

It’s a combination of both. We always have conversations, and that’s one of our priorities: listen. We have conversations with the elders, we organize the women to get their perspectives – I quickly realized that was the solution. And then of course I have my regional thinking, which, if it aligns with the feedback that I’m getting, then it will be a good solution.

But the first step has always been: let’s be partners. Looking at our communities as partners and not as beneficiaries. So, if we’re talking about alternative livelihoods, maybe talk about complementary livelihoods. A lot of work has gone into providing complete alternatives that may not be compatible with pastoralism, which in its essence is actually an NBS [Nature Based Solution] or a Climate Adaptation Solution, because you’re taking advantage of a highly variable ecosystem during a highly variable weather pattern and you’re using that movement to be able to cope and survive, right? So, we should be working with this system, as opposed to trying to change it.

Could you talk more about this concept of complementary livelihoods?

OK, I’ll give two examples of work that we are actually doing now. A herder would walk hundreds of kilometers every year in this landscape, so there is no one with knowledge about that landscape like a herder. So maybe we need to work with that if we want information, right? We know there’s remote sensing that we need to collect data, but we also need to ground this data in truth. So, use the herder. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re setting up this herders’ conservation network, which is basically to have citizen scientists, which are the herders, who are walking around and have all this information, contribute towards this discussion and towards the remote sensing and collecting important ecological information as well as other information. That’s a complementary livelihood – a herder is getting paid for work that’s something that he’s always doing.

A second one. Where we work, there are these dryland forests, and some communities practice beekeeping in them. We know the discussion around bees and biodiversity – bees are 100% good for biodiversity and for food security. So, the idea is beekeeping is not incompatible with pastoralism because all you have to do is set up the beehives and periodically come and check, inspect and make sure that everything is OK, but you can still continue herding, still do the pastoralism that is essentially our livelihoods. So, that’s what we’re trying to do is develop that value chain and that market for the honey products, so that if pastoralists are doing honey production, then there’s a market available, and money or resources flow down as a complementary livelihood to pastoralism as the main one.

We’re not saying stop pastoralism. We’re saying keep doing it, but also you can get some more resources, or diversify and get things from different sources.

We’ve talked about how your perspective has shifted over the COPs. How are you feeling in this one? What’s your take so far, almost halfway through COP15?

What I like about this one is that it’s purely biodiversity and there’s a lot of acknowledgments of youth and Indigenous communities compared to the other conventions. The CBD has a lot of integration of Indigenous people, and that’s credit to the elders and the people who struggled for that to get here.

Being my first CBD COP, the first thing I noticed is how the voices of Indigenous people are a bit stronger here. They could definitely be way stronger in some of the decisions, but it’s encouraging to see that, and how the youth are also quite involved.

I can only imagine how many people you’ve met just by virtue of having gone to three COPs. How many people have you been able to contact?

Yeah, one of the most enriching experiences was the conversations I’ve had. At each of these COPs, I’ve had conversations with different people with different perspectives and understood different perspectives. Just an example, yesterday I was having a conversation – there’s this whole issue of sustainable utilization of wildlife – and we were having this argument, and I may never support it, but yesterday I talked to somebody who actually practices that in Namibia and it was an interesting conversation. It didn’t change my perspective, per se, but it gave me a different perspective to think about it from and so made it easier to understand where somebody else is coming from – and that’s what we need. We need to have good practices and share these experiences so that they can guide what we want to implement and make it more robust.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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Supporting partners 2023

Supporting partners

The Restoration Stewards program provides funding, mentorship and training to deepen the impact of youth-led restoration projects. The year-long program is run by the Youth in Landscapes Initiative (YIL) and the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) under the banner of Generation Restoration to support and highlight the work of eight young restoration practitioners and their teams in 2023.

During the program, the Restoration Stewards and their teams are  supported to further develop their project and serve as ambassadors at both global and local levels. Globally, the Restoration Stewards share their journeys in a series of vlogs and blogs documenting their stories of inspiration and challenges and participate in different international events to showcase their work. Locally, they are sparking a restoration movement, mobilizing local communities and creating pathways to connect, share, learn, and act for livelihoods and landscapes.