The mission of MWCT is to preserve healthy ecosystems and biodiversity within the Maasai tribal lands of East Africa by promoting conservation and creating sustainable benefits for the community. The legendary wilderness of Africa’s vast grassland ecosystems and the traditional culture of the Maasai people both face daunting challenges to survive and co-exist in a sustainable manner. Population pressures, subdivision of land and over-development, climate change and drought (like the one which devastated Kenya in 2009), competition between livestock and wildlife…all represent serious threats to this wilderness and the Maasai way of life.
On November 1, 2009 acclaimed actor Edward Norton took to the streets of New York City with three Maasai Warriors from Kenya, leading a team of 30 runners in the New York City marathon. They ran to raise awareness and funding for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT).
But this isn’t just another story of a celebrity lending his name to a cause for one event, nor is it just another organization working in a general way on ‘environmental issues’ with colorful indigenous people on the brochure cover. The story of how Norton, a mad Italian conservationist and a traditional Maasai community came together out of common interests and forged a partnership is actually a window into the way that a new generation is carrying environmental conservation into the 21st Century — leaving behind the old notion that we can protect Nature by separating it from people in favor of an approach that acknowledges people’s needs as a critical component of creating sustainable long-term solutions.
Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust was founded by Luca Belpietro and his wife Antonella Bonomi. A passionate, hilarious Italian, Luca is half Roberto Benigni and half Clint Eastwood. Son of a life-long hunter and a former hunter himself, he walked away from a successful career in finance to pursue his childhood dream: to live and work in the wilderness of East Africa that his father had introduced him to as a kid. With a degree in Economics and a focus on wildlife as a sustainable resource, he moved with his then girlfriend now wife Antonella into a tent in the Chyulu Hills, Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa” and began to pursue his notion that the key to preserving the legendary ecosystems of Africa is making wilderness and wildlife an asset for the people who actually live among them. His challenge was that those people, the Maasai, were notoriously resistant to intrusion on their lands or meddling in their affairs. Maasailand is not some small, remote village. The Maasai of the Tsavo-Amboseli ecosystem are the owners and landlords of over 2.5 million acres of prime grasslands and forests in one of the most biodiverse regions of East Africa. Their land contains the key ecological components (water sources and migration corridors) for the entire region that includes some of Africa’s most famous national parks. Luca was convinced that the Maasai face the same challenge as everybody else in the world, to live without destroying the land that supports their way of life, and he felt they understood this. He began by persuading leaders of the tribe that huge economic revenues from ecotourism were flowing all around them but passing them by for no good reason and that their home was one of the jewels of the African landscape.
Luca and Antonella launched their partnership with the Maasai of the Kuku community, who own 300,000 acres grasslands and hilltop cloud forest. They began by building together, literally by hand, an eco-tourism lodge called Campi ya Kanzi, sitting in the Chyulu foothills staring straight at Mount Kilimanjaro. Luca and Antonella operated the lodge, the Maasai retained ownership of the property, a share in the revenues and an agreement to have all employment come from the immediate community. This was a new approach in the ‘luxury’ safari market , one that most told Luca was “utterly mad” since he retained no control of the investment. Gesturing at the hills he says: “I told everyone ‘Nothing will make me richer than living here with my family.” He and his wife now have three children who all speak Italian, English, Swahili and Maa, the Maasai language.
Campi ya Kanzi was quickly celebrated as one of the top-rated ecotourism experiences in Africa, winning every major award for sustainability of operations, community partnership and highest luxury.
Then the Belpietros went to Phase 2. They imposed a $100 per person per night ‘conservation surcharge’ and with these revenues they founded the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, a non-profit entity initiating conservation, education and health care programs throughout the Maasai community. Their ultimate vision: a sustainable conservation management strategy for the whole region. “I wanted to show that living with wilderness and wildlife can bring benefits far beyond the money from tourism. That the value the rest of the world sees in this place can become a way for this community to prosper.” says Luca.
True partnership with the Maasai themselves is Luca’s commitment and the key to his success. “This can’t be about me, it must be grounded in a set of decisions the Maasai make about who they want to be and how they want to live moving forward. There’s a new generation here that wants to stay true to their culture but knows they need to be wise and evolve in some ways to maintain their way of life. Those are the people I’m inspired by.” That new generation is perfectly embodied by Samson Parashina. The son of a Maasai chief, he came to the Belpietros as a very young man and said “I’ll be one of your guides.” According to Luca, “I told him…’you can start at the bottom like anybody else and we’ll see how you do.” So Samson worked as a waiter, then a host, all the while studying for his Kenya professional guiding license. In very short order, he was one of only a few hundred people in Kenya with a Silver Level guide certificate, requiring comprehensive knowledge of all animals and plants in the ecosystem in Latin. He soon went from being a star safari guide to manager of the camp and, ultimately, President of MWCT. Parashina says “I heard that this man had very good ideas about preserving our land and I liked that he approached us as partners, not as someone who wanted to purchase our land and control it. That was very important to me. So while my father wanted me to become a teacher, I knew that doing something like this would have a much wider impact on our community. MWCT isn’t just about building a school or stopping the killing of lions in one area…it’s about demonstrating how to engage a traditional community in the thinking that’s in our long-term best interests.” Luca says: “He is one of the most impressive people I know. It became clear to me that he needed to be the leader of our effort.”
Norton first came across MWCT several years ago when he traveled to Kenya to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The son of one of the leading conservationists in America, he had spent a lifetime absorbing his father’s work at the Wilderness Society, the Grand Canyon Trust (which he founded), creating the Nature Conservancy’s China country program and founding the National Landscape Conservation Foundation. His interest in conservation issues and strategies runs deep, almost to the level of a second career, and he has been widely recognized for the substance of his involvement. He was awarded the Global Citizen Award by the Harvard Center for Environmental Health and the International Conservation Caucus Foundation’s “Good Steward” Award at the Inaugural Gala in 2009. He recently testified on the issue of greening affordable housing models before the House Select Committee on Climate Change. In the summer of 2010 he was appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, as the UN’s first Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity.
Norton was deeply impressed by the initial efforts of MWCT and the working partnership between the Belpietros and Parashina. “They were doing everything right…approaching conservation as an issue of addressing the needs of people in a sustainable way. They had totally moved beyond this old idea that used to be the underpinning of the environmental movement ‘put a line around the best places and protect them from people’. Even where iconic animals like lions are concerned, there has long been an ‘oppositional’ approach to the needs of people vs the needs of the animals. Luca and Samson were some of the only people in the ecosystem that I heard saying ‘These lions have been studied for 40 years but their populations are still crashing because nobody is focusing on the question of ‘how do we make these lions more economically valuable to the Maasai alive than dead.’ I think this is where 21st century conservation is heading strategically speaking and I wanted to work with people thinking this way.”
He felt that he had something to contribute to their effort: the resources to scale up their vision and the experience to help engineer MWCT into a self-sustaining and fully professional organization. “They had a great model but not enough financial support and it was really just the two of them! It was almost comical that these few people were getting so much done but I realized pretty quickly that they needed a good Board to raise more money and to connect the effort with the capacity and expertise of the global environmental community so that they could stop operating so hand-to-mouth which is incredibly stressful.”
In addition to spearheading a U.S. fundraising effort that has raised over a million dollars in the last two years, Norton engineered collaborations with Conservation International, Zoological Society of London, Wildlife Works, Google Earth and the company AECOM, which took on MWCT as a pro bono client and sponsored the marathon effort. He has also aggressively worked to recruit talented young conservation professionals to beef up the staff of the Trust.
Together, the four of them have made tremendous strides to make Belpietro’s vision of an effective community based conservation effort into a reality, but Norton sees the marathon as the first major step in expanding the network of support and connecting with the global community. The Trust is banking on reaching a new high-watermark in fundraising through the marathon event.
“The marathon seemed like a more dynamic way to introduce people to MWCT and the idea of community based conservation and invite them to participate. And it was important to us to involve our Maasai partners more actively even in our efforts over here. Maasai are natural runners, running is literally a part of their culture and tradition as warriors, so it seemed very organic to have some of these new generation ‘ecowarriors’ come brave the NY streets for their community.” Says Norton.
Asking Norton why he and other people should care about a community and an ecosystem that’s so far from home…“Well, for one thing, this is the model of how it needs to happen all over the world, so if you’re interested in the global struggle for sustainability, this is right on the front lines and very cutting edge. But also that landscape is literally where we all come from….those animals are the animals of our ancestral imagination. Imagine if you had to point at a picture of a lion and explain to your son or grandson why that animal no longer exists. It’s going to happen if people don’t make an effort to work on these issues.”
On November 1st, 2009, the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust team of 30 runners, including Norton, Belpietro, Samson Parashina and two other senior Maasai guides, all completed the NY Marathon.
The team raised over $1.2 million to support their work.