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Kenyan conservationist Omar Abdallah Juma to receive 2020 Seacology Prize

August 19, 2020

Omar Abdallah Juma, who has brought communities, governments, and fishermen together to protect Kenya’s great marine biodiversity, is the recipient of the 2020 Seacology Prize.

East Africa’s coast and islands are home to thriving coral reefs, dense mangrove forests, and seagrass beds–all of which have been strained by rapid population growth, overfishing, and poor regulation. Kenyan communities are responsible for conserving their local marine resources, but historically, few of them took action.

In recent years, however, communities have stepped up, thanks in large part to the efforts of people like Mr. Juma. He brokered lasting conservation partnerships between Kenya’s government, NGOs, and the communities of Wasini Island.

A lifelong resident of the island, Mr. Omar, as he’s known locally, was an early proponent of a community marine reserve there. As a leader of the Wasini Beach Management Unit (BMU), the community organization that manages local marine resources, he worked for years with island residents, government entities, and local environmental leaders, including 2014 Seacology Prize recipient Ali Shaibu Shekue, to establish a 2700-acre marine protected area. The reserve stabilized local fish populations and has become a model for locally managed conservation. 

The area is also increasingly popular with divers, snorkelers, and other tourists from Kenya and beyond. Resource-based tourism now provides well-paying jobs for more than 100 residents, many of them youths with few other employment opportunities. Usage fees bring in much-needed revenue, and the Wasini BMU has become the only community-run fishing organization in the area to generate enough revenue to run its day-to-day operations. 

 

Juma inspects mangroves from the boardwalk on Wasini Island.

Juma helped implement a first-in-the-region coral-restoration project.

“Local communities hold the key to sustainable management and conservation of natural resources,” said Dishon Murage, who has served as Seacology’s field representative in Kenya since 2008 and worked closely with Juma. “Working with local heroes like Mr. Omar Abdallah teaches us how local practices can enhance management and conservation.”

Juma’s work was not easy. Earlier in his career, some members of the fishing community vocally opposed his efforts to create the Wasini reserve, fearing that new restrictions would put their livelihood at risk. At one point he was even threatened with eviction from his home village over his advocacy for conservation. His commitment to transparency and accountability led to conflicts with corrupt individuals. 

But by clearly communicating the long-term benefits of conservation to stakeholders on Wasini, he forged a lasting coalition to restore and protect the island’s environment. Wasini’s achievements have been featured in national and international media. In 2012, Juma was invited to attend the World Conservation Congress in South Korea as an authority on locally managed marine areas.

In 2014, under Juma’s direction, the reserve launched East Africa’s first coral-restoration initiative. The program is now being widely replicated along the country’s coast. Building on the success of the Wasini marine reserve, Juma has played a crucial role in the establishment of seven other reserves in southern Kenya.

Juma worked with Seacology to build and repair his island's water infrastructure.

Juma (highlighted) meets with our partners from Pate and Wasini Islands.

Juma has been a frequent partner in Seacology’s work on Wasini Island. To help address water shortages, Seacology, working with the Wasini women’s group, funded rainwater cisterns that collect and store thousands of gallons of rainwater. They are crucial to the community in dry seasons, especially as climate change makes droughts more frequent. With the BMU, Seacology funded traditional fish traps that let immature fish escape. We have also funded investments in ecotourism, including repairs to a boardwalk through the island’s expansive mangrove forest.

“I feel very proud and happy,” Juma said. “I believe the award will showcase my ability to work with the communities. It will empower and encourage me to put more effort into doing conservation activities on Wasini Island. Seacology has shown how it cares about the welfare of others, and I just want to express my gratitude to the organization.”

Juma will accept the 2020 Seacology Prize on Thursday, October 1. This year’s prize ceremony will be held online and streamed on social media. As always, the event is open to the public and free to attend.