How the Eastern Afromontane RIT became carbon-neutral - and other greening efforts
Conservation is not a job, it is a lifestyle. It is not something you can switch on and off – you cannot spend your working days trying to protect the environment, and then go off and destroy it in the weekends. Well, perhaps you can – but it sort of defeats the purpose.
How then to manage a conservation programme that involves a lot of people, offices, paperwork, grants, travels, and meetings, if you want to do this in a consistent environmentally-friendly way? This was the conundrum the Eastern Afromontane regional implementation team (RIT) had to try and fix, during the eight years we managed CEPF’s investment in the Eastern Afromontane hotspot.
As Kermit the Frog used to say: "It's not easy to be green".
Here are five things we did to ‘minimize the damage’.
"We even bought more of the same type of furniture for our homes!" (Jean Paul, ex-RIT member)
1. Careful procurement
Jean Paul Ntungane, ex- RIT project manager: “We had a very strong commitment from the beginning to make the RIT office in Rwanda as green as possible, trying our best whenever possible to use only eco-friendly materials. The main challenge was to know where to find those materials in Kigali. We found a shop that sold Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper in Kigali, but we didn’t know what to do about other things like office furniture. Luckily enough, we found a local carpenter who made furniture out of discarded shipping crates, and he supplied the office with recycled desks, chairs, and bookshelves. We even bought more of the same type of furniture for our homes!”
Maaike Manten, ex-RIT leader: “We had a policy to only buy local products, at least as much as we could, though we had to bring in Ecover cleaning materials from Kenya. We also made a point of buying certified products with eco-labels, like for our coffee and tea. We even found a local brand of recycled toilet paper!”
2. Greening the office
Obaka Torto, ex-RIT member and ex-chairman of the BirdLife Africa Greening Committee: “We initiated a number of ways to make our RIT operations green. One of them was reducing waste in printing. We tried to be a paper-free office by not printing at all, but sometimes this was not possible. To avoid piles of unclaimed printouts, we placed the printer in a very visible space (which was easy – we had a small office). Also, everybody HAD to utilize as much paper space as possible by setting their printing preferences to ‘printing on both sides’, and to ‘printing two pages on one’. This way, we only used one sheet of (FSC-certified) paper, for four pages of text.”
Maaike: “We also had a rule that the person who would leave the office last, at the end of the day, had to shut down all lights, computers and other machinery from the main sockets, to save power. If we would find anything switched ‘on’ the next morning, even if it was a little ‘standby’ light, the culprit would have to buy chocolate for the whole team.”
"... we only used one sheet of (FSC-certified) paper, for four pages of text." (Obaka Torto, ex-RIT member)
3. Re-use stuff
Jean Paul: “We were not only committed to making our office green, our events and training workshops also had to be as green as possible. We would make it very clear during our workshops that no paper, notebooks, name tags, pens, etc. should be wasted; we requested participants to return any unused materials to us for future workshops, and usually we would find many items left lying around anyway and we collected them ourselves. Steps like these might be seen as small, but they are actually very important and very effective in changing people’s mindset and behavior, especially for the one who is taking them.” This was also good for our budget, by the way!
Laban Njoroge, National Museums of Kenya (ex-CEPF grantee): “The CEPF RIT experience totally changed the way I looked at day-to-day things that otherwise seemed small but are of much conservation importance, such as paper and water usage. One big mindset change I acquired, happened during the ‘CEPF master class’ organized by the RIT and the Tropical Biology Association in Rwanda at the very beginning of my project. This change was to avoid buying water in many small plastic bottles for participants, but rather buy one big container from which users can draw. That was ingenious I thought.”
Maaike: “We banned all use of plastic bottles, both at the office and during meetings and events. We produced a range of reusable bottles (branded with CEPF and BirdLife logos) which we donated to meeting and training participants for free. We then asked staff at the meeting venue to provide water from re-fillable dispensers. Sometimes they didn’t like this, but when we explained that we were environmentalists, and that we would still pay for the water, they always complied. We managed to prevent a lot of single-use plastic waste that way – and perhaps made a few people think ‘greener’ along the way as well…”
"This was a great example of turning something unusable into new, unique and useful products." (Ann Nyambura, ex-CEPF grantee)
4. Recycle the rest
Maaike: “When we had to close the RIT office in March 2020, we wanted to leave no trace – in the sense that we didn’t want to leave a pile of waste behind. We donated our furniture and equipment to local CEPF grantees, shared the contents of our library with visitors, gave away our office supplies to our neighbours in the office building, and recycled our (few) paper files. But we were left with our pop-up banners – we wanted to do something special with them.”
Ann Nyambura, Tropical Biology Association (ex-CEPF grantee and co-trainer at many RIT events): “The Eastern Afromontane RIT asked us to give them the old banners we used during trainings and events, which are generally ‘single use’ as they have specific dates and titles printed on them. We collected banners from a few organisations in Kenya, including TBA, Nature Kenya and the local BirdLife office, and carried them to Kigali every time somebody from Kenya traveled there. To our surprise, we got the same banners back during the final CEPF ‘lessons learned’ event in Uganda, which we organized together with the RIT, in the form of very stylish bags! This was a great example of turning something unusable into new, unique and useful products.”
"The operations of the EAM RIT have been entirely carbon-neutralised" (Robin Johnson, ex-RIT member)
5. Carbon offsetting
Maaike: “The elephant in the room was always: traveling. We had to travel – this was a core function of the job. We went out to train potential applicants, visit offices of our grantees, make field trips to project sites, and attend meetings and events. As much as we avoided unnecessary travel, we could not avoid hopping on planes and buses and motorbikes across the hotspot.”
Robin Johnson, ex-RIT member: “At the RIT’s inception, we set up a simple system to track the team’s environmental impact. This ‘sustainability tracker’ calculated our carbon emissions from water, energy and paper use at all RIT offices, as well as from all the traveling we had to do. We would then offset these emissions, through tree planting during RIT meetings and events, and also on the voluntary carbon market. In the end, we compensated for 223 tonnes of CO2 emissions through certified Gold Standard projects in Rwanda and Uganda, and we planted 4581 trees. The operations of the EAM RIT have thus been entirely carbon-neutralised.”
Laban Njoroge, ex-CEPF grantee: “To me travelling has all along been a matter of picking my luggage, ticket, travel documents and leaving. But when the CEPF RIT agreed to fund my trip to South Africa in February 2020 for a data dissemination conference, they included one condition, which was to plant trees for carbon offsetting and provide material evidence that this was done. This was really awakening. Even though I am a conservationist, I had never seen things that way before. I researched the concept of contribution of atmospheric carbon from airplanes, and was astonished. I shared the story over and over again at the conference where everyone said that that was a very clever thing the RIT did. I think such a condition should be made part of the contracts with all donors, in the same manner as they include conditions on fraud and ethics etc. Tree planting has now become my hobby, with or without a funded project.”
"Tree planting has now become my hobby, with or without a funded project." (Laban Njoroge, ex-CEPF grantee)
BirdLife International has been running the regional implementation team (RIT) for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) investment in the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot (2012 -2020). The investment is now completed and the programme closed on 31 March 2020. See the interactive map of all projects implemented under the CEPF Eastern Afromontane Hotspot programme here.
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. More information on the CEPF can be found at www.cepf.net.