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How an underwater film inspired a marine protected area off Kenya’s coast

Famous for its sprawling nature reserves that are home to all “Big Five” animals, Kenya’s 882 miles of coastline along the Indian Ocean are often overlooked. It’s a place where people go to “chill out,” but not to observe and connect with the wild and unique ecosystem, says Kenyan filmmaker, photographer and conservationist Jahawi Bertolli.

Bertolli is determined to change this outlook and believes that visual storytelling is one way to do it. “No one was telling stories about the ocean here (in Kenya),” he says.

So far, his work has focused mainly on the Lamu Archipelago along Kenya’s northern coast, where his wife Elke Bertolli, also a photographer and filmmaker, grew up. Lamu is a hidden gem, he says, and filming has led to new discoveries. “There’s not much scientific work that’s happened up here so a lot of what we’re finding is new,” he adds. “We’re finding these incredible reefs. We’re finding incredible biodiversity.”

But this rich biodiversity is increasingly under threat. Bertolli says that harmful fishing practices, such as drag netting, coupled with habitat degradation due, in part, to coastal development, pollution and an increasing human population have caused a reduction in fish populations.

Related: Stunning images from African Wildlife Foundation’s photography award are inspiring conservation

Not only is this bad for the ecosystem, but for local fishers too. Lamu is home to one of the oldest Swahili settlements in East Africa, a community who have depended on the ocean since the 12th century. Traditionally these fishers respected the balance with nature, says Bertolli. They stopped fishing when they had enough for what was needed, they only fished in certain seasons, and they left the coral reef alone, understanding it to be a home for fish, where they needed space and time to reproduce and grow. “There’s a lot of cultural knowledge, which is actually conservation knowledge. It’s just packaged differently,” Bertolli explains.

“A powerful tool”
In 2020, Bertolli made a short film about Lamu’s sea life and the conservation traditions of the local fishers. He called it “Bahari Yetu” – “Our Ocean” in Swahili – and began showing it the local community. The screenings were a gamechanger, he says: “When you bring back that imagery, all of a sudden people are like, ‘Oh my God. Wow, this is ours … this is our heritage, these are our reefs, this is what’s happening underwater in our ocean.’”

A viewing of “Bahari Yetu” was also put on for local beach management units and members from the county government and fisheries department. Bertolli also screened another film he had made a few years earlier on locally managed marine areas in Africa. The next time the group met, all members voted unanimously to begin setting up a marine protected area around Lamu’s Kinyika island, a craggy rock that acts as a nursing ground for seafaring birds and hosts a bustling coral reef system.

For Bertolli and the people of the Lamu Archipelago, this has been a significant first step to ensuring the preservation of an essential ecosystem. While it’s only the beginning and a management plan still needs to be established, Bertolli believes it has also been a testament to the power of visual storytelling. “Because it was their film, told in their language, filmed here – it became an incredibly powerful tool to inspire the community to come together to try and start actually conserving these areas,” he says.

 

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