Kenya’s Tom Lalampaa bags the coveted Stanford University’s Bright Award

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When Tom Lalampaa was young, his father gave him and his older brother a choice: One could take over the family’s cattle herd in rural Kenya, and the other should go to school. His older brother wanted to run the herd, and so Lalampaa became the first in his family to go to school. That two-day trek to boarding school set him on the path to becoming one of the most impactful and influential conservation leaders in Africa.

smiling Tom Lalampaa among a group of people

Tom Lalampaa of Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust has been recognized with the Stanford Bright Award for his work in community-led nature conservancy. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Video)

Lalampaa, the chief programs officer of the Northern Rangelands Trust, is the 2016 recipient of theStanford Bright Award, the $100,000 prize given annually to an unheralded individual who has made significant contributions to global sustainability. He will discuss his accomplishments during apublic lecture at Stanford on Sept. 28.

“No one better illustrates the future potential for Kenya and Africa than Tom Lalampaa,” said nomination committee chair Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson Jr., the Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law and the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Through his work at the Northern Rangelands Trust, Tom has demonstrated the opportunity to promote economic development, sow peace among neighboring tribes and conserve Africa’s tremendous wildlife, all at the same time. Tom is an accomplished practitioner of the essential art of community-based conservation.”

Ray Bright, a Stanford Law School alumnus who died in 2011, established the Bright Award on behalf of his late wife, Marcelle, and himself.

“We are grateful to the Bright family for entrusting Stanford with locating unsung heroes of environmental conservation, giving them the recognition they deserve and providing them with the resources and attention they need to take their work to the next level,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, the Richard E. Lang Professor and Dean at Stanford Law School. “In this way, the Bright Award helps promote global sustainability.”

Lalampaa is of the Samburu tribe from a community known as West Gate, located in rural northern Kenya. He is the second of 17 children, born in 1973 or 1974; he doesn’t know exactly, because Samburu mark births by associating them with big events. “I just know I was born during the eclipse,” he often says.

One evening when Tom was 5 or 6, his father returned home and told him and his older brother that the village elders had encouraged community members to send children to school. When the older sibling preferred to maintain the family herd, Tom jumped at the opportunity to go to boarding school.

In the midst of getting his education, a severe drought wiped out his family’s cattle, and with it their financial stability. At the time, Lalampaa was the only person in his community attending school, and although many of his neighbors were suffering similar hardships, the West Gate community pooled funds earned from ecotourism to pay for his education. He went to the University of Nairobi, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, a master’s degree in project planning and management and an MBA in strategic management.

When West Gate began getting involved with conservancy initiatives, he was asked to be the first conservancy manager. “They said, ‘We sent you to school, we paid for your education. For us you are like our firstborn son,’” he said.

Lalampaa oversaw the conservancy’s day-to-day operations, like wildlife security and monitoring, and grazing management – all of which make the community better able to prepare for and survive disasters like the drought that killed his family’s cattle. Helping to care for and sustain the shared resources his community relies on was his way of giving back to the people who had given to him. Through teaching ownership of the land, the community has learned value in managing natural resources for the future. It pays off, too: Revenue from the conservancy has helped send 40 West Gate students to university.

“I envision a world where we conserve and protect our environment because by so doing, it will benefit our people, our current generation and our future,” said Lalampaa. “I wish to see a future where we conserve for the benefit of both the nature and the people.”

Along with other communities, West Gate works with the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) to create resilient community conservancies that can more effectively manage their own natural resources to generate greater benefits for both people and wildlife. The NRT helps raise funds, provides management advice, trains workers and helps broker agreements between conservancies and investors.

The NRT’s governing body includes a Council of Elders – composed mostly of chairs of the conservancies and members of the community councils – which guides policy and sets bylaws. In northern Kenya, this level of support is instrumental in ensuring the future of the region’s communities and wildlife. Under Lalampaa’s leadership, the NRT is now widely seen as a model of how to support community conservancies. Its success has helped shape new government regulations on establishing, registering and managing community conservancies in Kenya.

Even in light of all of his achievements, Lalampaa was surprised to receive the Stanford Bright Award. “I couldn’t believe it on the first sight of it. I had to take to the house, run to everybody, and my kids and my wife were jumping up and down. It was just amazing,” said Lalampaa about the letter notifying him of the award. “At first sight, I didn’t really internalize it. You can’t imagine, who saw you from Stanford University?”

One of Lalampaa’s hallmark traits is his ability to act as peacemaker among the 27 conservancies associated with NRT. Cattle-rustling and violent conflict have become second nature in the region, and Lalampaa has solved these effectively with a smile. He attributes this success to his personal background within the community, and points to it as proof that conservancies can be run most effectively by communities rather than outsiders, and that those communities can learn to get along with one another.

A main goal of his moving forward is finding a way to reduce the poaching of large mammals, such elephants and rhinos. Killing these animals is one of the top wildlife crimes in Kenya, and yet dozens of these animals are killed every year. He hopes that stricter enforcement and tougher penalties, coupled with increased benefits to local communities hosting wildlife on their protected lands, will lead to a future where one sees an elephant and thinks of all the benefits that animal can bring to a community.

In reflecting on his work, Lalampaa’s advice for others who wish to emulate his success focuses on the importance of tangible, local efforts. “Make it real, let it touch the ground. That’s where the impact is, and don’t just do it for any recognition. Do it with all your heart,” he said, “And more importantly, let the local communities also take the credit.”