Celebrating a global environmental icon
Two weeks ago, the country hosted a high profile global environmental conference on the Blue Economy. Watching some comedy on the news where citizens were struggling to clearly identify what the conference was all about, I was still happy that at least it had made headlines news. As a student many years back, it was a huge struggle for the environment to get priority coverage in the media. The conference’s underpinning rationale was the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their implementation. SDGs recognise that achieving sustainable development is about pursuing a development path which is smart, socially inclusive and environmental conscious. The Blue Economy Conference sought to make an even more fundamental point. It demonstrated that an exclusive land-based development approach is unsustainable. The ocean, lakes, rivers and other water resources offer an arena for pursuing a development path to complement land.As the conference was happening a celebrated scholar was also being bid farewell by his colleagues. The link between the two events may not be evident to many readers, yet there is. Prof Charles Okidi, an environmental law professor of world repute had been a teacher for four decades. He undertook his PhD studies when environmental consciousness and scholarship were not priority issues. However, he had the foresight to research on and make a case for sustainable management of the oceans. His appreciation of sustainable development and pursuit in the blue economy space was light years ahead of his time.His foresight did not stop with his PhD degree. He ignored opportunities to work abroad, where he had graduated from, instead choosing to come back to Kenya and make an academic contribution helping to proffer solutions to environmental challenges and expanding knowledge base on environmental law and policy.This saw him start the Shool of Environmental Studies at Moi University, lead a project at UNEP on development and implementation of environmental law, including institutional building within the continent of Africa.Recently, Prof. Okidi established the Centre for Advanced Studies in Environmental Law and Policy (CASELAP), as a multi-disciplinary centre of excellence at the University of Nairobi focusing of training and producing masters and PhD graduates in environmental law, policy and diplomacy.
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His work over the years demonstrated the contributions that an academic should make to society. He mentored and single-handedly led to the development of an impressive pool of environmental law and policy experts across the continent. He is undisputedly the father of environmental law. Whenever he met any young person exploring areas of studies, he would persuade you to pursue higher education and focus on the environment. I remember the start of my doctoral studies and the many discussions we had with him. Th topic I eventually focused on was influenced by him, including giving me the initial materials to read. During the celebrations of his contributions at the university recently, many people shared similar stories of his influence on their academic path. That influence transcended Kenya.Prof. Okidi believed that scholarship must influence policy and he went about ensuring that he made contributions in this direction. Kenya’s Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act owes a great deal to his research, drafting and policy influence. He also drafted the initial laws that led to the establishment of the various basin development authorities, starting with the Lake Basin Development Authority.When he established CASELAP, he reminded both staff and students that policy makers understand the language of figures, so whatever we did, we had to have the capacity to demonstrate its economic nexus and implications, justifying why he would insist that a course on environmental law, include topics on economic.Prof. Okidi leaves behind a rich legacy in the academy and the environmental field. As focus of the country shifts to discourse on the blue economy, it is befitting that we celebrate his contributions and recognise that sustainability will require rigorous and consistent engagement and not episodic discussions.