The Conservationist: Luca BelpietroNovember 17, 2017
Africa has had Luca Belpietro’s heart since he was a child. When he was 4, he set up a tent in the backyard of his family’s Italian vineyard to prove he was ready to go on safari with his father (he had to wait until he turned 10 for that trip). But it was during a three-month period in high school while working on a Kenyan farm owned by his father’s friend “that was a turning point for me,” he says. From that time on, he spent almost every summer there during college and did his thesis on the economics of wildlife as a natural resource in Kenya. After a short period working in finance, there was no alternative for Belpietro: He had to find a way to live and make an impact in Kenya.
In 1996, he founded Campi ya Kanzi with his wife Antonella Bonomi. “I didn’t want to own or lease private land because I wanted to work with the local community,” he says. He chose to build a destination at the foot of the Chyulu Hills (with Mount Kilimanjaro as its backdrop) in partnership with the Maasai people because “I wanted to demonstrate to them that wilderness with thriving wildlife was something that was worth protecting,” he explains.
He spent nearly two years building the solar-powered resort alongside the Maasai tribe. “We did everything from scratch” without contractors, he says. They used canvas, stone, and wood to craft the first four tented cottages (now there are six). Two tented suites (the Hemingway, referenced for the author’s Green Hills of Africa, and Simba) include an extra sitting area and a full wardrobe, while the private villa Kanzi House sleeps eight. Communal dining takes place in the Tembo (Swahili for elephant) House constructed with lava rocks, thatch, and local timber where the pasta and bread are fresh and made onsite. “Everything is very organic and very local, but definitely with an Italian touch and within an international frame,” he adds.
First and foremost, Belpietro is “a conservationist,” he notes, where tourism is a means to an end to create a sustainable model. Along with solar power, the carbon-neutral camp gets 100 percent of its water from rainfall, and eco-friendly charcoal is made from coffee husk to cook food in the aga stoves. “I don’t really know what else we could do to have a lower impact on the environment,” he says.
That answer may be with their Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which they founded in 2000 with Kenyan Samson Parashina, now head guide and president and chairman of the trust. It works to protect the ecosystem of East Africa through conservation that directly benefits local Maasai communities. The trust employs 285 Kenyans; supports 22 schools with 56 teachers; hired the only doctor in an area spanning more than 280,000 acres; and built a laboratory (along with helping four health facilities). Traditional Maasai massages have been added to the camp’s offerings to create more job opportunities for Maasai women, while the conservation fee that each guest pays is used to compensate the livestock losses the Maasai suffer from wildlife while enabling “the wildlife to be protected and not be killed,” he adds.
Some 20 years later, Belpietro feels it is finally the right time for another camp, this time with another Maasai community, an undertaking that solidifies that he has truly made a place for himself in his adopted home. “I’m Kenyan,” he says. “I’m not Italian anymore.”