Mau farmers defy political intrigue to protect endangered forest

by David Njagi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 July 2011 11:38 GMT

A community program is bringing political as well as ecological benefits to ethnically volatile Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya – After years of damage from illegal encroachment and logging, one of Kenya’s most important forest resources is finding protection from local farmers.  

Groups of farmers are banding together to plant new trees around the Mau Complex, an area of 16 blocks of forest on the western side of the Rift Valley. Together, the woodland forms the country’s largest closed-canopy forest ecosystem, vital to Kenya’s water supply, tea plantations, tourism and to the livelihoods of those that live around it.

Almeida Makori has a long history with the Mau Complex, having settled by its northern flank in 1985.

“We could not even grow corn (in) those days because the rain would pour all year round,” recalls the mother of six. “So the main economic activity was livestock farming because we could access grazing land all year round.”

Farming her flock of merino sheep raised enough money to put two of Makori’s children through higher education and another pair through high school.

But her income dried up after the government banned any activities in the Mau forest in 1990, denying her and hundreds of other farmers in Central Farm Mkulima village access to pasture in the forest’s lush undergrowth.

If the ban stopped Makori and farmers like her from making use of the forest’s resources, it did little to contain the appetite for illegal timber logging and charcoal burning, recalls James Thiong’o, from Kamungi village.

ETHNIC CLASHES

The 65-year-old farmer, who settled in the village in 1976, said that wanton destruction of the Mau Complex began in 1992, when politically instigated ethnic clashes first broke out in the Rift Valley.

“With support from local politicians, armed gangs would use the forest as their hideout and as a source of finances,” said Thiong’o.

Farmers watched helplessly as the forest became a political prize, with each faction racing to claim a slice of its resources.

Illegal saw milling and charcoal burning reached a peak in 2001. In that year, according to Caleb Manyara, zonal manager of Londiani Forest, one-quarter of the Mau Complex’s 420,000 hectares (1 million acres) of forest was destroyed or encroached upon.

But while politicians remain engaged in a turf war that has stalled the restoration of the forest, one of the most important water resources in East and Central Africa, a new approach to promoting sustainable livelihood among communities is seeking to change the forest’s fortunes.

John Ngatia, a programme support officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) describes the new project as a two-way initiative to save the endangered complex.

“The project encourages farmers living within three kilometres of the forest’s border to plant trees and conserve the Mau forest,” explains Ngatia. “It also supports communities to develop income generating activities to stop reliance on forest products.”

The project has attracted 470 farmers who have formed 16 farmer field schools to learn about and adopt technologies that will make them less dependent on forest resources.

“I used to rely on the forest to supply my firewood and timber needs,” says Thiong’o. “But through the farmer field schools I have gained knowledge on how I can practice agro-forestry.”

Thiong’o has planted trees to supply his domestic and commercial needs, and he can fertilize his farm with mulch generated by the leaves.

Almeida Makori, who joined the Mwangaza farmer field school after learning of the project at a chiefs’ meeting, has diversified into organic agriculture.

“This technology has enabled me to grow maize and pyrethrum,” used in natural insect repellents, she says. “I am also planning on investing in poultry farming using the skills I have learned from our group.”

Makori still has livestock, but she feeds them in sheds rather than on open land, a technique known as zero grazing.

POLITICAL, ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS

Thomas Kiptoo, an official from the Kenya Forestry Service and the assistant coordinator of the project, sees the community based programme bringing political as well as ecological benefits.  

According to Kiptoo, the project is bridging the ethnic gap between the many tribes that have occupied the Mau Complex and who often are incited against each other when Kenya’s political tensions peak.

The community’s engagement in policing the Mau Complex holds the promise of achieving conservation goals that the government has so far failed to accomplish.

“The farmer field schools are yielding positive results in terms of conservation,” says Kiptoo. “The farmers also act as informers to alert forest authorities of illegal activities in the forest.”

Area forest officials say illegal timber logging in the Mau complex is still a concern, but official figures show a decline over the last two years.

According to zonal manager Caleb Manyara, prosecutions for illegal timber harvesting declined from 162 in 2009 to 142 in 2010. Over the same period, prosecutions for illegal grazing declined from 154 to 112.

Manyara attributes the drop to the community’s policing of the forest.

“We are still doing a comprehensive assessment because in the past there was wide encroachment of the forest,” says Manyara. “But (judging) by the output of community engagement, the rate of illegal activities in the Mau complex is reducing.”

David Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.

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