Educating local people crucial to conservation efforts, say experts

Wednesday January 6 2016

Donkeys ferry firewood at Nesuit in Njoro, Nakuru County sourced at Mau Forest block. PHOTO| SULEIMAN MBATIAH  

By MORAA OBIRIA
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A group of women spur their donkeys on as they hurry along the Njoro-Nessuit road. The donkeys are carrying stacks of firewood, which the women have just harvested from the Mau Forest.

Remarkably, until the 1990s, the road in the Mau Forest was no more than a narrow path choked with dense undergrowth, as well as ferns and trees, through which one had to painstakingly thread their way to enter the  Forest.

But uncontrolled harvesting of trees in the forest for firewood and charcoal has had serious consequences.

Karia Lembule, whose Ogiek people rely heavily on the forest, says the destruction began in 1995.  Born in 1944 into the Tiriatab Suswe clan, Lembule says the destruction has forced the local people to change their diet. The hunter-gatherer community, which once survived on honey, wild fruits and meat, has now been forced to take up farming. This, he argues, is tantamount to colonising their eating habits.

The massive harvesting of indigenous plants resulted in the extinction of certain trees and shrubs that attracted bees to the Ogiek’s traditional beehives. Lembule says he was once the proud owner of 200 beehives, harvesting honey in January, April and August since there was adequate  rainfall throughout the year, which ensured that there were enough of the plants the bees fed on.

His gesunguti (honey store), now a mere relic, was always filled with the cherished food, which, he says, kept diseases at bay and also served as an anti-ageing agent.

Notably, some varieties of the indigenous trees that thrived on the banks of the streams and rivers in the forest, forming a heavy canopy, were logged to extinction.

“You cannot find those trees anymore, and that is why few people have beehives. Many of us have only two or three beehives, but even then it is just a matter of trial-and-error because you wait for the bees but they won’e come,” says Lembule, who lives in Kiptunga, a sub-station of the  Mau Forest Complex.

The situation was further aggravated when parts of the forest were converted into human settlements, as well as into farmland and pasture. The human activity that followed led to the drying up of springs flowing from the source of all springs in the Rift Valley and western parts of the country.

“We had rivers Iterit, Mbaragia and Tiribati Susuweki, which are yet to be restored,” Lembule says. “They fed River Ndarugu, which flows into River Njoro. These rivers supported the vegetation that favoured beekeeping, which are now extinct.”

Life has certainly changed for the more than 10,000 Ogieks living in the Eastern Mau, which comprises ­­Kiptunga, Logoman, Terret and Likia forests.

The change in rainfall patterns and loss of the special vegetation has cost them not just a source of livelihood, but also their health, Lembule avers.

 “We never used to go to hospital. When someone fell sick, they would be given concoctions made from herbs and honey. But today our children have to be taken to hospital even for simple illnesses such as fever,” he explains.

“Look at me now,” says the weary looking Lembule, “my skin is rough and my bones are all rattly. This would not have been the case had I been eating honey. Our bodies are not used to potatoes or foods like maize. Honey is our life.”

Shifting to crop and livestock farming has not been easy for the community.

FAR-REACHING EFFECTS

“The rains were part of our lives and bees thrived. There was a lot of rain from January to October, and it subsided only in November and December. Today, we are forced to grow potatoes and maize, but we always worry about the harvests since the rains are so unpredictable. Besides, this is not the life we are used to,” Lembule adds.

Lembule only wishes they could restore the rivers that gave life to the plants that provided food for bees.

“If people had not burnt down trees, perhaps we would still be having some. They loved water and hated hot sun,” he says wistfullly. Karia.

The effects of the degradation of the largest montane forest in East Africa have been felt, not just by the neighbouring community and Kenya as a whole, but much further afield as well. This is because it boasts the largest groundwater reservoir upon which the 12 rivers feeding the major national and trans border lakes stream from, according to the Kenya Forest Service.

Among these are rivers Njoro, Makalia, Mara and Nderit, which drain into Lake Victoria, which is shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

The lakes around which tourism is built such as lakes Nakuru, Elementaita, Baringo and Bogoria, which also benefit from the water tower, have also suffered the impact of its destruction.

“These rivers had nearly dried up by the time rehabilitation efforts began in 2008,” says Cosmas Ikiugu, who is heading the efforts to restore the Mau Forest. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) says that between 1990 and 2001, up to 107,000 hectares of the Mau Forest Complex’s more than 400,000 hectares were destroyed.

The destruction  resulted in the drying up of River Mara, which supports the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem,  as well as the River Miriu, whose waters are now being used to generate power.

Other activities such as agriculture and water supply were also adversely affected.

Meanwhile, Unep and KFS estimate that six million people in East African benefit directly from the Mau Forest Complex since it’s the largest water tower in the region, supporting a variety of economic activities. 

The  forest’s degradation also led to  erratic weather patterns and flash floods, which are most severe in Narok.  Trees serve as carbon sinks, so when they are destroyed,  more  carbon is left in the atmosphere, which warms the environment, leading to alternate seasons' of floods and droughts.

But, unless the local people understand that they are a contributing factor, little will be achieved in the fight to reverse the negative effects, conservationists say. 

The greatest destruction took place on the eastern and western sections, where close to 150,000 people had settled illegally, resulting in massive degradation of the forest’s ecosystem, Ikiugu says.

These cases  were witnessed in Nakuru County in the eastern zone, and Narok County in the western zone.

The Mau Forest Complex spreads across five counties, namely Nakuru, Kericho, Baringo, Narok and Bomet.

“There are climatic changes associated with the destruction of the water tower. In fact, that is why we are have discussions on the El Nino rains and dry spells in the country,” says Ikiugu.

The heavy floods Narok experiences, siltation of rivers and soil erosion in certain parts of Njoro, Kuresoi and Molo are just some of the effects of the degradation the water tower, according to conservationists.

In 2008, when the destruction of the forest was at its peak, driving four kilometres into Lake Nakuru National Park was easy thanks to the greatly receded water levels, an indication of the detrimental effects of the degradation of Mau Forest, Ikiugu says.

The receding of Lake Nakuru’s waters negatively affected the   more than 500 animal and bird species because it changed the ecosystem. Similarly affected was the River Mara. 

“I remember in around 2002, the water levels in the River Mara were so low that there was little excitement about wildebeest migration,” notes Ikiugu.

It is around this period that blackouts and rationing of electricity took a heavy toll on manufacturing industries, which consume 65 per cent of the power in the country.

The hydro power generating River Miriu, which is fed by springs from the Mau Forest, had dwindled  to a trickle, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) officer accounts.

Nakuru County director for the environment, energy and natural resources, Timothy Kiogora concurs, saying, “Forests are reservoirs that absorb carbon so when we destroy them, we really cannot expect anything apart from climatic changes.

“This occurs as a result of increasing the greenhouse gases that warm up the atmosphere. And the result is floods, droughts, erratic rainfall patterns and even an increase in diseases.”

Having had first-hand experience, Kiogora still recalls with horror how he more than Sh1 million after a wheat crop he planted  in Nessuit in 2007 failed. 

In 2005, he had planted potatoes on 20 acres in the same region and the harvests were impressive, thanks to the  favorable weather conditions at the time. The next two seasons he had equally good harvests.

Encouraged, he decided to diversify and expanded the acreage to 30, using the additional land to grow wheat.

“I planted in March but, interestingly, it did not rain in April as I had expected. It was hot until August. Pests infested the crop and all the wheat withered. I harvested nothing,” says the environment specialist, an alumnus of Egerton University, who would go to the Mau Forest to buy honey for Sh5 a litre in the mid-1990s.

“In 1990, the forest began at Ngata (about five kilometres from the Nakuru central business district  and you could hear the waters of the River Njoro gushing. Today, it is a different story,” he notes.

But even as people like Lembule yearn for a long-gone past following  the loss of their main source of his livelihood things are beginning to look  up.

Discussions on the rehabilitation of the Mau Forest Complex featured prominently during the launch of the United Nations  initiative on Reducing Emissions from Forest Degradation and Deforestation(UN-REDD) in September 2009, a year after then Prime Minister Raila Odinga embarked on a  drive to restore the water tower.

More than 20,000 families — mainly Ogieks — were evicted from the forest, but some still live in Kiptunga Forest, and  others on its fringes namely Nessuit, Mariashoni, Likia, Lari and Terret.

The initiative, a collaboration between the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme  and the United Nations Development Programme  involves reducing greenhouse gases which, globally, account for 17 per cent of the total global warming gases.

Meanhwile, efforts to counter the effects of the devastation of the montane forest are slowly bearing fruit; a number of  stakeholders have made commitments aimed at restoring the country’s largest water tower. 

In fact, some improvements have already been made.

 

What has been achieved

So far 70,000 hectares have been rehabilitated through the Kenya Forestry Service’s (KFS)  collaboration with the adjacent communities, non-state actors, development partners and agencies, including the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Development Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, says Cosmas Ikiugu, the head of the Mau Conservancy.

The Plantation Establishment for Livelihoods Scheme (PELIS), a collaborative programme between KFS and neighbouring communities, is giving the Mau afforestation momentum.

More than 100 community forest associations (CFAs), — communities organised into groups to access forest land where trees have been harvested — are allowed to  grow crops in the forested land for three years while they take care of the trees. This has yielded encouraging results, Ikiugu says.

“Now we have Lake Nakuru overflowing  and the River Mara is full,” he adds. The rehabilitation programme has also attracted funding from the Dutch government.

The Nakuru County director for the environment, Timothy Kiogora, says the funds can be used on initiatives aimed at sensitising the communities to the importance of protecting the Mau ecosystem and enlightening them on alternative sources of livelihoods.

The three-year funding project expected to extend to 2018 targets communities in Nakuru, Narok and Bomet counties in the eastern Mau zone.

“It is not enough to tell people to conserve the forest, especially when they depend on it for firewood, or timber, or bee keeping. You must give them an alternative,” says Kiogora.

Sustainable use of local natural resources is among the 17 post-2015 agenda that countries will be striving to achieve.

The Sustainable Development Goals, to which Kenya is a signatory as a member of the United Nations, emphasise the need to embrace collaborative methods in efforts to alleviate poverty and manage resources efficiently.