In between the small and gigantic rocks at the foot of Maragoli Hills Forest in Vihiga County, Jimmy Ainea and his four colleagues are in search of the best photo spot in the serene beauty the hills hold.
Excitement aside, the five, who belong to a group called the Maragoli Hills Ecosystem Initiative (Maheri), are a worried lot.
While they behold the beauty of the hills, they are aware of the danger of the diminishing forest cover to the ecosystem the hills serve.
Short shrubs and young scattered trees make most of the vegetation here, but a local villager, Jason Otiende Obiayo, 72, says it never used to be this way.
“This place was a thick forest and years ago, we used to receive a lot of rain. Today, this area is a pale shadow of its former glory, but we (locals) have ourselves to blame,” he says.
A few metres from the group’s location, two women and three children are passing stacks of firewood on their heads.
“Firewood is the main source of fuel in this place. It is unfortunate that when we cut trees for firewood, we do not replace them and now this has driven us to this worrying state,” laments Erick Abaya, another local.
A narrow stream of clear water springing from the hills and manoeuvring through the rocks as it flows downwards draws the full attention of the group’s Coordinator, Anne Nyamitta.
She admires the water, but is shocked when Obiayo shares that years back, the stream was wider than it is now.
With the ecosystem served by Maragoli Hills Forest now threatened, various efforts are underway to reclaim the significant water tower in the Western region that constitutes a considerable part of the River Yala feeder streams.
The National Environment Complaints Committee (NECC) says it has assembled a team of several government agencies to rehabilitate the major water tower that was destroyed in the early 1990s.
Speaking when he toured the area in April, John Chumo, the NECC chairman, said a team comprising Kenya Water Towers, Kenya Forest Service and security agencies will be responsible for rehabilitating the tower.
The effort comes in the wake of failed measures by the county government that included tree planting, which unfortunately did little to bring back the forest.
Chumo said the committee is compiling a report that will guide the process of reclaiming the forest and restore it to its original glory of 20 to 30 years ago.
Maheri, with a strength of more than 200 members who include environmentalists, plans to plant 100,000 trees by July and to establish a carbon garden (tree nursery) in 50 schools in the county annually.
These gardens will provide seedlings for future replanting. Already, they have set the ball rolling by planting 6,000 trees, out of which 70 per cent have survived. They have also established carbon gardens in three schools in Vihiga.
On June 30, in partnership with the community and visitors from across the country, Maheri plans to hold a charity event in the area that will be highlighted by a half-marathon.
During the event, locals will also be enlightened on the importance of safeguarding the environment.
“In the recent past, we have thought about how to have this place covered with trees. What came to mind was an activity that can bring together everyone who loves the environment,” Ainea, the group’s chief executive officer, told the Nation.
“On that day, residents will be sensitised on the importance of planting trees and taking care of the environment,” he added.
To avoid a similar predicament where new trees will be harvested by locals and the rocks bared again, the group, in conjunction with Kenya Forest Services, plans to plant indigenous, exotic and fruit trees in the area.
In his account of the forest, Obiayo attributed the low forest cover to the existence of exotic trees only.
“We will not plant exotic ones only because we are going to harvest them again. We need to have full coverage, and although indigenous trees are the best for this, we will mix them with exotic and fruit ones,” offers Nyamitta.
Currently, the team has intensified awareness of the upcoming half-marathon. They have also paid a courtesy call on Vihiga Governor Wilber Ottichilo, who has thrown his weight behind the initiative.
The half-marathon will involve men’s and women’s categories and will be overseen by officials from Athletics Kenya.
Other planned races are the 10 kilometres, five kilometres and three kilometres.
In addition to the races, there will be a football tournament and a fashion week from June 24 to June 30.
Meanwhile, NECC has also called for restricted quarrying and careful harvesting of sand around the country to tame environmental degradation.
The ombudsman urged the National Environment Management Authority and security officials to impose regulations that would help in curb the rampant practice.
“We agitate for controlled sand harvesting. Officials from my committee as well as those from … government agencies will jointly enforce protection of rivers. Rivers should be protected against increased sand harvesting,” said Dr Chumo.