“We knew if we continued at this rate, we would not have a forest.”
Marida Shinzai remembers going as a young girl to Kakamega forest to collect firewood and pick herbs.
Over the decades however, with tens of thousands of people depending on the forest for their livelihoods, particularly for charcoal production, she realized she was having to go farther and farther in to collect plants, and that the forest was rapidly depleting.
“We knew that if we continued at this rate, we would not have a forest,” she said.
She and her neighbours formed Muliru Farmers’ Cooperative group to manage and protect Kakamega, the only rainforest in Kenya. They began growing the evergreen camphor tree, which produces medicinal oil.
UNDP support helped the farmers purchase an essential oil extractor that crushes the dried leaves to produce commercially viable oil, which is marketed under the brand Naturub.
The group uses traditional knowledge and modern science to benefit from the plant that is used for relieving colds and flu, repelling insects, and easing muscular aches and pains.
The camphor tree grows fast, so the farmers are making more money and diversifying their incomes while promoting the sustainable use of the forest.
“I decided to subdivide my farm into two. On one side I have a maize plantation and on the other size I have grown the camphor plant. With camphor, I harvest three times in a year while maize harvest is only twice, so this is a sustainable venture that has improved the quality of life of my family,” said Maurice Likhuyai.
A “maternity wing” for elephants
The communities that surround Ngare Ndare forest are taking similar steps to protect their unique natural environment. Ngare Ndare is an indigenous forest with an expansive canopy at the foothills of Mt Kenya.
It is famed for its tall, wide trees. A 450-metre long canopy walk gives a bird’s eye view for the tourists, as the animals roam the land and drink at the watering holes.
It’s not only a water catchment area for the region but also a vital elephant corridor between Mount Kenya and the Samburu and Lewa conservancy. The forest has been nicknamed the “maternity wing” for elephants as they periodically stop to calf, before returning to the national reserve.
But as the population has increased, so has the pressure on the natural resources.
UNDP supports the Ngare Ndare trust through the Global Environment Fund Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP). The trust has begun work on a biogas project designed to provide an alternative energy and to stop deforestation. To help diversify incomes and reduce reliance on livestock, the trust has provided bee hives to some community members, who sell the honey and keep the profits.
The communities have planted more than 1.5 million fast-growing trees which can be used for firewood and building materials, and this has had a huge impact on illegal tree felling.
Some have been trained as forest rangers and they lead tourists on forest excursions, promote forest conservation awareness, and collecting basic forest data. Seventy percent of Ngare Ndare ecotourism income is ploughed back into community development.
A forest surrounded by a city
Karura forest, in the centre of Nairobi, is the only gazetted forest in Kenya that’s fully within a city. The community organization Friends of Karura Forest has ensured that it is conserved and not encroached on by realtors who see it as prime location for commercial buildings. One of its first tasks was to raise funds to erect an electric fence around the 1,041 hectare forest and was then opened as a recreational space in 2010 and receives up to 25,000 visitors a month. Visit any day and you will see nature lovers, runners, cyclists, picnickers and bird watchers.
There are three low-income settlements bordering the forest; Huruma, Githogoro and Deep Sea, and small grants have enabled them to reap the benefits of conservation.
Residents have been trained in bee-keeping, tour-guiding and scouting and enterprises using commercially important insects. With all of these efforts the communities has increased living standards, ensured the safety and security of the visitors to the forest, as well as learning sustainable conservation from other community forest associations.
Small grants have had a big impact in assisting communities to sustainably manage their forest. Animal and plant species have made a comeback while neighbouring communities have learned new ways to support themselves without depleting their natural resources.
Photos by Kevin Ouma