The Ogiek people of Kenya have for more than a century faced eviction from their ancestral lands in the Mau Forest, on which they have long depended for their material and cultural needs.
Three years ago, some community members decided to start working with the Kenyan Forest Service to restore the forest complex and promote conservation coupled with sustainable livelihoods such as beekeeping.
Today, using this biocultural approach, volunteer community members have planted more than 60,000 native trees in four different blocs within the forest, including the endangered parasol tree (Polyscias kikuyuensis) and African cherry tree (Prunus Africana).
The KFS has been relying on Ogiek knowledge of the terrain and geography of the forest to provide intelligence on the routes used by illegal loggers and those starting forest fires.
NAKURU COUNTY, Kenya — For Joseph Lesingo, a member of the Indigenous Ogiek community, observing the regeneration of previously degraded sections of the Mau Forest has been one of the most fulfilling moments in the past five years.
“When I see the expansive lush green over there, I see life,” says Lesingo, pointing toward a large section of forested land that had been cleared before the reforestation efforts of the Ogiek community’s volunteer group.Approximately 900,000 hectares (222,000 acres) of the Mau Forest had been destroyed through illegal tree harvesting and charcoal production by 2018, according to Julius Kamau, director of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), a government agency.
Like many other members of the community, Lesingo knew that failure to conserve and protect the Mau Forest risked wiping out the community’s culture, habitat and livelihoods. Traditionally hunters and gatherers in the Mau Forest, the 50,000-strong Ogiek community till depend on this forest complex for their material and cultural needs.
The Mau Forest, covering a total of 455,000 hectares (1.1 million acres), is the largest swath of forest in Kenya and the source of at least 17 permanent cross-border rivers. This mountainous forest region is commonly called a “water tower” because it’s a source of clean water for approximately 6 million people throughout Kenya. It’s home to vulnerable tree species such as the parasol tree (Polyscias kikuyuensis) and the African cherry (Prunus africana) often used in traditional medicine. Fluttering between tree branches are endemic birds, including the Hartlaub’s turaco (Tauraco hartlaubi) and Hunter’s cisticola (Cisticola hunteri).
However, since the beginning of British rule at the end of the 19th century, the Ogiek people have been subjected to violent displacements from their ancestral lands. In the past 20 years, the Kenyan government has also evicted hundreds of families, ostensibly to conserve the biodiversity of the expansive forest complex. In a 2017 international court ruling, the evictions were ruled a violation of the Ogiek people’s land rights. Uncertainties still exist over whether the government will follow the ruling as it plans to evict non-Ogiek settlers from the forests before letting the Ogiek people back in.
Today, the Ogiek have no legal land ownership documents, and evicted members lack alternative land. The evictees currently live on the boundaries of their ancestral lands while some have been accommodated by neighboring communities, and are allowed controlled access to certain areas of the forest to farm and find herbal medicine.
“The forest was and is our home and life,” says Lina Kipkogey, an elder from the community.
In 2018, members of the Ogiek community were paired with forest rangers from the KFS, the government agency charged with the protection and conservation of Kenya’s forests. Following the Revised Forest Conservation Act of 2016, this collaboration was developed with provisions to allow communities like the Ogiek to engage in sustainable forms of forest management and conservation. Government conservation laws are meant to complement Ogiek cultural beliefs.
Forming a group under the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP), the volunteers from Nakuru county operate with the KFS rangers who give them direction and provide members with uniforms and radios. They are divided into teams of 18 people who cover different sections of the eastern bloc of the Mau Forest that had been destroyed. These include the Marioshoni, Logoman, Kiptunga and Neisuiet sections of forest, home to African cherry trees, one of the most endangered species.
“They patrol inside the forest day and night to ensure that nothing illegal happens there,” says Kennedy Kipnge’no, a training program manager at the OPDP office.
According to the KFS deputy head for the Mau Forest, Peter Mukira, the collaboration has so far been fruitful as opposed to forcibly evicting tribal members from the area.
A biocultural approach to reforestation
The OPDP members use traditional cultural approaches to encourage their community in restoring and conserving the forest complex.
“Telling members of our community to simply leave forested areas, plant trees and protect the region was not working,” says Julius Ngiria, who leads the community forest protection unit in the Mariashoni bloc of the forest.
The community was initially hesitant to engage in conservation because of lingering resentment against the government for evicting families from their ancestral lands. For some other members, their lifestyles and activities have changed as they no longer practice their traditional way of life. Certain activities, such as livestock grazing or logging to make a quick profit, have contributed to deforestation.
“We adopted a cultural approach to convince our people why we needed to do this,” Ngiria says. “We first made the community understand what they stood to lose if they failed to conserve the Mau Forest.”
The volunteer forest protectors started by educating members of the community on the importance of supporting conservation efforts by focusing on the protection of shrines — the giant mugumo trees (Ficus natalensis) that serve as their worship places — according to Joseph Kanesiko, a leader of Community Forest Association (CFA).
“They know that if the forest is destroyed, the government will bar them from entering the forest, hence blocking them from their shrines,” says John Sironga, chair of the Ogiek council of elders. “That is why the shrines have become one of the most important elements to help us save the forest from destruction.”
Since the initiative to protect the Ogiek shrines began, community volunteers have planted more than 60,000 native trees in four different blocs within the forest. These include the Kenyan cedar (Juniperus procera) and African olive trees (Olea europaea cuspidata).
After evicting people from the forest, the KFS planted exotic tree species in the degraded areas initially covered by endemic trees. However, this affected the forests’ biodiversity and root system that funneled water into streams. This pushed community members to convince the KFS to plant native trees in the center of the forest complex, leaving bamboo and non-native species at the forest’s boundaries.
“We observed that water springs around areas where alien tree species were planted had started drying up while water levels in springs around places where we planted indigenous trees were on the rise,” Ngiria says.
The KFS began providing free tree seedlings and training the volunteers on tree nursery management. So far, the forest rangers along with the community have established 18 tree nurseries across three different blocs of the forest that had been destroyed. They also encourage forest visitors to each plant a tree as part of the Mau Forest’s ecotourism plan.
Fredrick Lesingo, a traditional beekeeper and one of the members of the OPDP, says the KFS’s move to allow beekeeping inside the forest has pushed the community toward engaging in a massive tree-planting exercise to ensure that they have expanded forest cover to accommodate more beehives.
Honey is commonly used in most Ogiek traditional rituals and is a key part of the diet. The common tree species the Ogiek plant to attract bees and set up their beehives include dombeya (Dombeya torrida) and the East African yellow tree (Podocarpus latifolius).
“Every family that wanted to have a beehive inside the forest was required to make a commitment of engaging in the forest conservation efforts led by the KFS and our volunteers,” Lesingo says.
Joseph King’ori, a KFS manager in charge of the Logoman bloc of the Mau Forest, agrees that community intervention has greatly helped KFS in halting the massive destruction of the forest.
“To protect their beehives from encroachers, they respond quickly whenever they notice something unusual happening within the forest. Through their efforts, we have been able to reduce forest fires and cases of illegal logging and charcoal production,” King’ori says.
To further encourage forest conservation through beekeeping, the Kenya Water Towers Agency has been providing free beehives to forest communities including the Sengwer and Kipsigis communities. The agency also trains the beekeepers in contemporary sustainable methods of farming bees and harvesting honey.
Intel gathering and sharing
To ward off illegal loggers, herders, encroachers and charcoal makers, the KFS has been relying on the Ogiek community forest volunteers to gather and provide intelligence on the routes used by these groups. The community volunteers also monitor possible crimes committed inside the forest, including the lighting of forest fires.
“They have better knowledge and understanding about the terrain and geography of the forest compared to most of our officers who are not locals,” says Mukira, the KFS official. “They know all the tracks and methods used by loggers. The intel they provide has helped us reduce and stem the number of loggers entering the forest.
“They are not allowed to arrest or attack people,” he adds. “All they need to do is to alert the KFS rangers who then will act according to law.”
To safeguard the conservation achievements realized, the Kenya Water Towers Agency decided to erect an electric fence along the forest boundaries to prevent further encroachments into the critical ecosystem. However, encroachers have destroyed part of the fence to create illegal entry points into the forest to fell trees or carry out farming activities. The damaged sections of the fence are now being repaired.
Forest fires are one of the biggest problems KFS had to deal with in conserving the Mau Forest. In 2019, 150hectares (370 acres) of bamboo trees were destroyed by fire. Illegal loggers, charcoal makers and livestock herders often start fires in one section of the forest to distract forest rangers before moving to a different forest location to cut trees, burn wood for charcoal, or graze their cattle.
Trained in managing, monitoring, preventing and putting out fires of any kind, the volunteer forest protectors have seen cases of forest fires, especially those caused by human activity, decline since 2017. According to the KFS, the volunteer forest protectors have helped put out five fires that broke out inside the forest this year.
“The situation is changing for good,” says Misoka Stanley, an operations officer at the Mara Elephant Project, an NGO, “and we are seeing restored forest areas and revived water systems.”
Banner image: The Ogiek volunteer forest protectors standing inside a section of the Mau Forest they helped regenerate. The group has planted thousands of trees to help conserve the critical water tower. Image courtesy of Jackson Okata.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:
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