After years of destruction by illegal settlers and squatters, Embobut forest block, a major water tower in the North Rift region, is now on the path to recovery.
When the thousands of illegal settlers who had converted thousands of hectares into farmlands were forcefully evicted and those deemed genuine squatters compensated in March this year, more than 30 per cent of the 21,933 Ha forest had already been destroyed.
Today, the forest, which is part of 65,000 hectares of forest land that also extents to Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu counties in the North Rift, is beginning to undergo natural regeneration as human activities within the forest have decreased significantly.
“If the wanton destruction of trees could have been allowed to continue for another 10 years, all the rivers originating from the forest would dry and we would be staring at an acute shortage of water not only in Marakwet but also in neighboring counties,” Marakwet Kenya Forest Service (KFS) Zonal Manager Alfred Nyaswabu says.
Nyaswabu says the process of restoring the forest’s lost glory is a multi-faceted approach which entails involvement of the local communities and other stakeholders.
He admits that KFS, though charged with the responsibility of securing and conserving the forest, cannot succeed without involving the community.
Most rivers including Arror, Embomon and Embobut, which trace their sources deep in the forest, flow down the Rift Valley escarpment down to the Kerio Valley where they join river Kerio which drains its water in Lake Turkana.
River Moiben which flows to Uasin Gishu, is the main supplier of water to Eldoret town from Chebara dam in Marakwet West sub-County.
KFS officials in Marakwet say the forest is an invaluable resource that should be conserved in partnership with the community and all stakeholders.
The officers say after the evictions, local communities living adjacent the forests and who were also parts of the evictees have accepted the reality that “there is no going back to the forest” and they are getting accustomed to carrying on with their lives without cultivating the forest.
Residents in Sinen (one of the areas where people had invaded the forest) say they have “moved on” and they are ready to support efforts by the government to conserve the forest.
Their resolve to fight for the restoration of the forest they had earlier rolled up their sleeves to destroy was evident when they turned up in their hundreds to plant at least 40,000 tree seedlings in the area.
“We now understand the importance conserving our forest. Today, flowers have regenerated and our bee hives are full of honey,” an elder, who was also a participant in the tree planting exercise in Sinen, said.
Joyline Kitum, a resident, says she has been enthralled by the magnificent beauty of the regenerating forest. She adds: “Nothing gives one an exuberant feeling like enjoying fresh air and water flowing out of our natural forest. Although we had initially used the forest for food production, we now understand that our future generations will suffer from water shortage and climate change.”
According to reports at KFS, destruction of Emboubut forest dates back to the colonial days when the British allocated the seven glades (open areas) in the forest including Sinen, Kewabus and Kaptirbai to the hunter-gather community – the Sengwer, also known as Kimala – to keep livestock. With time, the population increased and they started destroying sections of the forest for settlement.
The situation worsened when in 1962 a fatal landslide known as Kiptungo claimed several lives and left many villages in Embobut and other areas of Marakwet homeless. This forced many people to move into the forest because the escarpments were no longer safe.
The aftermath of this move was wanton destruction of trees that almost made the whole forest bare.
Nyaswabu says the greatest challenge in reclaiming the forest is the large herds of cattle which continue to graze in the forest. He says they are a threat to bamboos and other indigenous trees in the forest, which hosts 15 public institutions including schools and dispensaries.
KFS says it enjoys a good relationship with the community by encouraging the formation of community forest associations (CFAs) and other community organisations to collaborate with the government agency in conserving the forest.
Many CFAs in the entire Marakwet region have benefitted from their indigenous tree planting projects as KFS has been purchasing seedlings from them to plant in the forest.
In September this year, members of the Sengwer community formed a committee which acts as a link between the community and the government.
The committee, elected by the community, was tasked with voicing the community’s concerns to the government through KFS as far as forest conservation and management is concerned.
Reports at KFS suggest that 384 million trees needs to be planted annually in Kenya to boost the less than 2 per cent forest cover to the internationally recommended national forest cover of 10 per cent by the year 2030.
According to the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme, Embobut is part of the rolling Cherangani hills, which are among the country’s five most important water catchment areas. Conservation of the upland areas is considered to be vital to prevent water shortages in cities.
Alarm over wanton destruction of Embobut was raised in April 2009 leading to a meeting by Forestry and Wildlife minister Noah Wekesa, which formed a 23-member taskforce to investigate and determine the genuine squatters and recommend a lasting solution.
The meeting recommended the squatters be settled in glades while waiting for a decision on permanent, alternative resettlement to be made.
KFS says the first eviction happened in May 2009 following several meetings between the government and local leader.