SHAMBA SYSTEM

What's shamba system and why all the fuss?

It was first introduced in Kenya in 1910 by the colonial administration.

In Summary

• The colonial administration introduced the system in Kenya in 1910 to provide raw materials for the timber industry and reduce pressure on natural forests.

• Its reintroduction has been criticised and applauded in equal measure with proponents saying it will boost food production while critics say it's prone to abuse.

Farmers plant crops at the suam border in Trans Nzoia.
Farmers plant crops at the suam border in Trans Nzoia.
Image: FILE

Remarks by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua that the Kenya Kwanza government is mulling over the idea of reintroducing the shamba system have evoked mixed reactions from a cross-section of Kenyans.

The idea has been criticised and applauded in equal measure with proponents saying it will boost food production while critics say it's prone to abuse.

But what exactly is the shamba system?

Shamba is the Swahili word for farm. The system is also known as Pelis, short for Plantation Establishment for Livelihood Improvement Scheme or non-resident cultivation (NRC).

The colonial administration introduced the system in Kenya in 1910 to provide raw materials for the timber industry and reduce pressure on natural forests.

It's implemented by the KFS and it entails allocating farmers shambas (small plots) in degraded forests to plant and tend to tree seedlings as they cultivate their crops for nine months.

The seedlings are provided by the KFS while the farmers provide labour whose pay is the product they will harvest.

Once the trees mature and farming becomes untenable, the farmers move out. Basically, it's a win-win arrangement.

It became very popular during the late President Daniel Moi's regime as communities around forests cultivated particularly maize, beans, potatoes and fodder in forested areas.

Initially, the shamba system converted natural forest to 160,000 hectares of plantation forest. 

But years of mismanagement and destruction of forests led to its ban on various occasions.

The first ban came in 1986 but was lifted in 1994 before the late President Mwai Kibaki banned it again in 2003 citing abuse by Kenya Forest Service (KFS) officials and timber millers. 

The Jubilee regime also outlawed the system in January 2021 citing environmental degradation, three years after imposing a moratorium on logging in public and community forests over the same concerns.

The government became concerned particularly over the encroachment of the Mau forest leading to mass evictions.

Critics of the shamba system say it's the most abused programme in the forestry sector.

Lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi equated it to land grabbing while his counterpart Miguna Miguna termed it "a very bad idea".

The late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai condemned the system saying it had been abused as farmers were allowed to turn large sections of indigenous forests into farmlands and reduced the capacity of the forests to be effective water reservoirs. 

At the time the Kibaki administration was banning it, the programme had become laden with corruption.

Foresters were allegedly allocating themselves huge chunks of forest land with little attention to the plant and tending to tree seedlings.

KFS officials were also accused of destroying or allowing the destruction of indigenous trees.

While making the announcement over the reintroduction of the shamba system, Gachagua said forests belong to Kenyans and they have a right to unrestricted access.

"You are the ones who have taken care of them all these years. There is a CS who came and banned you from taking even a leaf to cook.

"The shamba system will return. Just wait for a little for us to appoint a new Environment CS," Gachagua said while addressing mourners at the funeral service of the late Baringo Deputy Governor Charles Kipngok in Eldama Ravine.

He said it's unreasonable to deny Kenyans the chance to cultivate crops in forests and then import maize.

"So we will release a plan where you cultivate in forests without destroying trees. And the good thing about trees is that once it grows big, no one will tell you to vacate the forest." 

But environmentalists like Wangari Maathai were critical of this idea from the onset.

The Nobel Laureate said the shamba system paved the way for the introduction of non-native species such as cypress and eucalyptus and warned against sacrificing native forests for exotic plantations.

She further argued that the exotic trees are environmentally harmful as they lack the ecologically crucial functions that an indigenous forest ecosystem can provide.

In 2000, an institutional task force was established to review the implementation of the shamba system.

It comprised the Forest Department, the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Nyayo Tea Zones and Development Corporation (NTZDC).

The task force released its report in 2001 recommending among other issues the sound management of areas under the shamba system.

The recommendations of the report dubbed “Review of the Implementation and Management of Non-Resident Cultivation in Kenya” could be where the DP needs to start prior to effecting his directive.


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