• The pastoral community in Samburu admit restoring forests could end droughts
• They need to be protected and sustainably managed as water catchment for Ewaso river
Constant conflicts with neighbouring communities over grazing fields and water forced squatters to encroach on Kirisia Forest about 30 years ago. But on December 30, the squatters did the unthinkable.
The over 500 families voluntarily left the 91,452ha (some 225,982 acres) of gazetted dryland forest, bolstering government efforts to increase tree cover to over 10 per cent by 2020.
The current forest cover in the country is a paltry 7.2 per cent. Unlike the push and pull witnessed during the second phase of Maasai Mau evictions, the Kirisia squatters left peacefully. Samburu political leaders kept off the exercise.
Following the voluntary exit from the water tower, Environment CS Keriako Tobiko led the restoration efforts on December 30.
"This is history. You are now in the world map as this is the first time those who got into the forest 30 years ago are moving out," Tobiko said.
The CS said the movement of squatters from Kirisia forest attracted no "noise, barazas or press conferences".
"The Kirisia forest is two times bigger than the Maasai Mau forest. It has 10 rivers with indigenous trees, such as sandalwood, red cedar, podo and a whole range of wildlife," Tobiko said.
The CS urged politicians to desist from politicising matters environment.
"You know the importance of forests. Rains have reduced as a result of the destruction and when it rains, soils are washed away into the ocean," he said.
The government undertook phase I of the operations to recover Maasai Mau Forest in July-August last year. A total of 11,119.725 acres of forest land was recovered in Nkoben and Kosia areas.
This would be followed by the second phase, an operation targeting Sierra Leone and surrounding areas, popularly known as ‘status quo area’, measuring approximately 42,007.85 acres of forest land.
The 60-day window for people to voluntarily move out lapsed on October 30. The squatters were kicked out despite protests from leaders opposed to the move.
Tobiko gave those who are still in the Kirisia forest one month to move out.
Those who have pulled down their houses were being assisted by lorries belonging to the police and the Kenya Forest Service to ferry their property.
The CS said the communities who voluntarily moved out of the forest will also be assisted with livelihood activities, such as beehives and seedlings. Already, they have been provided with 350 beehives.
Present during the tree-planting drive were KFS board member Peter Wandera, chief conservator of forests Julius Kamau and Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) research and development senior deputy director Dr Jane Njuguna.
Others present included Samburu Deputy Governor Julius Leseeto, Samburu woman representative Maison Leshomo and Samburu West MP Naisula Lesuuda.
Tobiko tasked Kamau to lead a team that will demarcate the forest boundary to curb further encroachment.
He said any illegal activities within the forest, such as the harvesting of sandalwood, will be dealt with firmly in accordance with the law.
The squatters encroached on Kirisia Forest about 30 years ago due to constant conflicts with neighbouring communities over grazing fields and water.
Naramat Community Forest Association chairman Douglas Leboiyare said over 60 meetings were held to convince the squatters of the need to move out.
"Our problems have forced us to move out. The forest is heavily degraded and as a result, there has been no rains and pasture for our livestock," Leboiyare said.
Leboiyare said they are blessed with rivers within the forest. However, wanton destruction of the forest has seen water levels drop.
Leboiyare said they need greenhouses to help those who have since moved out to get alternative livelihoods. "We also need over 4,000 beehives to sustain ourselves," he said.
Francis Lokume is one of the squatters who voluntarily left the forest. "I have stayed there for more than 25 years, keeping livestock," he said.
Lokume, a father of 42 children and eight wives, said they have had to move out of the forest to allow it to regenerate.
He said two of his children have in the recent past been killed as they look for pasture and water for their livestock.
Lokume said over 2,000 livestock have in the recent past been lost to bandits who waylay at will. "We have also lost several people in the last eight years," he said.
He said in June last year alone, 600 livestock were lost. "We can go looking for water and pasture for even one year," he said.
The chief conservator of forests Julius Kamau said the voluntary movement of squatters showed goodwill and trust that KFS will not take for granted.
"The voluntary movement has given us more hope and aspiration to go to other complex areas," Kamau said, signalling the kicking out of other squatters in Kenya's water towers.
Kamau said the forest, which was gazetted in 1936, has a rich biodiversity.
"Already, 30,000ha of this forest have been destroyed. This is a third of the forest," Kamau said, adding that this has elicited the wrath of nature, as there is now no water or pasture for livestock.
The CCF said Samburu's forest cover, which stands at 12.8 per cent, could be increased up to 15 per cent. "Community Forest Associations are very critical stakeholders," he said.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has already secured funds from the global environment facility, in partnership with Kenya Forest Service, Kenya Wildlife Service and the county government of Samburu.
The $2.8 million (Sh280 million) funds will promote and facilitate strategic capacities and incentives to counter forest and land degradation in Kirisia forest.
Through the project, FAO supports capacity development of key institutions, such as KFS, KWS, county government and CFAs to adopt an inclusive and sustainable forest management approach to protect the integrity of Kirisia forest ecosystem.
SPECIES TO BE MONITORED
Kefri research and development senior deputy director Dr Jane Njuguna said they will monitor the species diversity in the forest. There will be a long-term ecological study of the forest that will monitor several factors.
"We will also do aerial seeding to complement the over 10,000 seedlings that were planted," she said, adding that this will increase the seed bank.
Kefri will also start a research station to cover the area as one way of disseminating new technologies.
"As part of our 10 per cent forest cover strategy, we want to provide the right seeds in this area," she said.
Njuguna said the forest will be used as a seed collection site. She said the original species has been in the forest for over 15 years.
"The Samburu community are exceptional. They are conservation-conscious. They know this is their forest, we want to work with them, teach them so they can manage their forest," Njuguna said.
Njuguna said the locals will be taught how to conserve the forest.
Equally, their indigenous knowledge will be tapped.
Kenya Forest Service board chairman Peter Kinyua said the Kirisia forest does not solely belong to the current generation.
"The forest has supported the lives of the past generations, and those of us who are in this gathering have a duty for restoring the health of the forest so future generations can also enjoy it and the goods and services it will continue to deliver," Kinyua said in a speech read on his behalf by Peter Wandera, a board member.
Kinyua said there has been unprecedented deforestation and forest degradation of parts of Kirisia forest, including the presence of settlements and households living inside the forest.
This, he said, has been to the detriment of the conservation efforts for the forest.
The board chairman said serious threats to the existence of this forest reserve have been encroachments, charcoal burning, human settlements, overgrazing, a proliferation of urban centres with some located inside the forest, forest fires and over-exploitation of key tree species.
"It is now time to reverse them and to put the forest on a recovery trajectory in order to rebuild its resilience so the people of Samburu County can enjoy the water, wood and non-wood products, investments, good rains, cool weather, beauty and other environmental services, particularly climatic amelioration," he said.
Under the project, the forest-neighbouring communities in Nkarro, Naramat and Nailepunye are now partnering with various groups in designing mechanisms for protecting, conserving and managing Kirisia forest. The partners include the Environment and Interior ministries, Samburu county, KFS, Kefri, KWTA, KWS, Suryan Trust and group ranches.
Kinyua said KFS, as the lead agency for the project, has taken up its role and has coordinated the development of the Kirisia-Leroghi Ecosystem Management Plan, which covers the period 2019-29.
"This plan provides the roadmap for rejuvenation of the forest and should be implemented," he said.
Kinyua thanked the recently formed CFAs (Nkarro, Naramat and Nailepunyie) for the good work they have started towards resolving the problems facing the forest.
He said good forest conservation results can only be realised when communities resolve to protect the forests.
Kinyua urged CFAs to move ahead and prepare the participatory forest management plans under the guidance of KFS and other partner agencies, in line with the provisions of the Forest Conservation and Management Act, 2016.
He said the move will create room and provide the framework for entrenching community participation in the management of Kirisia forest.