•The Ogiek Community are showcasing their indigenous knowledge and how it helps to protect water towers.
•They in turn get herbs and more honey from the venture.
For every member of the Ogiek community, a forest remains their home, and they have the right to live and practise their way of life there.
In fact, the community believes that they have a collective responsibility to protect and conserve it.
While at it, the Ogiek, who are hunters and gatherers, want the Kenyan government and other stakeholders to recognise, respect and affirm this inherent right.
And to prove a point, the community has already developed a Bio-Cultural Protocol, clearly stating who they are, where they live, their relationship with forests, such as the Mau Forest Complex, and their land, and associated traditional knowledge; rights over natural resources in the Mau and their responsibility to protect and conserve it.
The community uses the protocol as a tool to safeguard their rights as well as traditional knowledge and resources by providing clear terms and conditions to regulate access to their assets as well as sharing benefits that accrue from any development of those assets.
The Ogiek are an indigenous minority ethnic group, traditionally practising hunting and gathering and comprising about 35,000 members across the country.
The community lives in and around the Mau Forest Complex in Rift Valley, and in the forests around Mount Elgon in Western Kenya.
About 30,000 members of the community live in the Mau Forest Complex. The rest live in the forested areas of Mount Elgon, at Chepkitale.
Forests provide food (honey), medicine, shelter and preserve their culture.
Joseph Barno understands this too well. “We have lived in the forest for all our lives, and we have a special relationship with our land and the natural resources in it,” Barno, a beekeeper, says.
He says the relationship with natural resources has special importance to their culture and spiritual values.
Barno says the space the community has traditionally occupied has helped shape their distinct identities, livelihood practices and knowledge systems.
“We have been taking care of this forest resource for ages,” he says without batting an eye, adding that the word Ogiek means ‘caretaker of all’ plants and animals.
Barno says their relationship with the forest is essential to our way of life, hence their survival.
He says members of his community are well versed in animal tracking and hunting, ecological knowledge, traditional medicine and handicraft production.
The Ogiek Bio-Cultural Protocol corroborates this. The protocol says for decades, the community was able to apply their traditional knowledge systems in the conservation and sustainable use of forest biodiversity.
Nobody was allowed to cut down trees. Each clan was given their section or part to protect, conserve, preserve and utilise in a suitable and sustainable manner.
Every clan named their section of the forest based on their own understanding of the environment. They used myths and taboos to conserve the forest.
For example, cutting various tree species was a taboo (giret) and this helped in the protection of indigenous tree species.
Barno has spent almost his entire life keeping bees at Kapkembu, South West Mau. This is a trade that was passed down by his father.
He says the government needs to tap their traditional knowledge into conserving this critical water tower, which is among the 22 towers found within Mau Forest Complex.
Many forest blocks within the Mau Forest Complex had suffered heavy degradation due to encroachment.
The Mau Forest Complex comprises 22 blocks. It covers an area of 1.12 million acres and is a major catchment for 12 major rivers that feed five lakes across five counties.
“If we allow South West Mau to be destroyed, it will affect not only the indigenous people but also everyone, depending on the tower, because of climate change,” Barno says, adding that their struggle to conserve the critical water tower is a struggle for humanity.
Barno knows too well the conditions that allow his bees to make more honey.
“The bees like a variety of trees where they can freely collect nectar and where there is water. Indigenous trees are the perfect pets for good honey,” he says.
He says he can tell the difference in honey by using colour and taste and depending on the season and the type of bee forage.
Barno can also identify herbal honey from medicinal plants, usually used for the treatment of different ailments and disorders. In the community, honey is revered. In fact, no ceremony would take place without honey.
He started off with 15 traditional beehives but he wants to shift to the modern ones.
Despite their indigenous knowledge, the community is often accused by the government of destroying forests. It was kicked out of the forest in October 2009.
However, Ogiek Peoples Development Programme attributes forest loss to encroachment for purely commercial interests, including logging, human settlement and agriculture, and not their activities.
The South West Mau Forest covers 148,263 acres and remains one of the largest forest blocks in the Mau Forests Complex.
The area, once prime indigenous forest, has been decimated and turned into farmland.
By 2009, nearly 47,000 acres had been identified as being in need of rehabilitation.
The South West Mau Forest impacts directly on Nakuru, Kericho, Bomet and Narok counties.
It forms the upper catchment of the Sondu Miriu River and, in part, the Mara River.
The forest is a habitat to keystone wildlife species, including African elephant, leopard, buffalo, and historically, the elusive, critically endangered mountain bongo antelope.
Efforts to restore the tower have, however, gained momentum, starting with Kapkembu as it impacts the Mara ecosystem.
On May 21, 2021, the journey towards rehabilitation in areas around Kapkembu commenced with the planting of 11,000 seedlings after Platinum Credit Ltd partnered with Rhino Ark Trust to support the rehabilitation.
They have undertaken to rehabilitate 24 acres of indigenous forest at Kapkembu, the southernmost outpost along the eastern forest 'cut-line' boundary.
The community has benefited through the sale of tree seedlings and through wages earned from site preparation, micro fencing, seedling planting labour and periodic site maintenance work.
Community scouts have also gained from employment to secure the replant sites over the three-year growing duration.
The focus area was on the eastern forest boundary zone adjacent to Kuresoi North and Kuresoi South subcounties.
For the community, the restoration will open doors for their tradition of beekeeping and herbal medicine craft.
“We are happy that restoration efforts are starting to bear fruits as bees have returned. Last year, I harvested 600kg of honey, which has helped me build a house, buy a goat, among other things,” Barno said.
Barno said that 1kg of honey goes for up to Sh600.
Eveline Langat, Elizabeth Busiene and Richard Cheres have mastered the art of herbal medicines.
They were introduced into the trade after it was passed from their ancestors.
“We specialise mainly in treating child ailments,” Eveline said.
She said their art is not paraded in the streets but those in need of their services go to them.
Cheres said he has travelled to nearly all parts of the country, treating various ailments.
Rhino Ark Trust is now extending further to upskilling in value-addition processing and marketing of herbal products as the sure bet of furthering their knowledge, while, in turn, conserving the tower.
Rhino Ark fence/community manager for South Western Mau Alfonse Kiprono says the community is taking a central role in conserving the forest due to the benefits accruing.
The community knows the kind of indigenous trees best suited in the area and their significance.
Kiprono says every rehabilitated section is micro-fenced, and the seedlings are taken care of for three years with the goal of reversing decades of human-caused degradation and restoring it to its once-pristine natural state.
“This will be achieved by growing trees in the heavily degraded areas of the forest – planting healthy seedlings and actively caring for them for three years, the time needed for seedlings to take hold and survive on their own,” Kiprono says.
Kiprono says the fence will keep livestock at bay.
The care also involves carrying out biannual spot weeding and bush clearing work to eliminate pressure on the growing seedlings from weeds and invasive species of plants; replacement of any seedlings that do not survive.
And to instil conservation among the youth, schools dotted along the forest have been roped in.
In May 2019, Rhino Ark Trust rolled out a conservation education programme in 46 South Western Mau-adjacent schools.
The programme aims to equip pupils with the relevant knowledge on environmental conservation and empower them to be proactive.
Comprehensive conservation education curricula for both primary and secondary schools, together with a pilot sustainable energy initiative in 15 of these schools, are offered.
Alfred Orina, the deputy headteacher of Kures Primary School and also patron of the Environment Club, says they had to see how this programme can be implemented to have children be tomorrow’s ambassadors.
He was elected as the chair of the teachers’ implementation committee, which has 98 teachers from 46 schools in South Western Mau.
Orina, who is also the chair, says they came up with a booklet in form of a curriculum called education conservation programme, capturing several areas in different grades.
The most targeted classes were Grades 4, 5, Standard 6, 7 and 8.
“The environment mostly covers water, soil, air and forest at large. So in Grade 4, we do strands (topics) that cover water. We teach learners the importance of water, uses of water, water harvesting and storage, water conservation,” he says.
Grade 5 covers wildlife and tourism, while the soil is covered in Standard 6.
In Class 7, major components of the environment are looked at. To reduce the reliance on wood fuel, 15 selected schools have been provided with large energy-saving jikos (stoves) and one large charcoal-making kiln for the pilot phase.
They have been trained on their use with the aim of reducing their fuelwood consumption by producing their own charcoal, which is then used in the jikos for cooking.
But even as rehabilitation gains momentum, concerns are being raised over a large herd of livestock deep inside the forest.
Some 24,000 heads have in the recent past been in South West Mau, a population that is not sustainable.
Out of this, approximately 12,000 heads were residential, largely fattening bulls brought illegally into the forest.
Just over 50 per cent go in and out of the forest daily, belonging to the neighbouring communities.
However, the last surveillance flight conducted in November 2021 showed a significant drop (66 per cent) in livestock grazing in the forest.
This can be to some large extent attributed to a livestock intensification project being implemented by SNV, with financial support from several partners, promoting zero-grazing.