Over the last fifteen years, a quarter of the Mau forest reserve has been cleared by farmers and loggers and the impact on Kenya has been devastating. The Mau forest acts like a giant water tower, storing rain during the wet season and releasing the water through the rivers during the long dry months. Around 10 million Kenyans rely on the twelve rivers which flow from the forest, but these rivers now become dry during droughts.
According to the news agency Alertnet, political moves to restore the Mau forest have stalled. Instead, groups of local farmers in 16 areas along the western side have come together to protect the forest. With support from agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the farmers have been learning about agro-forestry. They have been introduced to farming and forestry techniques which allow them to earn a livelihood while conserving and planting trees. Some communities have been shown how to grow pyrethrum, which can be used as a natural insect repellent. Other farmers have moved from keeping livestock such as chickens on open land, to shed-farming.
According to an official at the Kenya Forestry Service, such schemes are bringing communities together and bridging ethnic differences. Once livelihoods are secure, local communities are also starting policing their areas, reporting on any illegal activities such as the clearing of land or logging. This protection of the forest by local people is believed to be one of the reasons why 2010 saw a decline in prosecutions for illegal grazing and timber harvesting.
But people need help to diversify. Many poor communities in Kenya rely on burning charcoal and pressure to cut down trees remains high across the country. One woman in northern Kenya, who was pushed into poverty when drought and rustling took away her livestock, now relies on selling charcoal to earn a living. She told IRIN that with wild animals, cutting down trees can be a dangerous activity. And with the increased cost of food, her living barely allows her to feed and clothe her children. But her only choice is to “burn charcoal or die of starvation”. She knows that charcoal sellers are considered “enemies to the environment”, but feels she and others “deserve to be assisted rather than condemned”. The programme helping farmers of the Mau forest region shows that with outside help and investment, Kenyans are willing and able to find sustainable livelihoods which feed their families and protect the natural environment.