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Local communities rush to save Kenya’s only lowland rainforest

  • Kakamega Forest is the only forest of its kind in Kenya, home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the country.
  • For decades, the forest has been shrinking due largely to poverty-driven logging, harvesting of medicinal resources, and agricultural expansion.
  • To address these issues, local communities around Kakamega have formed groups that promote more sustainable livelihoods.

Concentrated in the Congo Basin, lush Guineo-Congolian rainforests stretch across Africa’s midsection, from West Africa down to northern Angola and eastward towards the Great Rift Valley. But only one small part makes it into western Kenya: Kakamega Forest, a tract that is important both ecologically to the region and economically to the human communities that surround it. As human pressure is taking an increasingly destructive toll on Kakamega, these communities are banding together to address and curtail some of the practices that have led to the forest’s decline.

Kakamega Forest is a remnant around 200 square kilometers in size situated about 35 kilometers from Lake Victoria in one of the most densely populated rural areas of Kenya. It comprises two protected areas: a forest reserve designated in 1933, and a national reserve added later in 1985.

An island of unique habitat, Kakamega provides a sanctuary for many animals and plants such as the black and white colobus monkey (Colobus guereza) and the African cherry (Prunus africana), which is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. For primates, Kakamega is especially valuable, with one of the largest overall primate populations of any surveyed Guineo-Congolian rainforest. In total, according to surveys by the Kenya Wildlife Service, Kakamega Forest is home to several hundred species of animals and plants, including 380 species of trees, 330 species of birds, 27 species of snakes, seven primate species, and more than 400 species of butterflies.

Rainforest canopy in Kakamega Forest. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.

The forest is also an important source of food, cattle fodder, fuelwood, building materials, and medicine for surrounding communities.

“Kakamega forest is bursting with different types of herbs that are dear to our livelihoods,” Thomas Mmasi told Mongabay. Mmasi is the founder of Muliru Farmers Conservation Group, a community-based conservation organization that operates near Kakamega Forest.

African cherry is one of the most important of Kakamega’s medicinal tree species. Its bark contains a compound that can be used to treat prostate enlargement, and is targeted for both local use and international trade to places as far away as Europe. The seeds of the Upus tree (Antiaris toxicaria) are used by local communities as painkillers.

Another important vine found in Kakamega forest is African ginger (Mondia whitei) locally known as “Mukombero.” The roots have a pleasant aroma and are used all over Kenya as a remedy to improve appetite and boost fertility, and as an antidepressant.

Kakamega Forest also holds spiritual and climatic significance for the surrounding communities –in particular, one tree known locally as “Mama Mutere.” Locals would routinely journey into Kakamega’s depths to visit the tree, which was estimated to be around 400 years old. By observing the shedding and curling of the tree’s leaves, along with its other behaviors, locals said it helped them predict weather patterns. While a spate of strong winds felled Mama Mutere two years ago, locals still visit its remains. 

The trunk of Mama Mutere lies dead inside Kakamega forest. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.
The forest is a source of fuelwood for residents. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.
Medicinal bark harvested from a tree inside Kakamega Forest. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.

The decline of Kakamega

The very things that make Kakamega important for local communities are leading to its undoing. Agriculture and settlement expansion has cleared large swaths of forest cover, as has logging. Harvesting of vegetation for medicine – such as removing the bark of African cherry trees for sale at home and abroad – is threatening both the plants themselves and the animals that depend on them.

Human pressure on Kakamega Forest is not just coming from outside of it. Since the 1990s, the government has resettled hundreds of households within the bounds of the forest, after their ancestral lands were appropriated for construction of facilities like hospitals, schools or government offices.

This pressure has resulted in a tree cover reduction of 50 percent over the past 38 years, according to research by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), which is heading up the Kakamega Forest Integrated Conservation Project. The forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch shows more than 200 hectares (2 square kilometers) of tree cover was lost between 2001 and 2014 alone, mostly in the forest’s southern half.

Kakamega Forest lies near Kenya’s border with Uganda, in one of the most heavily populated rural areas in the country. Unlike neighboring forests, Kakamega still maintains a zero population density (in its northern portion).
Data from the University of Maryland and visualized by Global Forest Watch show spots of heavy tree cover loss in Kakamega and around it during the past decade. Satellite imagery captured last month and provided by UrtheCast show tree cover loss has recently ramped up in Kakamega’s southern portion. Nearby more montane forests have also been heavily affected.

Forest destruction is a problem throughout Kenya. Global Forest Watch shows that of the country’s 30,000 square kilometers of tree cover, more than 8 percent was lost from 2001 through 2014. In other words, Kenya lost an area of forest about the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island in 15 years. The Kenyan government acknowledges the situation in its National Forest Policy – 2014, in which it states the need to strengthen forest conservation efforts. In particular, the document highlights both the importance of indigenous forests as some of the country’s most diverse ecosystems, and the increasing pressure they are facing from human development.

Mmasi believes that much of this pressure stems from a lack of awareness on the part of the general public.

“We have always destroyed our forests because we do not have adequate knowledge and understanding of the importance of forest biodiversity, its conservation and the consequences of its destruction,” Mmasi told Mongabay.

Promoting stewardship through alternative livelihoods and education

In response to Kakamega’s decline, several groups have formed to increase awareness of the forest and address the high poverty rate that is fueling its decline. One of these, Kakamega Forest Integrated Conservation Project, aims to address problems through initiatives such as community-based income generation, provision of alternative cooking fuels, and capacity building for local residents to help them better protect the forest. Through the project, ICIPE says it has helped some 400 residents of Kakamega County in Western Kenya, who live close to the forest, to become more effective stewards of Kakamega Forest.

Another organization working in the area is Muliru Farmers Conservation Group (MFCG). Partnered with ICIPE and the Kenya Wildlife Service, MFCG blends indigenous knowledge with modern science to manufacture medicinal products from herbs whose seeds were collected from the forest but are grown outside of it on individual farms.

Before MFCG started promoting the cultivation of these plants, people could only harvest them directly from the forest.

“And now by growing some of them outside the forest, and keeping some of the most important insects on our farms, we are simply conserving the forest biodiversity by easing pressure on it,” MFCG founder Mmasi told Mongabay.

Thomas Mmasi, founder of MFCG, displays mature Ocimum plants grown on his farm. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.
Muliru Farmers Conservation Group also grows indigenous trees. These are seedlings of the endangered African cherry (Prunus africana). Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.

In addition to reducing the harvesting strain on Kakamega, MFCG’s cultivation programs can help local community members to sustainably earn income.

So far, the group has mobilized local households in the farming of camphor basil (Ocimum kilmandscharicum), from which they manufacture different products such as herbal ointments, mosquito repellant jellies and preservatives for dry cereal crops.

“Though mosquitoes are not good insects, we decided that we should not kill them, but instead repel them because they form part of the forest biodiversity, of which is the duty of our group to conserve,” Mary Lumiti, the group’s chair, told Mongabay.

Mary Lumiti displays some of the finished products manufactured from forest herbs. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.
Seraphine Ingosi explains how camphor basil should be dried in order to produce quality essential oil. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.

The Kakamega Forest Integrated Conservation Project has given the group a distillation machine, with which they extract essential oil and crystals from the basil. The product is then taken to Nairobi for further refining and packaging by the Muliru Enterprise (a company registered by the group) before it is availed in the market.

“All our members are growing the camphor basil. We also give the seed material to non-members who are willing to grow and sell it to us,” Lumiti said.

Another herb cultivated by the group is wild basil (Ocimum suave), which has for years been harvested from the forest for use as a mosquito repellant and insecticide for flies and other insects.

Traditionally, wild basil is burned, producing smoke to keep insects away. Like camphor basil, wild basil leaves are also used to preserve maize and other cereal crops.

Community members also keep indigenous bees for pollination and honey production. The honey is also reputed to have medicinal value.

“We do practice organic farming as part of our income generation activities, and therefore we need these insects to aid in pollination,” Mmasi told Mongabay. “That’s why we are so passionate about keeping the stingless bees.”

Stingless bees are raised by Muliru group largely for medicinal honey production and pollination. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.
The communities raise tiny bees in specialized hives. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.

Muliru Farmers Conservation Group is also promoting the cultivation of nonnative mulberry trees (Morus nigra) with which they raise silkworms for fabric production. Mulberry trees also produce edible berries that are very nutritious and can be sold for income generation.

The group further encourages the use of more efficient charcoal cook-stoves to limit the amount of fuel used, and discourage the harvesting of Kakamega’s trees.

Another community-based organization in the area is aiming to increase awareness of Kakamega Forest and its ecology. Kakamega Environmental Education Program (KEEP), a project started in 1995 by the international NGO Foundation for Sustainable Development, is working with residents in dozens of villages around the forest. In addition to promoting non-timber and energy-saving cooking technology, the program holds educational sessions and outreach programs aimed at teaching residents and visitors alike about Kakamega and the importance of conserving it.

Through KEEP, ICIPE has recruited local extension workers who educate the adult community about the significance of Kakamega Forest, sustainable use of forest products and how local communities can conserve the forest.

Youth environmental education is also big component of KEEP, and its staff is currently working with around 140 area schools. They say that focusing on children will ultimately pay off in the future with this next generation of decision-makers, forest managers and consumers.

Threats persist

Despite concerted effort by conservation groups and communities to protected Kakamega Forest, residents are still worried about its future.

In the western part of the forest, roars of chain saws felling trees drown out birdsong. Just outside Kakamega, trucks and tractors heavily loaded with timber ply the road towards Kasali village as the forest guards watch from a distance.

Vehicles and tractors ferry timber from the forest. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.
The stump of a felled tree inside Kakamega Forest. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu.

The trucks are ferrying timber from a timber plantation within the forest, with permission from the Kenya Forest Service. But many residents are not happy about the operation.

“Everything is wrong about the tree harvesting exercise,” said Samuel Ommani, a resident of Kasali village. “When these exotic trees were being planted, it was to fill the empty spaces within the edge of the forest. But when they are being harvested, these guys indiscriminately cut down all tree species within the plantation area,” he lamented.

Initially, the government had planted tea immediately around Kakamega to act as a buffer zone, so that residents would not encroach on the forest. But in some areas, trees have been cut down to depths of nearly200 meters from the tea plantations.

“As a community, we need to be involved in the entire process of managing the forest because we have always lived to protect it knowing what it means to our livelihoods,” said Ommani.

His concerns are in-line with Kenya’s forest policy, which states that the government will promote private sector and community participation in the establishment and management of commercial forests on public, private and community land.

Local residents also claim that forest guards are easily bribed into allowing illegal logging.

“With just Sh500 ($5), the guards will allow you to cut down a tree, and will help you monitor so that you are not arrested by their colleagues,” said a resident of Nandwa, one of the settlements that was established by the government inside the forest in 1995.

George Aimo, a Senior Forester at the Kenya Forest Service in Kakamega contacted by Mongabay, twice declined to comment on the allegations.

Still, those working to protect Kakamega Forest are optimistic their efforts will help ensure that Kenya’s only lowland rainforest will remain in the years to come. And they hope the government will be amenable to those efforts.

“Despite the numerous setbacks, we will keep working hard to protect this God given resource,” Mmasi told Mongabay.”And all we are asking for is political goodwill so that the community does not look at the government as an enemy of the forest.”