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Community forest association helps hold the line to protect Mount Kenya forest

Mount Kenya.

Mount Kenya. Image by DavyKirii via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • The volunteer members of the Chehe Community Forest Association are playing an active role in protecting forests on the southwestern slopes of Mount Kenya.
  • Despite this, 20% of the Afromontane forests in this region have been lost to fire, illegal logging and invasive species over the past 20 years.
  • The forest association’s chair says some local residents continue to encroach on forest reserves in the area — and that enforcement could be stronger.

Fire, illegal logging and invasive species have claimed 20% of the forests on the southwestern slopes of Mount Kenya in the last 20 years. The 700 members of the Chehe Forest Association are working to protect their area’s remaining Afromontane forests from further damage.

The village of Chehe is perched at 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) above sea level on the slopes of Mount Kenya, 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Evergreen stands of pencil cedar and East African yellowwood dominate on the lower slopes of the mountain, below 2,500 m (8,200 ft); giving way to the broader leaves of African onionwood and dense stands of bamboo in higher areas with more rainfall. These forests are home to tree hyraxes, mongoose, and black-fronted duikers — more rarely spotted on the mountain’s slopes are leopards and giant forest hogs.

Residents of Chehe and other communities nearby rely on the forest for herbal medicines, grass for livestock, and as a place to perform cultural rituals. The forests are also an important tourist attraction, designated an important bird area by BirdLife International. The Chehe Forest Block is one of just a handful of places where the endangered Abbott’s starling  (Arizelospar femoralis) can still be found. There are only around 1,300 of these birds scattered sparsely across seven shrinking patches of highland forest in Kenya and Tanzania, the males easily identifiable by their distinctive white bellies and blue-black backs and breasts.

Over the past 20 years, illegal loggers and farmers encroaching on forest reserve land have severely damaged the forest.

The loggers have cut down many of the largest trees. Invasive species including thickets of Mauritius thorn, an invasive plant originally from Asia, have moved in, preventing indigenous tree species from spreading.

A tree hyrax next to a Dendrosenecio plant on Mount Kenya.
A tree hyrax: the forests on Mount Kenya are home to tree hyraxes, mongoose, and black-fronted duikers — more rarely spotted on the mountain’s slopes are leopards and giant forest hogs. Image by Chris 73 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Abbott’s starling (Arizelospar femoralis)
The Chehe Forest Block is also one of a shrinking number of places where the endangered Abbott’s starling (Arizelospar femoralis) can be found. Image by Simone Basini via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Community members play a vital role

Since 2009, members of the Chehe Community Forest Association have tried to protect the forest from these threats. Working alongside the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the CFA’s volunteer members, currently more than 700, have restored 43 hectares (106 acres) of forest.

The association has also organized seminars to explain the connection between forest degradation and local weather patterns. “Our members are now able to know what has been affecting them in the past in terms of weather, and this is after attending seminars and civic education we as Chehe have been doing around here,” said Chehe CFA chair Geoffrey Wandeto. “Initially due to lack of consciousness and ignorance, people were unaware of what was affecting their weather.”

According to KFS data, across the wider Mount Kenya area, more than 500,000 indigenous trees have been planted by communities and KFS officers in the past five years. “I can say the restoration process that has been taking place in the forest is commendable, as a large part of the degraded forest has been restored,” said local KFS station manager Nickson Mariga. “Over 500 ha [1,235 acres] of tainted [degraded] forest has been restored as we speak.”

There are 27 CFAs in and around Mount Kenya, and Chehe is a leader among them in terms of restored forest area. “After planting trees, we don’t leave them to survive on their own,” Wandeto said. “We make sure that we protect them from browsing animals and invasive species.”

The Chehe forest association is also part of the government’s Plantation Establishment Livelihoods Improvement Scheme (PELIS). Introduced in 2005, PELIS gives local communities access to land in degraded forests where they can grow crops for themselves alongside seedlings provided by the KFS. PELIS farmers grow things like cabbage, kale and potatoes on an assigned plot for three or four years while simultaneously caring for the young trees, until they’re too tall for the food crops to thrive beneath them, at which point they then move to a new plot .

The CFA has also established tree nurseries of its own to raise both exotic and indigenous species for sale.

Local farmer Joyce Wangare told Mongabay that selling seedlings has become her main source of income. “Through selling of tree seedlings, I have improved my living standards,” she said. “I can afford to pay for my hospital insurance fund, National Health Insurance Fund, send my children to school, and afford a well-balanced meal.”

“Communities play a very important role in forest protection and restoration,” said Milka Musyoki, a community liaison officer working for the conservation NGO Nature Kenya. “Without them, the whole ecosystem will be at risk of disappearing. In return, the communities get food and improve their economic status through various projects in the forest as they do the conservation work.”

Musyoki manages a seed collection initiative that relies on community members to collect seeds for the various nurseries in the area.

A bamboo nursery.
Community Forest Association chariman Geoffrey Wandeto at a bamboo nursery: the association raises bamboo and indigenous and exotic tree species for sale. Image by Shadrack Omuka.
Community members planting trees.
Members of the Chehe CFA have restored 43 hectares of degraded forest in this part of Nyeri county. Image courtesy Geoffrey Wandeto.

More protection needed

While the CFA and the KFS are making some progress with reforestation here, challenges remain. According to the KFS, tree cover in the Mount Kenya region has shrunk by more than 20%.

In Chehe, Wandeto said invasive species like Mauritius thorn present a problem beyond the association’s members’ powers to address. He also said not everyone in the community — or even in the KFS — is committed to restoring and protecting the forest. He told Mongabay that some people from Chehe continue to cut down trees illegally.

“Our success in restoring this forest and protecting it has not been easy. Some officers from Kenya Forest Service, whom we trust to protect the forest, do collaborate with illegal loggers to destroy the forest. But it’s our responsibility as a community to protect this ecosystem and we’ve vowed that will not relent until we achieve our target,” he told Mongabay.

He said the association has reported officials on several occasions, but no action has been taken against them; he said community scouts would do a better job of monitoring the forests.

Another challenge is community members who take their cattle into the forest to graze, allowing them to browse on young trees, thereby destroying them. The association is encouraging locals to instead establish “zero-grazing” systems for their livestock, keeping the cattle or goats in small enclosures and bringing fodder to them there.

“We’ve tried to block them from entering the forest,” Wandeto said, “but KFS collect money from them and allow them to continue grazing in the forest. We as a community, we have minimal authority before the government. But we’re working on the issue to solve the problem.”

Regarding the continued presence of cattle in the forest, Mariga said his office was addressing this with sensitivity to residents’ needs. “This is something that need to be done gradually,” he said. “The community depends on their livestock for livelihoods, so banning them in the forest could cause something serious like turning to logging to sustain their livelihoods, and this could have a negative impact to the forest ecosystem.”

While he conceded that corruption was a problem in the KFS, he said this hadn’t been brought to his attention in Chehe.

“There might be allegations outside there or within the community about the vice, but have not received any complaints,” Mariga told Mongabay. “But this does not mean there is no corruption in the system. About [one] month ago, 23 forest officers were removed from the payroll by the president for neglecting their duties or being involve in corruption activities.”

Wandeto said the CFA that he heads has plans to restore another 120 hectares (about 300 acres) of degraded forest, but he said the work will be slow because tightened budgets at funding organizations, including the Water Sector Trust Fund, Nature Kenya and Upper Tana Natural Resources, have affected the association’s finances.

Banner image of Mount Kenya by DavyKirii via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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