Kenya's Ogiek tribe, hunters and gatherers who live in the Rift Valley's Mau Forest, say they are being excluded from forest restoration initiatives, which are focused on planting exotic trees rather than the indigenous species they rely on to survive.
"We have suffered a lot," said Joseph Lesingo, a member of the Ogiek council of elders. "When the Mau Forest was destroyed, we lost a habitat and were also deprived of forest resources such as honey, wild fruits and medicine," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Western Kenya's Mau Forest Complex, the largest indigenous mountain forest in East Africa and an important water catchment, has experienced high levels of deforestation since the late 1980s, due to forest land being hived off for agriculture and human settlement.
Around 100,000 hectares - a quarter of the forest's total area - has been lost since 2000, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Lesingo said the Ogiek community has been keen to collaborate with environmental groups, government agencies and companies that have launched efforts to protect and revive the forest, but it has not been easy. "We've lived here for centuries, and we possess vital knowledge on sustainable use of the forest, but apart from suffering from its wanton destruction, we have been excluded from its restoration, and as such our rights continue to be violated," he said.
The elder said the driving force for the reforestation programme was the fear that the Mara River and the entire ecosystem of the Mara National Park - a tourist attraction thanks to its wild animals and plant species - were under threat.
In 2008, a taskforce of senior government officials, researchers and NGO experts was set up to explore ways of saving the forest amid the growing impacts of climate change, including the drying up of some of the region's 12 rivers and erratic rains that were affecting farming. In 2009, the taskforce - which did not include local communities - recommended reforestation and the resettlement of people living on the forest's land.
Approximately $2.5 million (2 billion Kenyan shillings) was allocated to implement the taskforce's proposals. Realising that the Mau restoration programme offered a good opportunity for projects under the U.N.-backed scheme Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and the carbon market, many players joined the fray.
But according to Lesingo, little has been achieved. Smelling money, politicians got involved, using the Mau Forest initiative for their own ends, he added. In one case, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga supported a government decision to evict forest dwellers, but when local politicians feared it would affect demographics and voting patterns to their disadvantage, they became vocal opponents.
Beyond selling rosy-sounding plans, the intentions of the groups flocking to work on projects in the Mau Forest are little understood, Lesingo emphasised.
Many have recruited Ogiek members through community-based organisations (CBOs) to plant exotic trees with the aim of producing and selling carbon credits for profit, he said. "Communities are not consulted on the nature and benefits of carbon trade projects apart from being informed that planting trees will generate money," he said.
Gatundu Mwendwa, a member of Kitunga CBO, which is involved in reforestation, was also critical. "If you see any semblance of success in the restoration of the Mau Forest, be assured it could be better," he said.
LACK OF LEGISLATION
Local disillusionment with the Mau Forest scheme is indicative of the wider malaise affecting many climate change mitigation and adaptation projects in Kenya. The root cause of the problems lies in weak governance of such activities, experts say.
Benson Ochieng, director of the Nairobi-based Institute for Law and Environmental Governance (ILEG), said climate change projects are beset by a lack of transparency and public disclosure on decision-making processes, as well as conflicts of interest. In the case of REDD programmes, the same carbon offsets are sold to multiple buyers, he added.
According to Ochieng, communities are essentially being ripped off by companies involved in carbon trading. The real motivation behind some contracts for long-term land leases is not reforestation or carbon sequestration, he asserted. "We need to be careful with what's being sold to communities," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He described the case of Dakicha, an area of Malindi district in the Coast region, where the local community was duped by a foreign company that purportedly invested in a biofuel project for the carbon market, but surreptitiously used it for tourism purposes, ignoring the communities' interests.
Domestic knowledge on the amount and nature of the climate change funding available and how it can be accessed by community groups is minimal, he added.
Corruption is also undermining climate change governance in Kenya, Ochieng said, including embezzlement and misappropriation of funds. But the country does not have climate-specific offences in its statutes, enabling offenders to get away with it.
A legal framework is required for programmes like REDD that would make clear the various interests and responsibilities of different participants and disclose the nature of investments, Ochieng argued. "As the country delves more into climate issues, laws should be formulated to deal with climate-related offences," he said.
The ILEG director added that Kenya is lagging behind in tapping the carbon markets as a source of revenue due to low levels of technology, too much red tape and projects that are too small in size.
According to the National Environment Management Authority, the country had 16 emissions reduction programmes certified under the U.N. Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) as of June 2013, compared with 22 in Egypt and 24 in South Africa.
The Kenyan chapter of the global watchdog Transparency International (TI-Kenya) also says communities are not receiving fair compensation. It argues that better awareness is needed so that local people understand contractual agreements with groups involved in carbon trading.
As large amounts of money are channelled into climate change initiatives, proper monitoring, transparency and accountability are essential, said Jacob Otachi, a projects officer at TI-Kenya. Climate finance is complicated, as it can straddle different aid sectors, he noted. "For instance, fighting malaria is a health and also a climate change issue," he told journalists at a forum in the Kenyan town of Nakuru last October.
Experts agree that sound policies and integrity are vital to ensuring proper governance mechanisms for climate finance.
"Kenya - like elsewhere in Africa - is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and efforts should be put in place to ensure transparency, fairness, commitment and the application of appropriate technology to harness existing opportunities and optimally benefit from projects," ILEG's Ochieng said.
Justus Bahati Wanzala is a writer based in Nairobi.