Kakamega — A Kenyan government plan to increase the country's forest cover by giving local people incentives to plant and preserve trees is paying off, resulting in more productive farmers and a landscape better able to cope with the changing climate.
"We had targeted 4.7 percent forest cover by 2015, but we are already at 6.99 percent," said John Wanyiri, deputy director of the Kenya Forest Service. The government plan calls for forest cover to reach 10 percent by 2030, a leap from its low point of below 2 percent in 1990.
A November 2013 U.N.-backed report on Kenya's forests noted that an earlier upwards revision of the official forest cover estimate to 6.6 percent was based on a broader interpretation of forests, as well as improved satellite technology.
Farmer Isaac Ambani is one of more than 800 people living close to western Kenya's Kakamega forest who are involved in conserving trees while growing crops between them.
"It is now three years since I was allocated an acre of land by the forest authority," said Ambani, hoeing his plot to prepare it for sowing. Other farmers are already planting maize and beans on their land, where they also tend to cyprus trees now more than 2 metres high.
Nearby is a forest of eucalyptus trees that have grown so tall crop farming below them is no longer possible because the canopy of branches blocks out the light.
The situation is very different from a few years ago, when the Kenya Forest Service used guns and arrested people to stop them cutting down trees. Locals would take advantage of the low number of forest guards to sneak into the forest and log illegally.
Ambani recalled how the forest - also home to some 300 bird species - looked before the illicit felling began."The whole place was dark with big, tall trees. But people entered and started cutting trees, leaving whole areas bare," he said.
Kenya Forest Service officers in Kakamega town say half of the 238 square km equatorial rainforest was lost to illegal tree felling. The wood was sold for charcoal, herbal medicine, fuel, timber and construction.
But since a local Community Forest Association (CFA) was set up, the pressure on the forest has eased, according to Alice Anyona, a forest officer in Kakamega.
Anyona said the CFA was formed by people living within 5 km of the forest, and is an umbrella group bringing together several community organisations.
"We have user groups like the fuel wood group, the grazing group, the herbal medicine group, the beekeeping group and others," she said.
The CFA selects volunteers to act as "community forest scouts". They work with the forest rangers to conserve the forest by monitoring any illegal tree felling and other abuses.
Wanyiri of the Forest Service said there are only 2,500 forest officers in the country, each looking after a huge 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of forest, which explains the need for community forest scouts.
Kenya currently has 70 CFAs, one for each forest, according to Anyona. The CFA in Kakamega, called Mwileshi, has ground rules that must be followed by all those who are allocated a plot in the forest or want to use its resources.
Farmer Ambani knows the rules very well. "We are not allowed to burn anything on the farm when we are preparing for planting. We are not supposed to use oxen to plough the land, and when the trees are still young, no grazing is allowed," he said. Farmers have to replace any tree that dies on their plot.
The community is allowed to cultivate its plot for a maximum of three years, and anyone who fails to follow the rules risks losing their plot to somebody else.
The CFA also collects revenue to help manage the conservation scheme. "Those who want to get fuel wood for sale or home-use pay 100 shillings per month and are supposed to collect only dead wood, while those who graze pay 50 shillings per cow per month and should not graze in young forests," said Anyona.
INDIGENOUS AND EXOTIC TREES
Nature Kenya, an East African NGO, came in three years ago to help rehabilitate the Kakamega ecosystem, which includes other forests around Kakamega.
It has concentrated on planting indigenous tree species for conservation, while the Kenya Forest Service has concentrated on exotic tree species for commercial purposes, through a programme called the Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement System (PELIS).
Leonard Muhanga Likhotio from Nature Kenya said the group has restored over 374 hectares of degraded forest through Community Forest Associations.
"We help the communities to prepare seedlings, and we buy the seedlings from them to plant in the degraded areas," said Likhotio. Nature Kenya pays 10 shillings per seedling, which helps empower the community economically, he said.
The Kenya Forest Service grows plantations of exotic trees.
"We have different species for different purposes, like eucalyptus for electricity poles, fuel wood and timber," said Anyona. Trees for electricity poles grow for up to five years before being harvested, while trees for timber need about 30 years to mature. Once a plantation is harvested, new trees are planted and farmers are given the area to plant crops.
Through a "Green Zones Development" project, run by a local NGO, residents are also given free seedlings to plant on their farms. Nature Kenya, meanwhile, has brought in energy-saving stoves and trained farmers to harvest herbs from the forests without harming the trees.
Making the community aware of the forest's needs and potential uses has helped reduce the human pressure on the forest.
"We tell them that this forest is yours and you have to take care of it. We also ask them to plant trees on their farms, because these are the same trees they get from the forests, and they have appreciated this," Anyona said.
Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.