From talk to transformation: Locally led restoration the solution for securing our lands and future

A section of Kieni Forest in Kiambu County, Kenya. KENVO collaborates with local Kenya Forest Service authorities, farmers, and community members.

Photo credit: WRI

What you need to know:

  • Africa is the most severely affected continent by land degradation and desertification. However, this also means it holds the greatest potential for restoration.
  • To address this, the African Forest African Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) to bring 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes across Africa into restoration by 2030, was launched at COP21 in 2015.
  • The success stories emerging from these efforts are inspiring.

The battle against land degradation and desertification is intensifying across Africa's vast and varied landscapes. These environmental challenges threaten the continent's biodiversity, food security, and the livelihoods of millions who depend on the land.

Agriculture and deforestation, driven by unsustainable land use practices, are the primary culprits behind Africa's land degradation.

Overgrazing by livestock compacts the soil, reducing its ability to absorb water and support plant growth.

Slash-and-burn agriculture, where forests are cleared and burned to create farmland, provides a temporary nutrient boost but ultimately depletes soil fertility.

Mono-cropping, the practice of growing the same crop repeatedly on the same land, exhausts specific soil nutrients and increases vulnerability to pests.

Deforestation for timber, charcoal and firewood or to clear land for agriculture disrupts the water cycle, reduces biodiversity, and leaves soil exposed to erosion.

Poor irrigation practices and excess use of fertilizers degrade soil quality.

Inadequate soil management techniques, including the lack of crop rotation, insufficient use of cover crops, and poor soil conservation practices, result in nutrient depletion and increased erosion.

Cultivating along slopes without proper terracing or contour farming further exacerbates erosion. Rainwater flows more rapidly down the slopes, carrying away topsoil and leaving the land barren and unproductive. This practice leads to severe soil erosion, reducing the land's ability to retain water and nutrients, making it even more difficult to grow crops.

This degradation has severely impacted soil health and productivity.

According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on land degradation and economics, nearly 50 percent of Africa’s land area is affected by desertification, with about 55 percent at a high risk of further degradation. Africa is the most severely affected continent by land degradation and desertification. However, this also means it holds the greatest potential for restoration.

To address this, the African Forest African Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), a pan-African, country-led effort to bring 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes across Africa into restoration by 2030, was launched at COP21 in 2015, aligned with the Bonn Challenge. This initiative emerged from the African Union’s Agenda 2063. It was formed through a partnership involving African nations, the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Resources Institute.

Amidst pressing issues that African countries face, a promising movement is emerging through locally led land restoration initiatives.

Local communities are restoring ecosystems and sustaining livelihoods.  This movement is more than a response to an environmental crisis. It represents a beacon of hope and resilience. Communities across Africa are not just planting trees but “growing” them and restoring soils. They are rebuilding their future. These locally led initiatives are empowering communities, creating sustainable livelihoods, and fostering a new generation of environmental stewards.

The success stories emerging from these efforts are inspiring.

In regions once plagued by barren landscapes, vibrant ecosystems are re-emerging. Farmers are adopting sustainable practices that enhance productivity and protect the environment. Local leaders are spearheading initiatives that combine traditional knowledge with innovative techniques, proving that the fight against land degradation can be won from the ground up.

The commitment to restoring Africa's land is a testament to the power of collective action and community leadership. As these initiatives grow, they not only contribute to global environmental goals but also strengthen the resilience and prosperity of communities across the continent.

We celebrated World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on June 17. It is on such days that we should spotlight local communities that have become “green warriors” and show the world that with determination and unity, even the most daunting environmental challenges can be overcome.

One such is Kijabe Environment Volunteers (KENVO). For 30 years, this community-led organisation has demonstrated the transformative power of locally led restoration in Kenya. Once facing severe degradation, the 37,000-hectare Kikuyu Escarpment, northwest of Nairobi, has been revitalised through its tireless efforts with Kenya Forest Service and other stakeholders.

In the 1990s, rampant deforestation and biodiversity loss plagued the region that is home to critical species like the Abbott’s starling and African forest elephant. Recognising the dire situation, local youth formed KENVO to combat these destructive practices.

Their approach has been holistic and community-centric, driven by their vision to restore the forest, protect wildlife, and uplift the community. Through extensive education and outreach, they empowered locals to embrace sustainable practices, fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility.

Through their efforts, over 800 hectares of degraded forest have been restored, and the community’s active participation has been crucial to this success. The impact of their work extends beyond environmental restoration. They have empowered over 15,000 people through forums, exchange visits, and training modules. By integrating agroforestry and sustainable agriculture, they have contributed to improving food security and diversifying incomes among communities, reducing reliance on destructive practices.

Strategic alliances and partnerships have been a factor of their success. They have established a cooperative within the Kikuyu Escarpment and a resource centre that serves as a training hub. The impact on the livelihood of the communities has been evident, with many benefitting from their restoration initiatives.

More than eight community tree nursery alliances have benefited from these projects, earning the communities millions of shillings. The current projects have reached over 3,000 beneficiaries, with Ksh16 million finding its way to these communities from 2022 to 2024.  

The transformation of Kijabe Forest through such a community entity is worth emulating. It is a testament to the power of locally led restoration. The rejuvenated forest now supports diverse indigenous species and provides essential ecosystem services. The economic benefits are equally profound, with improved agricultural yields and new income opportunities through beekeeping and vibrant eco-tourism.

Under the TerraFund for AFR100, they have committed to restore 375 Hectares, with 230 hectares being indigenous trees which will be grown in Kinale, Kieni, and Ragia forests, and the remaining 145 hectares being used for agroforestry using fruit, fodder, and other farm-friendly tree species on individual smallholder farmers. Already, 30,000 grafted Hass avocado seedlings have been distributed to farmers within Lari and parts of Limuru constituencies, with each getting a minimum of 10-15 seedlings.

Grace Wacu (right), Project Officer at KENVO, speaking with Teresa Muthoni of TerraFund, at the KENVO tree nursery site in Kieni Forest.

Photo credit: WRI

KENVO’s journey underscores the importance of community-led initiatives in achieving sustainable environmental change. Their story is one of hope and inspiration, demonstrating that with dedication, collaboration, and a shared vision, it is possible to reverse environmental degradation and build a resilient future.

Land degradation in Kenya, especially in its arid and semi-arid regions, presents significant challenges, covering about 61.4 percent of the country. However, amidst these issues, there is a growing wave of hope and resilience. The UN Convention on Desertification and Drought reports that over 30 percent of the land is classified as severely degraded and has an economic impact of more than $1 billion annually.

Despite these daunting statistics, Kenya is not backing down. Kenya has continued to actively embrace both national and international commitments to restore its precious landscapes. At the heart of this endeavour is Vision 2030, which envisions a nation where natural resources are sustainably managed for future generations. Complementing this is the National Climate Change Action Plan, integrating land restoration as a pivotal strategy to mitigate climate change impacts and enhance resilience.

Kenya’s dedication extends beyond its borders. The country is a passionate participant in the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global movement to revive ecosystems worldwide.

Through the AFR100 initiative, Kenya pledged to restore 5.1 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, contributing significantly to Africa’s ambitious goal of 100 million hectares. Moreover, Kenya’s commitment to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) underscores its recognition of land degradation as a critical global issue.

Local communities are leading the charge, demonstrating the power of grassroots action. These communities, equipped with traditional knowledge and a deep connection to their environment, are reclaiming degraded lands with some restored lands now supporting vibrant ecosystems. These efforts are not only protecting the environment, but also enhancing food security and livelihoods.

Farmers planting trees at Compartment 8G, one of KENVO's allocated restoration sites in Kieni Forest, under the TerraFund project.

Photo credit: WRI

World Resources Institute (WRI) under AFR100 Initiative, through the Restore Local project, is supporting organisations such as KENVO and hundreds of other committed restoration champions in Kenya and beyond to accelerate locally led restoration in three Africa Landscapes: The Greater Rift Valley in Kenya, the transboundary landscape of Lake Kivu and Rusizi River Basin covering Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana Cocoa Belt. A remarkable transformation is underway, fuelled by the passion and dedication of local communities.

WRI is working together with these communities across 14 counties in Kenya, most of which are arid and semi-arid lands. These counties are home to crucial biodiversity hotspots, water towers, and wetlands of international importance and are witnessing the rejuvenation of their ecosystems and a resurgence of hope. This ambitious endeavour is not just about restoring the land; it’s about empowering people.

WRI’s four-pronged approach is the foundation of this transformation. First, by building capacity through training and mentoring local restoration enterprises, giving them the skills and knowledge needed to succeed through its Land Accelerator Programme. This empowerment translates to increased opportunities for funding, with private and public investors taking notice.

Secondly, WRI is deploying finance tailored to the specific needs of local projects, offering grants and low-interest loans to community-based institutions and restoration enterprises through TerraFund. This financial support ensures that these initiatives are upscaled, thrive and make a lasting impact.

Creating an enabling environment is the third pillar of WRI’s strategy. Through the Landscape Policy Accelerator Programme, WRI works closely with county and national governments to develop policies that support restoration efforts and incentivise investments in these critical areas. This collaboration ensures that the local context is considered, making the policies more effective and sustainable.

The final piece of the puzzle is establishing robust monitoring systems. WRI is building the capacity of communities to implement comprehensive monitoring and evaluation frameworks. Using cutting-edge remote sensing technologies and community-led approaches, WRI is able to precisely track the progress and impact of restoration activities.

An integral part of this journey is the commitment to gender and social equity. WRI achieves this by ensuring women, youth, indigenous communities, and marginalised groups have a voice in decision-making, fostering social cohesion, addressing inequalities, and promoting community stability. This inclusive approach not only reduces conflicts over land and natural resources, but also integrates local knowledge, building resilient communities and promoting inclusive development.

Effective land restoration is a collective endeavour, requiring a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach. By uniting in our efforts, Kenya can overcome the natural disasters that have plagued our land, such as recent floods and perennial droughts.

The dedicated work of our local restoration champions exemplifies unity and true land stewardship. Restoring degraded lands ensures the responsible management of our natural resources, guaranteeing their availability and productivity for future generations. It promises a future where landscapes flourish, communities thrive, and a resilient natural heritage is secured.

By fostering a thriving local restoration economy, we contribute to green growth through the replication of locally led restoration initiatives, providing green jobs to millions who are unemployed.

In essence, communities are not merely talking about restoration; they are actively leading by example. Their proactive approach, grounded in local realities and global sustainability principles, has set a precedence for effective, community-driven environmental stewardship. By bridging dialogue with action, these communities continue to inspire others to join in the crucial endeavour of restoring and preserving our natural habitats for future generations.

The inspiring journey of these local heroes shows us that when we unite in purpose and action, we can overcome any challenge and build a brighter, more resilient future for all.

These efforts will combat desertification, revitalise our landscapes, reduce biodiversity loss, sustain livelihoods, and enhance ecosystem services, profoundly impacting People, Nature and Climate.

Each restored hectare gives hope of a sustainable and prosperous future for all. Let us commit to restoring our land, our stewardship today promises a sustainable future for generations to come.

_______________

Caroline Njiru is the Greater Rift Valley Landscape Manager at World Resources Institute, Africa.