With three dogs in tow, 21-year-old David Langat drives a herd of cattle and sheep into Chepalungu forest on a sunny Tuesday morning.
Once in the forest, which for decades has seen wanton destruction by villagers, the cattle graze in an open field as Mr Langat and his dogs bask in the sun, sprawled on the ground beside each other in the shifting shade of an acacia tree.
A few minutes later, five other villagers join in with their animals.
The open field is lush with vegetation, interspersed with a few trees.
Late in the afternoon, women and children make a beeline for the forest to harvest firewood, further destroying the few mature trees remaining in the natural resource that has been rendered almost bare as a result of unchecked human activities in over three decades.
Mr Langat is a farmhand for a prominent businessman in Siongiroi village, Bomet County, and has been grazing the animals here for the past three years.
Like his fellow villagers, he drives the animals into the forest in the morning and back home late in the afternoon, when they have had their fill in this once dense forest but where trees have for decades been felled without restoration.
Besides illegal logging and harvesting of wood, charcoal burning and trade has further fuelled the destruction of this resource that forms a crucial of the region’s ecosystem.
The forest measuring 4,871 hectares is divided into two blocks – the 871-hectare Siongiroi block and the Kapchumbe block, which covers 4,000 hectares.
It is part of the Mau ecosystem, though removed from the main Mau forest as it is located in the semi-arid zone of Chepalungu, Bomet County.
To reverse this worrisome destruction, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), US Forests, Forest Working Group, East African Wildlife Society, the National Alliance Community Forest Association, Green Belt Movement, Kenya Railways, Tourism Trust Fund, Kenya Tourism Board and the Ministry of Energy have been brought on board to rehabilitate the forest.
Seedlings planted through initiatives of these organisations have, however, been uprooted even after the introduction of the shamba system of farming, where communities are allowed to plant crops while tending to the trees.
Ms Janeth Rotich, a resident who has been allocated half an acre under the shamba system cultivation, says unlike in the past, she is under firm instructions to ensure the trees planted in the section allocated to her are taken care of to maturity.
“The new concept we have been asked to adopt is not just about planting trees, but tending to them as well as they grow to maturity. KFS officers and those from the county administration frequently visit the forest to monitor what we are doing,” said Ms Rotich, a mother of three.
Mr Simon Rono, another beneficiary, says he has been able to feed his family by planting cabbages, beans and maize in the forest while taking care of the tree seedlings planted in the portion of land he has been tilling.
“This is a good initiative and we are looking forward to setting up beehives once the trees mature so we can continue benefitting commercially from the resource, unlike in the past when residents destroyed the forest through charcoal burning,” said Mr Rono.
Though it was previously a purely indigenous forest, exotic trees have been introduced by the KFS.
“During the 2008 post-election violence that rocked the country, the forest was descended on by the residents, who indiscriminately cut down trees and used them as fencing posts, firewood and timber in one of the worst bouts of plunder of the resource in years,” said Mr Paul Mutai, a resident of Siongiroi.
A forest station office and houses used by rangers were razed down by angry residents, forcing the officers to flee the area.
Officers now use temporary housing units for shelter pending the construction of an office at Siongiroi forest station and housing units for the rangers.
There have been calls for resource mobilisation towards erecting an electric fence around the two forest blocks to curb further encroachment and destruction of the forest.
“The only way to save the resource is to fence it off, allow investors in the hospitality industry to put up resorts that would generate revenue and create employment opportunities,” said Mr David Maritim, the Ndanai ward rep.
Sensitize locals on conservation
Mr Maritim, who chairs the county assembly’s Trade, Tourism and Cooperatives committee, said there is need to sensitise the local communities on environmental conservation and work with others to ensure natural resources are protected for the benefit of the current and future generations.
Dr Julius Kamau, the Chief Conservator, told nation.africa in an interview that local communities, state and non-state actors had been roped into forest resources conservation, management and sustainability.
He said community forest associations (CFAs) were working closely with KFS to bring together communities to work towards protecting forests, undertaking sustainable farming activities and engaging in tree planting on privately owned land.
Dr Kamau said KFS was planting tree species that conform to the various ecosystems around the country and that species matching had already been undertaken before the exercise kicks off.
Priority, he added, is being given to tree species that traditionally grow and are available in the areas targeted for rehabilitation.
“In areas where we have bare ground due to years of depletion, we are planting trees that would provide cover and allow for regeneration of species found in such areas for generations,” said Dr Kamau.
Bomet Governor Hillary Barchok said, “The county has attained 12 percent tree cover and we are seeking to push it to 15 percent in the next three years through the involvement of corporate institutions, schools, colleges and other learning institutions.”
The county boss said locals were being encouraged to plant high-value trees, including bamboo and avocado, on a commercial scale as both had ready local and export markets, besides assisting in the conservation of the environment.
Ms Juma Nyaoge, the Bomet Ecosystem Conservator, said 25,000 hectares were planted in the Chepalungu forest last year as part of KFS’s conservation efforts. A total of 250,000 tree seedlings, he added, have been planted in the past five years.
“The local community is being encouraged through public participation meetings to engage in commercial activities including beekeeping to benefit from the resource,” said Ms Nyaoge.
Part of the forest land was annexed in the 1990s to pave the way for the construction of Siongiroi Girls Secondary School, an administration office and the expansion of the local trading centre (Siongiroi).
Repeated attempts by powerful people and politically connected politicians, especially in the mid-1990s, to grab the land have been thwarted by the government.
A fence erected around the forest has been destroyed by the local community, dampening the spirit of those involved in conservation and tree seedlings destroyed by cattle.
Dr Mohamed Awer, the WWF Chief Executive Officer said there is need to protect forests, rivers and springs around the Mau forest complex as these form a source of livelihood for millions of wildlife, human and aquatic lives downstream.
“Communities around the forest should plant trees on a commercial scale to protect rivers and streams with a view to conserving the environment and mitigating the negative effects of global warming,” said Dr Awer.
Youths and women groups in the region have been asked to engage in setting up commercial tree nurseries to satisfy the ever-rising demand for trees following sustained campaigns for environmental conservation in the South Rift region.