Some families in the Kaptunga forest, part of the larger Eastern Mau forest, have asked the government to roll out the ‘shamba system’ but with new rules to increase food production and conserve the forest.
Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua had proposed that the system of planting crops alongside trees that was abolished in 2012 be reintroduced. Though this has sparked mixed reactions, the residents said it could be beneficial if carried out sustainably.
Some families have been living in the forest and temporary houses have mushroomed there.
Mr Duncan Mutembei, from Meru, is among locals making ends meet farming in the forest. He said he has been there the past three years.
He and a group of 50 registered members were allocated land. He said they farm and take care of trees.
He said each member pays an annual registration of Sh500 to show that they are legally in the forest. He said they farm in one section of the forest for at least two years, depending on how quickly the trees mature, before moving to another one.
“We are here temporarily. For me, I was given two acres of land to plough as we take care of the trees planted by the government and when they are ready, we just move to the next one,” he said.
“The produce we get here benefits a lot of people. Many parts of the country are experiencing drought. They have to travel all the way here to get food.”
Mr Erastus Murithii, a farmer who hails from Nyeri, said he has been farming in the Kaptunga forest for the past four years. His friend had told him that people were being allocated land in the forest.
He wants the shamba system reintroduced, saying this will increase food productions.
He said he was given three acres, where he plants potatoes, cabbages and peas for sale.
Before moving into the forest, he said, farmers were given conditions, including not to build houses. They had to take care of trees and water catchment areas and relate well with the community around the forest.
But the farmers disputed claims that they live in makeshift houses in the forest, saying they use the structures to store fertilisers and produce when it rains.
"We don’t live in the forest; we are only here to farm. Before coming we were told to live with other farmers, herders and the community whom we found here in peace and that's what we have been practising for the years we have been here,” Mr Murithii said
But the local community in Marioshoni said the shamba system will devastate the forest when trees are cut down by farmers.
On his side, Mr John Mureno, a resident of Marioshoni, said the shamba system is supposed to benefit communities living adjacent to the forest but a majority of residents came from Nyeri, Meru, Nyandarua and Kisii.
He said the system hurts members of the Ogiek community, as some farmers cut down indigenous trees that are precious to the community.
He said the community depends on the forest for their livelihoods as many harvest honey for sale and get materials for traditional medicines from the forest.
"These farmers were given the opportunity to live here but we don't know which criteria the used to select them. We fear that they will destroy the forest. Many of us grew up herding livestock, what we want is that they take care of trees," Mr Mureno said.
Mr Philemon Koros, a herder in the Kaptunga forest for the past 20 years, said allowing farming in forests endangers indigenous species as many farmers cut them to fence their lands.
He said the farmers were allowed into the forest in 2012 and have brought more harm than good and that they farm even near water catchment areas.
Mr Koros also claimed that the farmers use herbicides, which he said endanger pastoralists’ livestock, resulting in miscarriages.
"If they fully restore the system, we urge the government to put in place strict measures to protect our forests,” he said.
“We are now being forced to walk deep into the forest for our livestock to get water because the farmers have interfered with the water catchment areas."