Herbalists worry for patients as harvesting ban takes effect

Grace Kosgei

Mrs Grace Kosgei, 70, displays some of the prepared herbs for her clients in Nandi county.  
 

Photo credit: Tom Matoke | Nation Media Group

For decades, Grace Kosgei has collected herbal medicines from public forests to treat her patients suffering from various illnesses.

The 70-year-old herbalist from Kapkanani in Nandi County has for the past 40 years never had trouble finding plants to harvest for traditional medicine.

But the practice has taken a hit after the government introduced stringent measures on harvesting medicinal plants in public forests as part of conservation programmes to increase Kenya’s forest cover to the internationally recommended 10 percent.

The measures are locking out herbalists like Ms Kosgei from freely accessing public forests, making it difficult for them to find raw materials to produce traditional medicines.

“The tough conditions imposed by the Kenya Forest Service are making it difficult to harvest traditional medicines from public forests. We will not be able to treat our patients and the measures will knock us out of business,” she said.

She, however, admits that some of the tree species used for making traditional medicine in Nandi County face extinction due to ‘wanton’ harvesting and they must travel to Narok and Elgeyo Marakwet counties to find them.

“Under the new regulations, forests are restricted areas that we cannot enter to harvest medicinal plants,” Ms Kosgei said.

She is among herbalists in the Rift Valley region who want the government to allow them to harvest trees in public forests for medicinal purposes as they participate in afforestation programmes as part of conservation efforts.

“Our forefathers harvested medicinal trees in public forests without causing any destruction. Our objective is to offer alternative treatment to patients suffering from various ailments,” she said, adding that many Kenyans still value traditional medicine.

The skill of making traditional medicine, she said, is passed down from one generation to the next and herbalists do not heal people for profit.

But public forests are being decimated for agriculture and settlement, posing a threat to medicinal plants.

The government has, however, embarked on aggressive afforestation programmes aimed at restoring forest cover so that Kenya can better cope with climate change.

Nandi Forest

This section of forest remains bare after locals encroached and cleared the indigenous trees in Kipsamoite forest in Nandi county. 

Photo credit: Tom Matoke | Nation Media Group

“Wanton harvesting of traditional trees and replacing them with the fast-maturing exotic ones like eucalyptus, cypress and wattle is a threat to medicinal species,” Ms Kosgei said.

Look for medicinal trees elsewhere

Among the public forests in the Rift Valley are Kipkurere, Serongonik, Ng'atibkong, Kipsamoite and the King'wal swamp.

But most of these forests are threatened by charcoal makers and illegal logging.

The destruction means many herbalists in the region must look for medicinal trees elsewhere, including Elgeyo Marakwet, Kericho and Kakamega counties.

Dryopteris marginalis, known locally as tilalwet, is used to treat the common cold but is scarcely found in the remaining natural forest.

Lepidagathis scariosa Nees (nyamdutiet), which herbalist William Lelei said used to be found in some parts of Nandi faces extinction. Locals used it as an infusion (internal) to treat diarrhea, wounds, oedema, pneumonia and foot and mouth disease in livestock.

Another plant, Barleria grandicalyx Lindau (cheperenet), is used as an anti-venom for snake bites.

"My clients always seek medication for common diseases like ulcers, backaches, dental ache, skin diseases and infertility,” said Mzee Lelei, 82.

Other medicinal plants found in the region are Acanthus pubescens, Aloe kedongensis (tangaratwet), Amaranthus graecizans (mbogiat), Rhus natalensis Kraus (siriat) and Carissa edulis, among others.

"The costly search for the herbal plants has forced us to set down payment (chebrewa) at Sh1,000 and above. This helps us meet our travel costs," said Mzee Zakayo Maiyo, another herbalist.

The Nandi County Assembly in 2020 passed a bill banning the growing of exotic trees like blue gum in water catchment areas and instead encouraged locals to grow indigenous trees to restore and protect water sources.

Nandi Environment Director James Meli said the county wants to rehabilitate a total of over 26,000 acres of public forests in the ongoing afforestation campaign.

“More than 10,000 indigenous trees are to be planted in public forests in the area,” Dr Meli said.

Environment ombudsman chair John Chumo pointed out the need to protect natural forests.

“For many years, the government has imposed environmental policies and KFS has guarded forests from being destroyed. That would have more environmental significance than the human need for health (uses),” Dr Chumo said.

Nandi ecosystem conservator Kenneth Muskiton confirmed that to protect public forests from destruction, locals are not allowed to enter the areas.

North Rift Economic Bloc CEO Dominic Biwott called for policies to be created to regulate the extraction of medicinal plants in public forests.

“There is a need to train and accredit herbalists on health matters and appropriate herbs used for human consumption,” he said.

He urged KFS to provide guidelines on how to extract the medicinal substances from different tree species.

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