Feature Story

Running low on bushmeat and timber in Kenya

February 16, 2017

Harvesting maize on the edge of Kakamega forest.  Photo Credit George Ayaga, KALRO
Harvesting maize on the edge of Kakamega forest. Photo Credit George Ayaga, KALRO

Josephat has a problem. He’s having difficulty paying school fees for his seven children. And his mother needs treatment for diabetes. That will mean more expenses.

Josephat – a subsistence farmer – his wife and children live on a two-acre farm. It is in a moist oasis surrounded by drylands. Because it is very fertile land, he is able to feed his family and generate a small profit from the surplus produce. His income is just enough to pay for the school fees of four of his seven children.

Josephat’s grandparents had a good life. They had an informal agreement with the local chief to farm about 20 acres around the family home. They too were subsistence farmers but  never needed to cultivate more than three or four acres – that was sufficient for their needs. Even if they had had the labour to cultivate all the land, there were no roads and no means of getting produce to market. Bushmeat, fruit and timber were plentiful. You didn’t really need to plan your farming activities to get food and other resources – these things were just available to be had at any time.  When they died, the land was subdivided between their male children, and that’s why today Josephat and his six brothers have tiny plots.

To ensure a better life for their families, they have been forced to think of other ways of generating income, and have been eyeing the nearby bush and forest for bushmeat, timber, firewood and charcoal.

One of Josephat’s brothers, who has been hunting bushmeat for a while, has developed great trapping skills. He used to catch porcupines, hares, rabbits, quails and even the odd gazelle. But these days, despite more traps, the amount of bushmeat he gets is dwindling to almost nothing due to over-hunting, with more and more people setting traps.

Over the past few months the six brothers have been working together to harvest timber and charcoal from the nearby forest for sale in nearby towns. Though tree felling is technically illegal, no one seems to know or care what they are doing. The timber and charcoal income is becoming an increasingly important for all the brothers and they are devising plans to better conceal what they are doing.

Thanks to these activities and the constant collection of ever increasing amounts of firewood, the surrounding bush and forest is thinning out. Wildlife has declined and even some vital medicinal plants are becoming very difficult to find.

According to sustainable land management specialists, the above scenario is far from being fictional. Regretfully, it’s becoming increasingly commonplace across the drylands of Africa and beyond. The developmental challenge is how to sustain the ever-increasing demand for land and forest resources by a rapidly growing population in sub-Saharan Africa.

A degraded hill in Kakamega forest

The Global Environment Facility, a leading catalyst for environmental change, is funding Scaling up sustainable land management and agro-biodiversity conservation to reduce environmental degradation in small-scale agriculture in western Kenya, a five-year US$ 3.58 million project, which began in January 2017 in western Kenya to try to tackle some of these issues.

The project will be implemented in Kakamega, Nandi and Vihiga counties, which have a total population of about 3 million in an area of 6,466 km2 (equating to 464 people per km2). Kakamega forest is the only moist forest ecosystem in a generally dry region. Like many other African countries, Kenya’s population has grown rapidly in the last 50 years.

UN Environment is supporting the project, which is being implemented by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), together with several partners including the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), and Rural Outreach Program, a local non-governmental organization.

The project is designed to help farmers increase production so that they don’t have to go to the forest and clear it, and allows them to fully benefit from the forest as well as improved land management,” says UN Environment sustainable land management expert Mohamed Sessay. “By doing that, the project helps address the issue of poverty eradication, as this will help increase food crops, improve food security. If we manage to do it in in Kenya, I am confident it can be done in any other country.

For the past few decades, population growth and increased agricultural activities have put pressure on land and natural resources. Pressure has particularly been exerted on arable land leading to spillover into marginal areas, pasture lands and forest lands resulting in acceleration of land degradation,” said the director-general of KALRO, Eliud Kireger, at the project launch in Kisumu in January 2017. “The rapid human population growth and the subsequent forest degradation, threatens biodiversity and may cause habitat fragmentation, which will result into species extinction,” he said, before sounding a note of optimism: “Experience and research has shown that agro-biodiversity can have a positive effect on crop productivity, food security and economic returns and can reduce pressure on agricultural areas and forests.

Farmland in the Kakamega forest

A local elder, Sylvester Lutiali Mambili, who chairs Muleishi Community Forest Association and who has received a “Head of State Commendation” due to his role in forest conservation, also addressed the launch meeting:

“I would like to tell you that I come from the community in Kakamega that co-manages the Kakamega Forest… All our minds must be put in Kakamega Forest and the neighbouring forests. I would like to remind all of us that we should think of the history behind the destruction of our forests. Understanding the behaviour around our forest will come a long way in addressing the issue. We also need to lay focus on the youth, especially through educating them. When they are educated, they are less likely to destroy the forests.

“My house is about 50 metres from Kakamega Forest. I was born there and I understand what has happened to make the forest be what it is right now. If you go to the community and ask the community on how they want Kakamega Forest managed, they will tell us.

“When we talk of Kakamega Forest, let us include Maragoli Hills. These days Maragoli Hills is known in the world as being the only forest that has no trees, not even a shrub, but stones. I pray that this be the last organization that will change Kakamega Forest and the neighbouring forests.”

For further information please contact Mohamed Sessay: Mohamed.Sessay@unep.org

This story was originally published by UN Environment