Former charcoal burners now protect the lower and upper forest of Imenti

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Its mission, inspired by the biblical lesson of Saul’s conversion to Paul, is to transform those who exploit trees for firewood, charcoal and timber into protectors of the forests.

For the past three years, Mrs. Jacinta Karoki has traveled across Meru County in search of encroachments carrying out illicit activities in Lower and Upper Imenti Public Forest to persuade them to change their ways.

Ms. Karoki is a reformed woman. In her own words, the 48-year-old lady was a famous coal miner in Kithoka village in northern Imenti sub-county before seeing the light and embracing wildlife and environmental conservation, a path she admits was not easy to travel. .

For her, “logging was normal” and she did not appreciate the importance of environmental conservation. But now she is completely transformed, preaching the importance of taking care of the ecosystem of the lower and upper forest of Imenti.

Since embarking on her new passion, she has never looked back and today partners with locals to promote proper agroforestry practices and reforestation by growing native tree seedlings and engaging in environmental conservation awareness in the region.

“As we tend to the native tree seedlings, we now also grow beans, potatoes, onions, coriander and tomatoes among other low crops in the lower and upper forest of Imenti,” explains Karoki, adding locals involved in the business under Rwambeka’s aegis. The Forest Protection and Conservation Lobby has received support from Kenya Forestry Services (KFS), Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) and the International Tree Foundation (ITF).

The Lower and Upper Imenti Forest is designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is a habitat that is also teeming with elephants, primates and a wide variety of bird species.

As part of this partnership, KFS, KEFRI and ITF worked with members of the Rwambeka Forest Protection and Conservation Lobby to identify native tree seeds that respond well to weather and are pest resistant. and diseases.

The company aims to identify and map rare and endangered Kenyan native tree species while raising awareness in local communities and establishing a seed bank with a particular focus on rare species, helping to increase the biodiversity of reforestation programs in Meru county.

An active and innovative farmer herself, Ms. Karoki paid some of the seeds as “deposits” to the new bank, after producing them on her farm.

The bank currently houses a variety of seeds of tree species such as acacia abyssinica, alfalfa, agarsu moringa, fever tree, African olive, red skunk, meru oak, kumdhe , syzygium guineense, olea europaea, ficus thonningii, brachylaena hutchinsii, allophylus abyssinicus, Vitex keniensis and Prunus africanus among others.

The lobby’s 500 registered members, Karoki adds, dream of adding more seed varieties from across the country and beyond.

Thus, the seed bank will not only be a place of exchange, but also a center of excellence where various stakeholders can visit and learn about seeds.

The seed bank training was facilitated by experts from KEFRI and ITF, where the concept of saving, sharing and seed banking was emphasized. The training aims to equip farmers with skills in seed saving, records management, preservation, breeding and seed banking, among other concepts.

“Each member collects seeds from the forest, which are then cleaned and dried before planting them in nurseries. The seedlings are planted in degraded parts that have been marked,” explains Karoki.

Ms. Karoki says mature seedlings are sold to individuals and organizations for replanting.

Initially, restoration initiatives in the lower and upper forest of Imenti relied on purchasing seeds elsewhere, a situation she points out posed a challenge of low growth rates, as some tree species from the outside were not doing well. Today, community members harvest the seeds directly from the forest.

“We collect these seeds as members and propagate them. Besides catering, it also generates income because we integrate it with beekeeping,” says Karoki.

According to Meru Ecosystem manager, Bernard Wahome, through members of the Rwambeka Forest Protection and Conservation Lobby company, they have been integrated into an ambitious project to recover parts degraded by the invasive and highly destructive Lantana plant. Camera.

The invasive plant has now covered large parts of the Lower and Upper Imenti Forest, a habitat that is home to diverse biodiversity.

Mr Wahome says other partners working with the Kenya Forestry Service to save parts colonized by the destructive plant include Mount Kenya Forest Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service and other partners.

Lantana Camara, according to conservationists, inhibits the growth of forests and food crops. This has directly affected communities, especially those who have benefited from the forest through an association involving community members.

Wahome reveals that the invasive plant occupies 5,000 ha of the 97,000 ha forest.

The ecosystem manager is optimistic that despite the fact that the plant has affected lower and upper Imenti forest, working with residents and environmental and wildlife conservation groups would help them curb its growth.

He says the Rwambeka Forest Protection and Conservation Lobby and other involved groups were helping to uproot the plant and replace it with native and other trees.

Invasive species took hold after the destruction of forest cover by encroachment and inappropriate human activities such as illegal logging for firewood, timber and charcoal.

Mr Wahome points out that the KFS, in partnership with the ITF, has reclaimed invasive species from 50 hectares of the originally targeted 150 hectares, which are now under the canopy of native trees.

“We want to make sure the forest cover in Meru increases, hence our partnership with local communities to eradicate the Lantana Camara and replace them with trees,” he says.

According to an ITF agronomist, Wycliffe Matika is growing more native trees in forests in addition to restoring soil fertility and also has various uses as fodder and a source of medicinal ingredients.

“These members of the Rwambeka group are also nurturing a generation of young environmental champions by encouraging young people to channel their energy into planting trees, giving them ‘clean’ sources of income and protecting their future from the effects of the climate change. climate change,” adds Matika.

He says the ITF, in partnership with KEFRI and KFS, is raising community awareness of climate change, providing training on reforestation initiatives and helping them find alternative sources of income that don’t destroy the forest.

“The women used to cut down a lot of trees in the forest to burn charcoal, as the erratic climatic conditions prevented them from relying solely on agriculture or livestock. But little did they know that it was the felling of trees that had contributed to the agricultural problems they faced. Our intervention opened their eyes to this reality,” says Mr. Matika.

As an alternative to charcoal production, women were trained in planting fruit trees and encouraged to adopt it.

The women have been equipped with tools and agronomic advice from the Kenya Forest Research Institute and the International Tree Foundation and are also growing mango, papaya, avocado and passion fruit at home which give them different varieties of fruit.

They incorporated them into vegetables, which improved the nutritional status of their children and families. They also sell them to get money for other basic needs.

“We are happy that the women here in North Imenti have taken it upon themselves to monitor the native forests and prevent deforestation and damage to the ecosystem. They know that their efforts will go a long way towards mitigating climate change and avoiding its devastating effects,” notes the agronomist.

ITF program manager Mercy Kimani says the initiative has a particular focus on women, as their responsibilities to households and communities as custodians of natural resources and households position them well to contribute to the livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental realities.

She adds, “Women know and understand what is needed to adapt to changing environmental conditions in order to determine practical solutions. Climate action allows women to be part of the solution. Therefore, promoting women’s education and their participation in decision-making are among the most effective ways to reduce environmental degradation.

According to Ms. Kimani, development organizations and the private sector must engage women in meaningful participation in the design and implementation of humanitarian, migration and climate change risk reduction plans.

“Involving women in environmental governance will allow them to contribute their unique and valuable insights and expertise on climate change mitigation. In addition, their caring nature and practical skills on issues related to natural resource management will come in handy.

Bernard Kigwa of the Kenya Forest Research Institute notes that currently the country has 7% forest cover, which is below the 10% forest cover recommended by the United Nations.

He says that wanton deforestation and forest degradation in Kenya is largely the result of human activities, although climate change is likely to affect the growth, composition and regenerative capacity of forests, leading to a reduction in biodiversity and the ability to provide important forest goods and services.

“Rising temperatures and long periods of drought will lead to more frequent and intense forest fires, rising temperatures will expand the ecosystem range of pests and pathogens with consequences for tree growth, survival, yield and quality of timber and non-timber products, and sea level rise could overwhelm mangrove forests in low-lying coastal areas,” says Kigwa.

He adds: “If the country is to achieve the UN recommended tree cover of 10%, we must not only plant more trees, but also protect existing forests to minimize negative impacts on resources and avoid further degradation and deforestation.

For Jacinta Karoki, the gospel of restoration continues to maintain the cycle of growth.

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