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Beyond Trees in Kenya

The International Tree Foundation (ITF) is one of the planting partners that TreeSisters works with, specifically helping to fund the reforestation of Kenya's "water towers" in Africa. Our Reforestation Director Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert had a chance to sit down with Paul Laird, the Programmes Manager for ITF when she was in Kenya visiting the progress of the plantings.


Lauriane asked Paul to share why he is so passionate about trees and how he came to be in this line of work. It began in childhood; when Paul was a boy, he grew up in London, England, spending much time in nature roaming the English countryside. As a young adult, Paul attended university to study History and modern languages but found himself feeling out of place. He then spent some time travelling around Europe, working in orchards and farms as he went. When he returned to England he worked as a labourer in the forest industry, learning how to plant and cut trees. From this experience, he decided to study Forestry, receiving his diploma from the Scottish School of Forestry (and eventually an MSc in Environmental Management), and then seeking a career. But once again, he felt out of place as the forest industry was too industrialized. So he decided to join the British Voluntary Service Overseas program. And from there, he eventually found himself in Kenya.


"In 1984, I turned up in the Meru county of Kenya as a forester within the rural afforestation extension scheme of the government Forest Service, and that's when I started learning about trees and about people because it was not really about the big forests. It was about reaching out to the communities around Meru - Meru County is on the slopes of Mount Kenya. It is a very intensively agricultural landscape full of very hard-working people who love trees. I met my wife, Grace, who's also in the same line of work. And we worked together for three years with many other colleagues working with women's groups, churches, schools, chiefs, and all sorts of people in the community to plant trees and conserve the remaining forests outside the main Mount Kenya forest - and for me, that was it. I was a happy, happy man. I felt this is what I like doing."


ITF's 20 Million Trees Campaign

Paul joined ITF about three years ago. One of the things he was assigned to was to be part of ITF's centenary campaign to celebrate 100 years since being founded in 1924 in Kenya, with a goal of 20 million trees to be planted in Kenya by 2024, the 100th year.


When Paul joined in, in late 2015 and early 2016, he and his co-workers realized that planting 20 Million trees in the Mt. Kenya Forest itself was a goal that wasn't feasible. They began discussing the campaign goals with other organizations and partners. The more they spoke, the more they realized how important Kenya's five water tower forests were. This led to a decision to make it a National campaign.


Kenya is at outright risk of scarcity of not having enough water to support its citizens' needs; its water towers are not the man-made type you see in other parts of the world but rather mountains and forests that function as water towers for the surrounding areas. These five water tower mountains cover a vast area of land from Mount Kenya to the Cherangani Hills of the Northern Rift Valley, along with three other mountain locations. The Kakamega Forest, which is not a water tower but rather the only rainforest in the western part of the country, was also included in this campaign, so 20 million trees planted was now a much more tangible goal to reach.


Paul shares that... "the other big realization of 2015- 2016 is that restoring Kenya for us is not just for the government, NGOs, and the communities around these forests. Part of that balance is enabling and encouraging the communities around the forest to plant more trees on their own farmland. To a large extent to provide the benefits and the services that formerly they would have expected to get from the forest and which, with the increasing population, can no longer be extracted at a sustainable level from the forest and can often be more efficiently grown on farms close to where it's used. And that led us to think much more seriously about including agroforestry trees as part of the overall count. So we now say 20 million trees in and around Kenya's forests. That's a phrase that we could use, and it makes sense and is achievable, even if very ambitious."


Paul goes on to explain that this campaign is part of an even larger goal. "We're very thrilled that Kenya at a national level, under the Ministry of Environment, has adopted this campaign as Kenya's contribution to the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy, which is a multinational campaign right across the Commonwealth to promote forests and reforestation and forest restoration and the 20 million trees are Kenya's contribution. By doing that, the Ministry of Environment puts its strength with us, which is also great."


TreeSisters and our three planting sites

TreeSisters is helping fund three planting sites within this larger campaign. Each one is unique, with its own landscapes and beauty and the different communities that call these areas home. Each of these sites is situated around Mount Kenya. Mount Kenya is the tallest mountain in Kenya, measuring over 5,000 meters with a huge wide curved platform rising over the lowlands up to 2,000 and 3,000 meters. All three projects that TreeSisters is funding are on the mountainsides. One is in Embu County. The other two lie in Meru County on the northeast and north, almost northwest sides.

The first project in Embu County is where the project began with a local group known as the Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation team. Just below the forest, you will find very intensely and well-maintained cultivated land used for growing tea and further down for coffee. It is highly populated with many smaller farms. Each farm has some livestock and a multitude of crops being grown for local use as well as sale. Because this area is part of an agroforestry landscape it includes many trees close to the farms as the trees are grown for their use.


About five years ago, a group known as Rhino Ark came to the area and set up a very large perimeter fence around the forest with the local community's cooperation. This fence limits the accessibility of the residents, but it also keeps the wildlife, elephants in particular, from coming out and trampling the community's crops. It's also helped save human and elephant lives, as previously, the elephants had caused deaths.


Once beyond the fence, you find a very dense forest area with many plant and animal life species. A wide spectrum of biodiversity. But what is also seen is damage. "Part of that history is that during the colonial period, chunks of forest were taken out of the forest and handed over for cultivation. These chunks were taken out and converted into commercial, industrial plantations of Pine, Cypress, and Eucalyptus."


The area contained rare, valuable species of trees, which were harvested sometimes by the government but sometimes by corruption and individuals seeking profit.

Paul states, "So some of the most valuable trees of the forest, like the famous Camphor tree. While I may have seen... Yes, I saw one or two in the 1980s, but I've never seen one since. The Vitex, the famous Meru Oak, has mostly gone. The Iroko, or the Milicia excelsa you will rarely see these days, so much damage has been done. But the biggest damage was the conversion to the industrial plantations."


The mismanagement of these plantations led to the loss of the montane humid forests not only in Embu County but also the montane dry forest in the northern part of Mount Kenya so that thousands of hectares were damaged to the point of growing over with grasslands or the mixture of invasive shrubs with a few remnant trees. It is these areas that we are working to restore.


The second project in Meru County is situated in another densely populated area. It is known as the Imenti Forest. It is a long corridor of forest that serves as a corridor for elephants to travel from the Savannah dry lands of the northeast of Kenya up into the forests of Kenya. This area has a history of conflict between the elephants that travel it and the people who live in and around it, as the elephants travel outside the forest into the farms to explore and cause much damage along the way. This same area has also been overused by people using it for charcoal, timber, Cannabis, and livestock grazing. Damage accumulates on top of the damage to the point as Paul says, "I thought the Imenti Forest was lost and finished."

Thankfully Rhino Ark became involved here once more with community approval. They came to understand that the individualized use of the land was at a cost to their communities and not benefiting them. Realising that they needed to live in balance, ITF, Mount Kenya Trust, and the local community forest association began to support efforts to involve the locals who help remove the invasive bushes that have overgrown the area. The communities now plant crops and trees maintained for about three years, at which point the forests are allowed to recover. ITF has seen very positive and encouraging results from this effort.


The last planting site is in the Northern area of Meru County. The story of this land is that it was cleared and used for farming and housing development but with a history of mismanagement. Many long and sometimes challenging negotiations took place. People had come to consider that land their home, and getting them to agree to settle elsewhere to regrow the forest was difficult.


This area had been settled by Caucasian farmers from the colonial period. These huge farms stretched out over a wide area and now also often produce food exported to supermarkets in Europe. This area is different because it is a much drier region. The rain from the coast is captured by the humid forest in Embu, leaving this land just out of reach. The main tree species are Juniperus Procera, a slow-growing but very valuable tree, and the African Olive. The land had been cleared almost up to the moorland above, and the project is to restore that dry forest.


Progress on the goal

Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation, one of the partners on this project, has had a period of organizational growth coupled with the challenges that have occurred with both the Community Forestation Association and the Kenya Forest Service. Their greatest strength is working with twenty or more self-help groups (some only women groups), giving them a real community basis and a wide diversity of over 500 people.

Additionally, they have improved and strengthened the quality of the tree nurseries. Through experience, they have learned which indigenous tree species grow best and increased the variety of the species planted. One of the ways this has been done is by the use of "Wildlings". Germinating plants of the native species grow in clusters inside the forest. These clusters number from 20 to 50 seedlings all in one place so there is no way all of them can grow and survive there. Some of these seedlings are carefully gathered, then taken back to the nursery and given the conditions necessary to continue growing.


This method is helping to increase the success and variety of trees that can be replanted. It is this work that Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation is doing in that area that is funded by TreeSisters. In 2017 Mount Kenya Trust joined the campaign, enabling forest restoration to start at the sites in Meru County.


What stands out most for you?

In closing, Lauriane asked Paul to share what had surprised him over the last year. Paul replied that the progress was made at Imenti because that forest was close to where he once lived, and he honestly thought it would be destroyed completely. Having lived in Kenya, Paul can see the changes that have happened to the country. In particular, the forest management style went from keeping people out of the forest to where local communities are vital in maintaining and restoring their health. And the depth of passion of the people in their communities to organize these efforts is fantastic.

One observation Paul shared is that women are the driving force there. "If you're looking for people who achieve a balance between obviously looking after their own needs and their family, which is crucial, but balance that with a spirit of partnership sort of sisterhood with their neighbours and the community around... that is very, very visible down in Embu County; when you go to the women group tree nurseries you feel it. Another thing that has surprised me and delighted me is to see the way those women groups are driven by the women, and now the men come on board because they appreciate the drive of the women. They know that if it's just men, it's more difficult. More competitive, etc.


So, one of the things that delighted me is to see how those women groups are taking on board all sorts of other forms of empowerment around how they manage their finance, how they manage how they have savings and credit schemes amongst themselves, what they call table banking, that they're running their banks aggregating their income and empowering themselves. It's pretty remarkable stuff."


When asked to share his hopes, Paul replied, "Planting 20 million is great. And I hope we will get there. I love the quality as well as the quantity. And I love the fact that we're working with communities. It is not just a drive to plant as many trees as possible. It is about the quality of people's relationship with the forest and the growing empowerment of people around their forests. And as I've had opportunities over the last year to travel around Kenya, looking at other sites, I see the sparks of the same empowerment and enthusiasm and women involvement - not everywhere, but that is my big hope that that will spread like wildfire across Kenya.


So that's my hope that our 20 million trees campaign can be part of a life change for this country. A real swing around this country. A convergence around restoring the water towers and restoring the forests for biodiversity for what we nowadays call ecosystem services. But water is the key thing and restoring people's relationship with nature as something that they value, treasure and love having next to and interlaced with their very busy economic lives as well as their struggle to look after their families."


Finally, Paul shared that he and his wife, Grace, plan on retiring in Meru. They love walking and exploring, and they hope to start a walking club to lead people into nature and teach them about the forest. He added something you could not do 20 or even ten years ago.


This is just one more sign that things are moving back toward restoration and connection with Nature in Kenya.

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