Poverty-fueled deforestation threatens Kenya’s largest watershed
- The Mau Forest is the largest native montane forest in East Africa and the largest watershed in Kenya.
- Olpusimoru Forest Reserve is one of the Mau Forest protected areas, but its forest cover has been greatly reduced by logging, firewood collection and other human pressures related to poverty.
- From 2018, thousands of families who had settled within the boundaries of the forest reserve were evicted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, part of a wider campaign that saw more than 30,000 people evicted from the Mau forest complex.
- Despite government intervention and civil society initiatives to alleviate poverty in the area, signs of recent logging, charcoal burning and overgrazing are evident in the Olpusimoru Forest Reserve.
OLENGURUONE, Kenya — The Mau Forest covers 2,700 square kilometers (1,042 square miles) in western Kenya, making it the largest native montane forest in East Africa. The forest is also Kenya’s largest watershed and feeds several lakes, including Lake Victoria.
But the Mau Forest is shrinking as its trees fall under human pressure. Even Mau’s protected areas are not safe. One of them is the Olpusimoru Forest Reserve, which has faced high rates of deforestation as people cut down trees to collect timber and firewood.
Over the past 20 years, this forest has been destroyed by illegal loggers and invaders who have extended their farmlands and pastures deep into the forest. As of 2010, about 30 square kilometers (11.6 square miles) of Olpusimoru Forest had already been impacted by logging, agriculture and illegal settlements, according to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). Satellite data from the University of Maryland viewed on Global Forest Watch indicate that the reserve has lost an additional 9% of its primary forest between 2011 and 2021, with preliminary data for 2022 showing deforestation continues to eat away remaining habitat.
From 2018, thousands of families who had settled within the boundaries of the forest reserve were evicted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, part of a wider campaign that saw over 30,000 people evicted from the wider forest reserve. Mau Forest Complex to which Olpusimoru belongs. But walking through the forest today, new signs of continued encroachment and damage to the forest are evident. Recent and widespread deforestation is also visible in satellite data and images on Global Forest Watch.
“Some people cut down trees to survive. Nobody cares how it affects the community. Trees like pencil cedar (Juniperus procera) are disappearing,” said Daniel Koros, who lives in the Olpusimoru Forest Reserve.
Koros, 71, is the father of nine children and has lived in the area for 44 years. He was among the first to settle in Olpusimoru before it was classified as a reserve in the 1950s.
Koros said he has witnessed how land use changes coupled with massive deforestation have affected the livelihoods of local communities. According to Koros, the encroachment of an expanding population has become a major driver of deforestation in the region as the forest is converted to human use.
“Over the years, people have increased in the area, clearing huge tracts of forest land for settlement, grazing and agriculture,” Koros said.
Safari Opiyo, a senior KFS official, said forest loss in the region was exacerbated by ambiguous boundary information, which allowed many locals to illegally extract forest resources.
“Forest loss has been caused by blurred boundaries, changing livelihoods of forest dwellers and illegal logging,” Opiyo said.
Over the past two years, KFS efforts have focused on reforesting parts of the reserve that had previously been cleared. Officials say the planted trees are growing rapidly in areas from which people were evicted in 2018.
But despite government intervention, signs of recent logging, charcoal burning and overgrazing are evident in Olpusimoru. Piles of raw logs and remnants of downed trees are what greet you deep in the forest. According to Koros, loggers target commercially valuable species such as the African olive tree (African olea), African pencil cedar (Juniperus procera), African cherry (Prunus from Africa) and podo (Podocarpus falcatus).
The destruction of Olpusimoru and other areas of the Mau Forest has affected thousands of people who depend on it mainly for water. Koros, who has been a farmer for much of his life, said rainfall was no longer predictable due to shrinking forest cover fueled by deforestation. Rivers that once flowed year-round have become seasonal and some are drying up completely, he added.
“This region used to be very fertile, it rained every season; but these days the rain only comes in certain months and only for a short time,” Koros said. “It’s so unpredictable, which affects farmers.”
His sentiments were echoed by KFS’s Opiyo, who said logging affects both forests and farmers.
“[The] The effect of logging is a reduction in tree cover and soil erosion in nearby farmland,” Opiyo said, explaining that the trees help stabilize the soil. He added that climate change and overgrazing are also contributing to erosion in the region.
For this reason, farmers like Koros said they are feeling the pinch of lower yields caused by declining soil productivity. Opiyo said that in response, KFS, as well as non-governmental organizations such as the Community Forest Association, a works to rehabilitate degraded areas.
To deter encroachment into the Olpusimoru Forest Reserve, KFS has set up a camp along the border of the reserve where rangers monitor the forest for illegal activities.
“We have rangers in charge of forest protection assisted by community members through [the] Community forestry association. They protect the forest from illegal activities,” Opiyo said.
He added that rangers are also working with locals to plant tree seedlings in degraded parts of the reserve. According to Opiyo, residents are allowed access to the forest, but activities are limited to cultural events, water fetching, ecotourism, research and education.
Opiyo said that despite efforts to protect Olpusimoru, loggers continued to encroach on the reserve, often under cover of night.
Community Forest Association leader and conservationist Wilfred Sanlam said he understands the impacts of deforestation well. He works with other area residents in a group nicknamed Bamboo Junction (so named because of the group’s initial work with bamboo). The group is now focusing on preparing seedling nurseries and planting native trees like African cedar which have become rare in the Olpusimoru Forest Reserve, as well as fruit trees for the local economy.
“Poverty in this area drives deforestation, but we try to educate the community about the dangers of cutting down trees,” Sanlam said. “This nursery is one of the projects that will help us repair the damage.”
Bamboo Junction has 30 members and has planted native trees as well as fruit trees to protect the forest reserve. The group is one of the few in the region working to protect the ecosystem. According to Sanlam, most locals don’t understand why trees are ecologically important. One of the group’s goals is therefore to increase environmental awareness by urging locals to join hands and participate in reforestation.
However, Sanlam warned that his team’s efforts were often hampered by the inter-communal conflicts plaguing the region.
Clashes between the Maasai and Kipsigis ethnic groups have been occurring regularly between different communities on the land borders since 2009. The situation has become so heated that people have been killed. The last row, according to locals interviewed by Mongabay, took place in March and destroyed both property and forest.
According to the mapping of conflicts by by Promara conducted in 2011, clashes in the area were not relegated to the Olpusimoru Forest Reserve and occurred throughout the Mau Forest Complex. Promara found that these conflicts were fueled by competition for land between communities belonging to different ethnic groups, and were exacerbated by land use change, population pressure, cattle rustling, deforestation and injustices. land rights dating back to Kenya’s colonial era, as well as access to resources such as water and pasture.
Sanlam said that in Olpusimoru, conflict is reversing efforts to heal the ecosystem, and the forest is suffering collateral damage as communities fight over dwindling resources.
Collins Keter, a local leader from the nearby community of Olenguruone, said hundreds of hectares in the Olpusimoru Forest Reserve had been destroyed. With deforestation linked to water insecurity, Keter said he fears continued deforestation in Olpusimoru and other parts of Mau Forest could have disastrous impacts in the forest and beyond.
“The Mau Forest is an important ecosystem, and continued degradation will affect millions of people who depend on it for water,” Keter said. “Our rich biodiversity is also at stake if this shrinkage continues.”
Banner image: A side-striped jackal (Lupulella adusta), one of the many species that inhabit the Mau Forest. Image by Bernard Dupont via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
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