Right in the middle of a fragile ecosystem in Loyangalani sub-county is a spectacular geographical feature, a community managed forest on a volcanic mountain.
The Mt. Kulal forest in Marsabit county is a unique feature with a cover of indigenous trees including the endangered cedar and olive trees that not only moderate the climate all year round, but also offers a conducive human settlement to the local Rendille community.
However, over the time, increasing population and change of lifestyle among the local pastoralist community started to have a negative impact on the great ecosystem attracting the attention of conservation entities like the United Nations bodies including the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
FAO is spearheading a restoration campaign of the 45,000-acre forest through a tree planting initiative and teaching the importance of environmental conservation through economic empowerment of the community that directly relies on the ecosystem for survival.
This mission by FAO in the forest which is located next to the Chalbi desert saw 7,115 trees among them 600 fruit seedlings planted in the past one week being part of an effort to reclaim 20 per cent of degraded land.
The five-year project which is funded by the Global Environment Facility and The Restoration Initiative (TRI) uses an integrated approach in addressing deforestation, land degradation and biodiversity loss through growing of trees and diversification of sources of livelihood.
Officiating at the event, the Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Environment and Forestry Mohammed Elmi disclosed that preparation of Mt. Kulal ecosystem management plan that was tasked with the ministry was ready while the development of community action plans had been validated.
In a speech made on his behalf by the chairman of the KEFRI management board Sammy Latemo, the CAS said that the initiative by FAO would go a long way in assisting the country to attain the global set standard of 10 per cent forest cover.
Elmi said the government had set a target to plant 2 billion trees by end of 2020, adding that every effort should be applied towards achieving that goal which he termed an effective intervention against climate change.
At the same time, the CAS announced a donation of tree seeds worth Sh20,000 to the Mt. Kulal community to enable them in starting tree nurseries while NEMA would give them 20 beehives.
He said consideration should be made to enable the community to secure a title deed for the ecosystem which he said would make its conservation and protection more effective.
“The government attaches a lot of importance on the conservation of water towers with Mt. Kulal being one them,” he said, adding that the local communities depended on the ecosystem for grazing resources, water and firewood.
The one week undertaking also brought in the ministry of forestry and environment, Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Kenya Wildlife Service, Marsabit County government, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the local community environmental committee popularly known as Wazee wa Mazingira among other stakeholders.
In the development work plan are economic activities that could help in checking temptation by community members to engage in destructive economic activities like charcoal burning and logging.
The ecosystem which was recognized as a Man and the Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1979 is set to get the needed protection with the Mt. Kulal community receiving support to engage in beekeeping for commercial honey production, gum harvesting, fruit farming and establishment of woodlots.
According to FAO national project coordinator Meshack Muga the endeavor is expected to bring 7.12 hectares under tree cover.
Muga said a well-defined approach was adopted in order to ensure the survival of the seedlings and sustainability of the project.
The exercise saw open spaces within the forest and its depleted margins, institutions like schools and churches, individual demonstration plots and the community planted with 6,515 trees, while 600 fruit seedlings that included oranges, mangoes and avocados were distributed to 500 households.
The coordinator said the overall objective was to restore deforested and degraded lands and empower communities economically by developing bio-enterprises of Non-Timber Forest Products and Services (NTFPS).
The effort is anticipated to reclaim 20 percent of degraded land in this ecosystem which falls under the arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) set up. Marsabit County forest cover rating is very poor standing at 1.7 percent.
“We tasked the Kenya Forest Service with the responsibility to obtain suitable indigenous tree seedlings that were planted during this week of the campaign and which are appropriate for this ecosystem” he said.
One would wonder what has so far saved the forest from greedy timber merchants who are blamed for wanton destruction of forests across the country, despite the ecosystem being a host to hundreds of thousands of the coveted cedar species.
The vice-chairman of the Wazee wa Mazingira Joshua Lengoyia said the community through elders has enacted by laws that disallow cutting down of live trees and grazing of livestock in prohibited areas.
Lengoyia said that members of the society are only allowed to harvest dead trees for firewood and construction purposes, an endeavor that has greatly been reinforced by the local public administration units especially the chiefs.
The vice chair disclosed that the ecosystem is a host to some of the rare bird species like the Kulal White Eye besides posing very unique sceneries ideal for ecotourism.
“If fully exploited, these attractive sceneries like gorges can offer opportunities for rocky climbing, while the thick misty forest are good for drives along contours which can generate employment and income to this community,” he said.
The ecosystem is also the only source of the highly valued Red Arche in the region that is used by pastoralist communities during ceremonies like circumcision, marriage and graduation to age sets.
Also to be found within the blushing indigenous forest are numerous trees and shrubs of medicinal value which heralds enormous potential for research.
Lengoyia said the Wazee wa Mazingira whose membership is for every resident aged above 18 years is now a registered community based organization (CBO) whose leadership has strived to make the ecosystem management by laws more stringent.
The CBO has since introduced GPS to monitor activities in the forest after the mobile service provider, Safaricom, took its services to the area by erecting a booster right in the middle of the forest.
The investment in the telecommunication facility is said to have been informed by the company’s recognition of the community’s determination to conserve the heritage and is powered by green energy from a wind vane.
Senior director for research and development at KEFRI Dr. Jane Njuguna said the origin of the seeds and other details were captured by the organization for future reference.
Dr. Njuguna said that the sourcing of the seedlings was done in consultation with the community who have for decades managed to see one of the best forest management practices sustained in an area just adjacent to a desert.
The director added that the organization would support the community in establishing proposed tree nurseries with a capacity to produce 50,000 seedlings per year, saying the move would ensure sustained planting and growing of trees by the community.
Community Resource Persons (CRPs), who the project has trained in various aspects that range from raising tree seedlings to growing trees and protecting forests are expected to ensure survival of the trees planted through monitoring under the guidance of TRI.
She noted that the fruit trees donated to the locals would not only assist in diversifying their economic activities but greatly improve on their nutrition and food security.
Dr. Njuguna said the choice of the seedlings was purely informed by the guidance from Wazee wa Mazingira for tree species that are naturally growing in the ecosystem.
Visitors from the various organizations that took part in the noble task were delighted by the local Rendille community’s desire to grow trees and their passion to protect the environment.
Other stakeholders in the multi-sectoral approach conservation venture are Mt. Kulal biosphere reserve community forest association and the Lake Turkana Wind Power Company.
By Sebastian Miriti