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Group’s effort to save ‘magic’ natural forest from unnutural death

Indigenous forest with spiritiual, economic significance threatened by bad polices running from pre-colonial era

Gatu Mbaria @PeopleDailyKe

Straddling Nairobi and Kiambu counties is a natural gem that abounds with diversity of life. It is a 51-hectare piece of natural forest where the melodious chirping of birds and the brush of wind against the generous spread of evergreen trees combines with immense undergrowth to give it an attractiveness unsurpassed in most other areas of Kenya.

Thogoto Forest has an underground water flow that converges at the Gitwe spring making it a magnet for those who love life away from hustle and bustle of Nairobi City. In this magical place, one is likely to expel modern-day anxieties as they listen to the sound of sparklingly clear water splashing against age-old rocks.

One cannot miss the incessant wanderings of numerous water beetles that inhabit the spring. As one dips tired feet into the ice-cool water, they are bound to experience unmitigated joy that only nature, in its purest, can offer.

It is evident that Thogoto has retained some of the mythical features savoured for ages by people who upheld the forest as a shrine where they engaged Ngai, their God. However, the magic has been under peril.

For decades, the forest has suffered immensely after it was handed over to institutions manned by officials not as attached to its spiritual significance nor respectful of its importance as a lifeline for millions living downstream.

Right from colonial period, the British authorities destroyed much of its diverse species and hastily replaced them with fast-growing, water-hungry eucalyptus to feed locomotives. Today, this water-guzzler occupies more than 93 per cent of the forest. Nevertheless, a group of determined people have come to Thogoto’s rescue.

Banking on a forest law that now upholds the undeniable rights of local people to co-manage forests with the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), the group has waged a consistent struggle to safeguard the forest’s magic. “We want to ensure that Thogoto does not become a victim of the land-grabbing mania afflicting Kenya,” says Edna Chepkurui, a volunteer conservationist.

Chepkurui says the group is driven by the desire to restore appropriate age-old resource use and management practices that ruled human-nature relationships all over Kenya before the advent of colonialism.

The group identifies itself as ‘Errant Natives’, on social media to express their distaste for the resource management model the country adopted since colonialism.

They say it was inspired by the Victorian-era romanticism with nature and Judeo-Christian disregard for nature-human camaraderie. She adds that the hallmarks of the modern resource management system include human domination of other species, consumerism and destruction of most life-support systems.

The cure, Chepkurui avers, “must involve the return of indigenous resource management practices and especially those that are appropriate to modern-day realities.” Composed of managers, ecologists, media personalities and environmental activists, the group operates as a consortium which also fights for the sharing of benefits from forests between the State and local people.

The law allows KFS to give concessions to people and businesses to engage in forest-use activities that are not inimical to conservation. If the group succeeds, Thogoto Forest will be among the few in Kenya where local people are allowed to establish and manage ventures without involving outsiders. Usually, such concessions are awarded to established businesses which set up ecotourism ventures without involving the people who live close to forests.

Led by Violet Matiru, a seasoned ecologist and head of the Millennium Community Development Initiative (MCDI), the group has engaged the KFS and the community Forest Association (CFA) with the aim of adopting a joint approach to the conservation of the forest and to give local people the motivation to protect it.

Already, the group, through MCDI, has put up an electric fence around the indigenous section of the forest as well as a water tank and a trough for watering livestock.

“As we carried out these activities, we adhered to the provisions of the Forest Act 2005 that is now under review,” says Matiru. She expresses optimism that the Thogoto forest management Plan launched in October 2016 will ensure that local people, under the CFA, are not only involved in decisions pertaining to its conservation and management but also find motivation to do so.

“We respect the legal mandate given to KFS by the law and have engaged the agency accordingly,” Matiru, who hails from the area, says adding that KFS signed a Participatory Forest Management Agreement with the CFA in September that spells out the nature of activities local people are allowed to carry out. These include grazing livestock, ecotourism, water supply schemes.

The challenge, according to Matiru, is how to ensure that the benefits from the ventures are shared out equitably to the satisfaction of the local community.

This issue was discussed at length during a stakeholders meeting with former official of the Tourist Trust Fund who vouched for the establishment of a special purpose vehicle to invest the cash generated from the ventures into activities that can benefit the greatest majority of the people.

Among those present were representatives from the Finish Embassy, KFS, Sauti Communication, Biogas International, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the local Farmers Market.

Although there was evident optimism that the special purpose vehicle is the way to go, the stakeholders identified the need to consult widely with other groups including the Kiambu County Government, local politicians, church leaders, local opinion shapers and other people to ensure that the initiatives receive acceptability across the board.

They also saw the need to learn from well established community-led forest conservation practices and especially the Kijabe Environment Volunteers Organisation (KENVO) that has successfully restored the Kereita Forest in Kiambu.

More importantly, those present recognized the importance of protecting the forest as a source of water for the Athi, Kenya’s second longest river and which provides much-needed water to downstream communities and wildlife.

With a length of 390 kilometres, the Athi flows from Kiambu, through the semi-arid area of Ukambani and into the Indian Ocean near Malindi Town in Kilifi county.

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